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April 5 2007

Vimy Ridge April 9-12, 1917 Remembered 90 Years Later


A Globe & Mail article in November 2006 recounted a survey that said barely a third of Canadians know the incredible story of Canada at Vimy Ridge 90 years ago next week.  The article also mentioned that only three soldiers are still alive.  One of them, Lloyd Clement, age 107, died on February 23.  There has been discussion about whether the last to die should get a state funeral. 

Canada’s victory in France at Vimy Ridge beginning on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, was not expected to be a victory.  France and Britain with much greater forces had not been able to do it and had 10,000 casualties.  The hill, nine kilometers long, was occupied and reinforced by the Germans for two years and protected a large plain beyond the ridge the allies wanted to access.  The Canadians had been kept as a unit of four battalions and had developed a real camaraderie.  They were also led by two remarkable men, Lieutenant General Julian Byng and Lieutenant Major-General Arther Currie (a recent group of 14 statues erected in Ottawa included one of Currie). 

The troops were rehearsed in an imaginative approach other allies frowned upon.  For example, Andy McNaughton a university professor developed a technique to pin-point guns to take them out.  Trenches were dug under the German trenches so they could blow them up during the battle.  Numerous rifles, machine guns and light artillery, were aimed at the ridge.  German supply routes were closed days prior to the attack. 

Roads, light railways, water pipe and signal wire were spread at prodigious lengths.  Seven kilometers of tunnels were built, one of which held 1,000 men.  For several days the ridge was blasted mercilessly.  At 5:30 April 9, 983 artillery and 150 machine guns opened fire in the driving snow and sleet.  15,000 men followed behind the pinpoint bombardment and by mid day Vimy Ridge was taken. Hill 145 where the Vimy monument now stands was taken by men with bayonets against German machine guns.  The Vimy assault cost 3,598 Canadian lives, and 7,000 wounded.  Canada had historical victories before and after Vimy but it is generally recognized that Canada came of age at Vimy. 

The Vimy Memorial 

In 1922 the French Government gave Canada 255 acres in perpetuity as a memorial site.  A super-cenotaph with two 255 foot marble columns on a huge concrete base overlooks the countryside.  There are parks, an information centre and many vestiges of the battle.  No homes or farms intrude on the site.  The memorial was completed in 1936 and five ocean liners of Canadians went over for the opening day with a 100,000 total.  King Edward VIII officially opened the event.   

Fly past at the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial July 26, 1936 (CA-148872)

Well known author Greg Clark reported on the event which is recorded in the book First Drafts (2002) in a moving description of the “painfully beautiful” event.  The names of 11,000 Canadians whose bodies were not found for the cemeteries are recorded on the columns of the memorial.  There was a smaller statue, one of 20, that was unveiled by the King that showed a grieving mother. 

The Memorial Today 

Over the years thousands have traveled individually or in groups to see the memorial and related sites.  The stone deteriorated over the years and in 2004 the Canadian government started a restoration project.  It will be complete and re-dedicated on Monday in France. 

Other Remembrances 

The Canadian Legion has had Vimy dinners for years and many streets, schools and parks have been named after Vimy.  My home town had a Vimy School and North Bay has a Vimy Street.  The beautiful new Canadian War Museum which will be celebrating the 90th anniversary is located at 1 Vimy Place in Ottawa.  North Bay’s Memorial Park next to the Correctional Services/ Normal School building is dedicated to our forces.  North Bay sent over 1,000 men to World War One and many did not come back.  (See W.K.P. Kennedy’s book on North Bay).

North Bay WWI soldiers on Main Street North Bay.  Nipissing Archives

New Books and Other Recognition 

Go online with Vimy and you will find excellent material.  Ted Barris has a new book out called Vimy: Canada Comes of Age April 9-12, 1917.  It is high up on the current best seller list.  Another new book Vimy Ridge A Canadian Reassessment is available as is Pierre Burtons easy to read earlier book Vimy (1986). The National Film Board has a four part video series on Vimy available at the North Bay Library.  Canadian author Jane Urquhart has written a novel called Stone Carvers about the building of the monument.  There is a CBC TV special related to the event on Sunday at 8 p.m. 

Many of the men came back to help make Canada what it is today.  Of the 600,000 Canadian who went, 6,000 died and 170,000 were wounded.  There were 1.3 million casualties on both sides.  One can only regret the incredible loss of so many and wonder about man’s inhumanity to men. 

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