If the First World War was the war to end all wars then Vimy Ridge ought to have been the war monument to end all war monuments. Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t.
The reality of Vimy and what it has come to mean to Canadians over the past century are two linked but separate stories. It was, as the Prince of Wales pointed out in his speech today, “the bloodiest battle in Canadian military history.” What it wasn’t, was a deterrent to further violence. Here’s a fact no one mentioned at the grand commemoration ceremony that took place on this parcel of Canadian soil in France: This glorious stone monument rising out of it into the limitless blue sky was under Hitler’s control from 1940-1944. The utter brutality of what occurred in this place on a snowy April morning a century ago seemed almost impossible to grasp on this bright, hot day—let alone all that’s happened here in the hundred years since.
But this was not a day for rumination or dry-eyed analysis. Instead it was a day for feeling and communing with the dead. And commune we did.
Rigorously planned and executed with genuine military precision, the ceremony was a spectacle worthy of its magnificent setting. Perched atop a ledge that could almost be a cresting wave of green (the titular “ridge”) and surrounded by pristine forest and farmer’s fields beyond, the monument at Vimy is a place of astonishing serenity, even on a day like today.
Some 25,000 people, most of them Canadian, many of them veterans and their families, history buffs, or high school students on class trips, gathered at the foot of the monument hours before the ceremony began at 3:30 pm. They had come to remember and pay homage to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but the cheerful mood in the crowd belied the sobriety of the occasion. Children laughed and played with their parents on the grass as teenagers lounged about eating picnic lunches. Veterans affairs staff helped aging war vets and their families to VIP seating at the front of the grounds.
Cody Willis, 18, and Tommy Skidmore, 17, were on a class trip from Central Peel S.S. in Brampton, Ont,. Their great-grandfathers fought in the First World War with the British and Canadian forces respectively, and Skidmore’s grandfather was buried at Vimy, though the two had yet to find his name on the monument. “I find it scary and strange that a lot of the men that died here were our age when they enlisted,” Skidmore tells me. “We’ve seen a bunch of monuments on this trip and there’s been nothing like Vimy.”
On the grass beside them, clutching water bottles and shading their eyes from the sun were Spencer Allder, 17, and Clare Byrn, 16, also high school students, from Newmarket, Ont. Like many of the students here, their knowledge of the battle was impressively extensive. They were clearly moved by the experience of seeing textbook history come to life. “It didn’t really sink in until we saw the craters from artillery shells in the ground and we just thought, ‘So many people died here.’” said Allder. “It’s so sad.”
For Byrn, it was all about the national legend. “Vimy formed the Canadian identity,” she said, explaining what they had learned in class. “It was huge because the French and the English tried and failed and then the Canadians came in and figured out how to win it.”
While there is some truth in this, the reality is not quite as simple. “The fact is, Canada’s participation in World War One irrevocably changed its relationship to Britain and the Commonwealth,” says Dr. Glyn Prysor, an historian with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “It came out of the war feeling more independent. It wasn’t all down to Vimy, but Vimy is a symbol of that.”
READ MORE: Why Google mapped Vimy Ridge
The ceremony began with a twenty-one gun salute and the arrival of the dignitaries. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came with his wife Sophie and their eldest son Xavier. There was the Governor General David Johnston, the royal princes Charles, William and Harry, as well as President Hollande of France.
During the long procession to the monument the bagpipes played and Trudeau was clearly in his natural element. If there is one thing our prime minister excels at, it is capturing the national imagination in times of celebration and sorrow—and Vimy was both. When the dignitaries rounded the corner of the monument and revealed themselves to the gathered crowd, an enormous cheer went up for Trudeau. He waved, and did his signature hand-on-heart gesture, ever the rock star politician.
In his speech, Trudeau spoke of 3,598 men who died here and urged us to remember their sacrifice. He read a letter from a soldier, 20-year-old William Bell, who wrote home to thank his mother for a cake the day before being killed in action. “As I look over the faces of those that are here, I can’t help but feel that a torch is being passed 100 years later,” Trudeau said. “We must say this together and we must believe it: Never again.”
There followed speeches from Hollande and Prince Charles, as well as some wreath-laying and a great deal of decidedly strange interpretive dance. Actors, including Paul Gross, read in the voices of fallen soldiers and there were musical performances by singers including Elisapie Isaac, the Ottawa Children’s Choir and Loreena McKennitt.
By the time the French armed forces did their thundering fly over, the sun was beginning to lower itself behind the monument.
For brother and sister Gary and Karen McCullough, 67 and 66 respectively, who had come all the way from Colbourne, On., the moment brought an opportunity for remembrance and reflection. Their maternal grandfather, Leonard Thomas Goodwin, fought and died in these fields when their own mother (now deceased) was only three months old.
Karen was here in 2015 as a tourist on her own, but couldn’t find her grandfather’s name on the monument. She promised herself she’d come back one day and find it because she knew it would have been a great comfort to her mother, who died a few years ago. “When we finally found his name we both just broke down in front of everybody,” she says tearing up again. “I will never forget what that felt like. This is our very special day.”
Check out archival images from the battle:
MORE ON VIMY RIDGE:
- How precision planning made Canada’s Vimy Ridge victory possible
- Return to Vimy Ridge
- Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917: ‘Like a scene out Dante’
- Why Google mapped Vimy Ridge
- Vimy Ridge Myth #1: Only Canadians fought in the defining battle
- Vimy Ridge Myth #2: Vimy won the war
- Vimy Ridge Myth #3: Canadians scaled a cliff at Vimy
- Vimy Ridge Myth #4: Canada became a nation at Vimy
- How Canada’s bloodiest day at Vimy defined Great War sacrifice
- From the archives: Vimy and Passchendaele: Canada’s bravest and blackest hours
- From the archives: From 1924: With a vagabond around Vimy
- From the archives: Ypres: The price of Canada’s first glory in battle