It was 99 years ago today that Canada became a nation. At least that is one version of the narrative.
Canada became a country on July 1, 1867. It severed legal ties, more or less, with the United Kingdom on December 11, 1931 with the passage of the Statute of Westminster. But military independence came with the assault on Vimy Ridge, on this date in 1917. That was the point in the First World War when, for the very first time, all Canadian regiments went into battle together.
Celebrating military victories seems somehow un-Canadian. It was though an impressive event, capturing territory that the British and French before them had been unable to win. It was a remarkable example of Canadian military ingenuity. It was perhaps nation-building., but only in retrospect. For the men who were there it was just about staying alive. And many of them didn’t. About 3,500 Canadians were killed in the battle, another 7,500 wounded.
My great-uncle Forrest was there. He survived the battle at Vimy, but never made it home, being killed early in 1918. My great uncle Russell was also there, I think, although I can’t access his military records online. He survived the war, but died in 1921. I don’t remember him ever being mentioned during my childhood, but I probably just wasn’t paying attention.
Vimy Ridge today is a pilgrimage site, hallowed ground for Canadians. The monument to our war dead, completed in 1936, towers over the plain. At night you can see its lit structure from 20 kilometres or more away. The names of the dead ae inscribed there by the thousands. That piece of land given by the Government of France to Canada as a gift, had a very high purchase price.
I didn’t allow myself enough time to visit Vimy, I realized that once I was there. I made it a day trip from Brussels, which only allowed a couple of hours at the site, given that I was using public transit. Or what passes for it in that part of Europe. I would have liked to have spent the entire time just contemplating the monument, but I also wanted to tour the underground tunnel network and look at some of the displays in the interpretive centre. Not to mention there was an impending thunderstorm. As a result, the visit felt a little rushed.
You can’t just wander freely around the site, not if you value life and limb. Unexploded ordnance from a century ago can still be deadly. And there is a lot of it around. Safer to stick to the paths rather than wandering through the fields.
The Vimy Ridge Memorial made it through the Second Word War and the German occupation undamaged. Turns out Adolf Hitler appreciated it as a tribute to the common soldier, a memorial to the fallen and a memorial to peace not war. He ordered a guard laced up on it to stop German troops from vandalizing it.
Like many places I have been to in Europe, Vimy Ridge will be worth another visit.