My first visit to Vimy was with the Royal Canadian Artillery Band for the 70th anniversary of the battle. The evening before the parade I was on my own in nearby Arras, and I stopped into a little tavern for a beer. The only other customers were two local men who, at first, seemed to be trying to pick a fight with me.
Stan was big, loud and bombastic. His sidekick Patrick was skinny with long dark greasy hair. They kind of reminded me of a couple of cartoon mice.
The barmaid explained to them that she didn’t think I was a local. When they asked, I told them I was from Montreal, Canada, and that I was there for the Vimy anniversary. That changed everything.
They came and sat beside me and bought me a drink. I told them that Vimy – the quaint little town just north of Arras – was a household name in Canada. When I said that across the country there are schools, parks, streets, hockey rinks, Legion branches, even towns named for Vimy, they were astounded.
I was looking forward to visiting the monument the next day. My new friends insisted on taking me to see it that night.
It was spectacular. From the crest of the ridge, they pointed out where the First, Second, Third and Fourth Canadian Divisions were positioned and how they advanced on their objectives.
It was my turn to be astounded. Europe has seen a lot of war over the centuries, and this part of France has been the scene of many battles, each with its own complex history. As far as I knew, these two guys were just a couple of tavern rats – they certainly didn’t come across as academics. Yet the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadians in 1917 seemed as significant to them as it is to us.
In the morning, the band headed out to perform the ceremony. When our bus turned off the highway and into the park surrounding the memorial, the band members – all these jaded, wisecracking musicians who had an irreverent joke for every occasion, guys who had been to Vimy half a dozen or more times in their careers – fell silent in awe and respect.
From the bus windows, we could see into a thick forest, made up of 11,285 trees planted by the government of France – one tree for each of the missing Canadian war dead whose names are inscribed on the monument. Among the trees, the green forest floor was pock-marked with thousands of shell craters, big and small, from the Canadians’ devastating artillery barrage.
Aside from the spectacular Canadian National Vimy Memorial itself, it is the craters that stand out in my memory. The entire park is landscaped with the undulations of century-old marks made by the impact of Canadian artillery shells. A few are big enough to have names, like the Montreal Crater and the Winnipeg Crater.
Vimy Ridge is as much about time as it is about place. I felt the presence of ghosts – not supernatural apparitions, but the profound personal realization that I was standing where my forefathers had been 70 years before, and where thousands of soldiers had fought, suffered and died. In the daylight I saw the Douai Plain stretched out for miles, and I was able to imagine the battle scene that Stan and Patrick had described to me the night before.
Was the Battle of Vimy Ridge the definitive moment when Canada became a nation? It’s unlikely that we became a self-confident, unified people on the basis of one event. But we would be very wrong to underestimate the power of that moment.
It wasn’t the biggest or most significant battle Canada would fight in that futile, inglorious war, nor our greatest victory. But fighting together for the first time, under Canadian command, Canadians forged a bond with each other and steeled their reputation in the world.
The cost was enormous. 3,598 Canadians were killed, another 7,000 wounded. We’ll never know what their efforts and talents might have contributed to our young nation had they not sacrificed life and limb on Vimy Ridge.
Lest We Forget.