Journalist Peter Mansbridge called the Battle of Vimy Ridge “a story every Canadian should know.” For the first time in WWI, all four Canadian divisions were together on a battlefield, Canadian boys going over the top shoulder to shoulder. On April 9, 1917, these young men, from a young country itself not yet 50 years old, won an impressive victory. A defining day for our nation.
The Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge was innovative in its planning. Preparation was extensive, with rehearsals going on for weeks, and manoeuvres practised underground. Ordinary soldiers were entrusted with maps, information, responsibility. And these weren’t the only novel tactics. The Canadians used new technologies such as aerial photography and sound detectors. Through meticulous reconnaissance, 80 percent of German gun positions were mathematically triangulated and knocked out before the actual strike. Although the success at Vimy Ridge was largely ignored in Britain, Canada applauded the outstanding effort of its troops. The battle remains the costliest in Canadian history with 10,602 casualties. 3,598 soldiers gave their lives.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial, situated on 107 hectares donated in perpetuity by the people of France, captured the imagination of a grieving populace. The memorial honours all 60,000 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in WWI. The names of soldiers with no known graves are carved into the walls. When the monument was finally completed in 1936, thousands of Canadian veterans and citizens attended the dedication, including a Winnipeg mother who lost eight sons in the war. King Edward VIII declared the monument “now and for all times a part of Canada.”
A timeless tribute
Sculptor Walter Allward hunted two years for the brilliant white limestone. Glowing in the sunlight, the two soaring pylons, representing France and Canada, project a powerful profile against the vast backdrop of sky. The monument’s commemoration of sacrifice rather than victory distinguishes it from more traditional cenotaphs. The design is solemn, the figure of Canada Bereft stately in her sorrow. The inscription on the memorial reads: “To the valour of their countrymen in The Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada.” Over 20,000 visitors are expected to tour the site during the centenary anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
My Vimy connection
I visited the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in 2009. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
My husband Mark and I were in France to visit the war grave of his great-uncle at La Targette Cemetery, the first family members ever to do so. Thomas Wellsley Smith, from Port Maitland, Nova Scotia, enlisted on August 12, 1915, at the age of 21. He was a fisherman, unmarried, of slight stature – 5 ft. 3 in. A stretcher bearer, he died on October 15, 1917 at a battle in Mericourt, hit by a whiz bang as he was trying to bind the wounds of two soldiers in a trench. The three men were killed instantly and are buried side by side. Thomas Smith’s headstone notes that he was a member of the 24th Battalion.
Although we have no concrete data to confirm it, Great-uncle Tom likely participated in the assault on Vimy Ridge six months earlier. His battalion was among the first to go over the top. The war diary of the 24th Battalion, available online, notes that they had been “practicing attack” for many days. It reveals other details, both heartwarming and heartbreaking. On April 7, the men participated in a “Church parade at 9:00 a.m.” On April 8, Easter Sunday, they moved from Maisnil Bouche to Bois Des Alleux where they bivouacked. In the afternoon they were issued “Bombs, Rifle Grenades, Rations, Ground Flares, Sand Bags, etc.” At 6:00 p.m. they had a hot meal. At 7:40 p.m. they were marched off to their assembly trenches in front of Neuville St. Vaast. The diary specifies: “Owing to the bad condition of the Communication Trenches, the progress was very slow and the front line was not reached until 1:00 a.m., 9th April, 1917, while the men were in a very fatigued condition.”
Four and a half hours later these tired men would climb out of their trenches into snow and sleet and German artillery fire. I think about Great-uncle Tom among them. Did he manage to catch a few winks, exhausted as he was? Or did nervous anticipation keep him from sleeping? Did he pray?
I doubt he gave any thought to life 100 years in the future. He probably couldn’t have conceived of the shining tribute that would rise on the bruised and battered ridge, majestic repository for the grief and pride of a nation. He probably couldn’t have imagined that a great-nephew would come to visit his grave some 90 years after his death, or that, though he had no children of his own, another great-nephew and great-great nephew would bear his name onward. His thoughts were undoubtedly about “going over” at dawn. But I hope, I believe, that he would have been gratified by the respect for his service that Canadians have maintained for a century.