This year on April 9, Canada marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Back in 2007, I was asked to be part of the Government of Canada delegation travelling in France and Belgium to mark the 90th anniversary of the End of the First World War. The highlight for me was the honour of laying the Government of Canada wreath at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and delivering the keynote address at that ceremony on behalf of our country.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place on April 9, 1917. Four Canadian divisions fought together as a unified fighting force for the first time. Despite 3,598 Canadian soldiers being killed during the battle, it was successful. It is often cited as the beginning of Canada’s evolution from dominion to independent nation.
Canada suffered 60,000 fatalities during the First World War. France granted Canada 107 hectares of land at Vimy to build and maintain a memorial. France considers this land ‘Canadian soil.’
When the Canadians attacked Vimy Ridge, the Germans had successfully resisted earlier Allied attacks. Vimy was heavily defended.
By 1917, our Canadian troops were experienced soldiers. General Arthur Currie of the First Canadian Division used reconnaissance and aerial photographs to ensure geographical accuracy and he had the troops rehearse the attack. Currie did what he could to prepare our troops to launch an assault on whom everyone knew was a formidable force: the Prussian Guards.
At 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday morning, the attack commenced under snow and sleet. The opening and continuous artillery barrage was tremendous. The Canadians advanced over the newly broken, smoldering ground. The Canadians gained 4,500 yards and sustained 10,602 casualties. Once we ‘dug in’ to stay and hold our ground, the enemy retreated. The battle was won. Canadians succeeded in the mission to take Vimy Ridge.
Canadians fought alongside British artillery and elite troops. The French military had already sustained ten times as many casualties just to bring the Allies to the edge of Vimy Ridge. April 9, 1917 remains the worst day for Canada in a war.
The loss of lives at Vimy caused the Government of Canada to implement a policy of conscription to replenish our military and continue to assist our Allies in the war. The conscription policy divided Canadians at home. Our victory at Vimy Ridge created another challenge for Canada.
Canada’s military success, reputation and the new respect paid to our troops and our nation by our Allies was truly born at Vimy Ridge. Our military went on to achieve many more victories in the First World War. Our Allies remained impressed.
Our Canadian military waged the final battle at Valenciennes on Nov. 1, 1917. Ten days later – on Nov. 11, the First World War was over.
That is why the Battle for Vimy Ridge will always be one of the most important history lessons future Canadians can be taught. We came together as a nation to help other nations stand up for the freedom to live democratically and peacefully.
We were a young nation of mainly farmers, hunters, fishers, loggers, new immigrants, and indigenous people. We were not the wealthy nation we are today. We were willing to sacrifice to succeed, and we achieved victory at great cost.