Canadians who died at Vimy Ridge helped shape Canada into a nation committed to peace, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday at the commemorative ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Trudeau was among the dignitaries to speak at the ceremony at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in northern France, where as many as 25,000 people came to honour the Canadians who died in the First World War.
Vimy was the most successful part of the Battle of Arras in April 1917, as the Canadians pushed up and captured the strategically important ridge from the Germans.
Many people in the crowd used umbrellas to guard against the hot sun – different from 100 years ago when soldiers here faced rain and sleet in battle. The ceremony was marked by performances from different singers and actors who have taken on the roles of different historic figures who were at Vimy.
The area around the memorial was also lined with hundreds of empty black combat boots, representing those who died.
“As I see the faces gathered here – veterans, soldiers, caregivers, so many young people – I can’t help but feel a torch is being passed,” Trudeau said in his speech. “One hundred years later, we must say this, together. And we must believe it: Never again.”
Before the prime minister spoke, Gov. Gen. Johnston told the crowd that the Vimy monument symbolizes the enduring friendship between Canada and France, underscored by the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who helped liberate the country.
“Those spires stand for peace and for freedom,” Johnston said. “They stand for justice and hope. And they remind us that one cannot exist without the other.”
Prince Charles – who was accompanied by his sons Prince William and Prince Harry – commended Canada for its sacrifice during the war.
“(The Canadians) succeeded in seizing the vital high ground of Vimy – a task in which many others before them had failed,” Prince Charles said.
“However, victory came at an unbearably heavy cost. This was, and remains, the single bloodiest day in Canadian military history. Yet Canadians displayed a strength of character and commitment to one another that is still evident today. They did not waver. This was Canada at its best. … ”
Earlier in the day, hundreds of citizens from this French city of Arras turned out in a heartfelt display of thanks to Canada and the thousands of Canadian soldiers who fought and died at nearby Vimy Ridge.
Arras Mayor Frederic Leturque thanked those other countries whose soldiers participated in the battle a century ago: Australians and British, New Zealanders and South Africans.
But he saved a special thanks for Canada, telling Trudeau and the hundreds of others assembled that the Canadians’ actions at Vimy was a turning point for the city – and for all of France.
On Sunday morning, millions of Canadians stopped for a moment to remember those lost during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Some gathered around the soaring white monument erected on the high point that thousands of Canadians – farmers, miners, teachers and lawyers – had fought and died to capture exactly 100 years ago.
Millions more listened to the two-hour ceremony on their radios or watched on their televisions, or bowed their heads at similar events at local monuments inscribed with the names of the dead.
Many like Toronto businessman Drew Hamblin, who will spend Sunday at Vimy with his father and two children, had grandfathers who told them about the rain and the cold and the rat-infested tunnels.
“I got to see how it affected my grandfather,” Hamblin said. “And he, in turn, passed it on to me. We were inseparable when I was a kid, and this is my way of honouring him and everyone who fought with him.”
Others have only sepia-toned photographs or letters and diaries to remember great uncles and distant cousins who were among the 10,500 Canadians killed or wounded during the four-day battle for the ridge.
And then there will be those for whom the connection to Vimy will be more symbolic, a recognition of the individual sacrifices and what they did for Canada and the world.
There is a fierce debate over the actual importance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The battle marked the first time all four Canadian divisions fought together side-by-side during the war, advancing together into the sleet and bullets and bombs on April 9, 1917: Easter Monday.
Not only did the Canadians succeed where the English and French had failed by capturing the strategically important ridge from the Germans, they did it with several innovative approaches to warfare.
“It was important just as a symbol of bringing everyone together,” said Jeremy Diamond, president of the Vimy Foundation, the mission of which is to promote and preserve Canada’s First World War legacy.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment of what we did.”
In 1936, as Canadians and many others around the world watched the Vimy monument’s unveiling, retired brigadier-general Alexander Ross famously intoned that the battle had marked “the birth of a nation.”
But it wasn’t the largest battle that the Canadians fought in the First World War. The Somme and Passchendaele were bloodier. And even those who fought there said it wasn’t the most important.
“We fought other battles where the moral and material results were greater and more far reaching than Vimy’s victory,” Canada’s greatest First World War general, Sir Arthur Curry, said in April 1922.
“It did not call for the same degree of resource and initiative that were displayed in any of the three great battles of the last hundred days: Amiens, Arras, Cambrai.”
The battle doesn’t even have the distinction of being the first with a Canadian in command of the Canadian Corps. That would come four months later, at Hill 70, when the Canadians fought under Currie.
Vimy also wasn’t the first choice for Canada’s First World War memorial. That was Ypres, Belgium, until the British built their national memorial there. Vimy was the next best location because of its accessibility.
As for unity, there are those who say Vimy actually exacerbated divisions between English-Canada, which supported the war, and French-Canada, which opposed it, by pushing the country closer to conscription.
Amanda Ferguson recently caught up with Norm Cash, a 97-year-old World War Two veteran from Toronto, who is among a handful of Canadian war heroes in France today to witness events marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge
Those who herald the importance of Vimy acknowledge all this, but say it is what Vimy has come to represent over the years and decades that matters.
For Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, it is the way the battle was fought, with commanders trusting their troops and thinking about warfare differently, that he believes is reflective of what sets Canada apart today.
“All of those were things that I think came to mark Canadians not only as warriors,” he says, “but to some degree how we carry out our day-to-day affairs.”
For others, Vimy represents Canada’s transformation from a British colony to a country confident of its place in the world and worthy of other’s respect – what some call its coming of age as a nation.
“Vimy is often shorthand for the First World War,” says military historian and author Tim Cook, whose most recent book is entitled “Vimy: The Battle and the Legend.”
“We did emerge as a different country coming out of the First World War. Sixty-six thousand dead. A country that had stepped up. A country that was nearly torn apart. We’re never the same after the First World War.”
But Vimy’s real importance and power appears to be in the fact that many Canadians believe it is important, which is why they will watch and listen as the country looks back in time.
“Every society, every group has its own myths, symbols, explanations for where they came from,” says Queen’s University history professor Allan English.
“Symbols are just shorthand for something that’s really much more complicated. So Vimy has over time become the symbol of a birth of a nation.
“Even though you can deconstruct it, it’s become that.”