Vimy Ridge

The Vimy Memorial

This Sunday, April 9, marks the 95th anniversary of the 1917 Battle at Vimy Ridge in France. In four days of vicious combat the Canadian Corps defeated three divisions of the German Sixth Army, a feat that neither the French nor the British had been able to accomplish in nearly three years of trench warfare.

Capturing the escarpment, which the Germans had held since October 1914,  had significant strategic value, but most important, it broke the stalemate and became an enduring symbol of Canadian nationalism, achievement and sacrifice. The battle was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a battle together, but the losses were terrible… 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded. The German Sixth Army suffered an unknown number of casualties with an approximate 4,000 men becoming prisoners of war.

Wikipedia states that “historians attribute the success of the Canadian Corps in capturing the ridge to a mixture of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training.” The article outlines clearly the details of planning and execution, and is well worth reading to refresh your memory.

Five years ago the memorial erected at Vimy was rededicated after restoration work. At that time Michael Valpy wrote an extensive analysis in The Globe and Mail about the way this victory, far less important than events at Amiens and Passchendaele,  became mythologized and impacted Canadian history… including the notorious draft that enraged Quebec. He claims that mythology trumps history, that we look at Vimy through a distorted lens…

Mythology simplifies. Mythology clarifies. Mythology is the delivery of idea and emotional image at the same time, a message sent both to the mind and to what analytical psychologist Carl Jung called “the mind below the mind,” or what others call the soul. Mythology reveals the deep patterns of meaning and coherence in a culture.

Valpy writes about the distortions and omissions in the myth, but in no way diminishes the significance or the sacrifice.  He tells us that because the Canadians could not repatriate their dead, the fallen were buried near the battlefield, officers and enlisted men treated equally, buried side by side.  The article concludes with a moving description of the magnificent memorial dedicated in 1936 to all the Canadian soldiers who died anywhere in France. The Vimy Memorial, towering into the air on a high ridge, is part of our collective history.

This is the war my grandfather just missed. He had lied about his age to enlist in the RAF (there was no Canadian airforce yet). The picture of him in his uniform shows a dashing young man in a cavalry uniform, complete with riding crop! He was en route from Halifax when the war ended, and turned back without seeing combat, a turn of events he always regretted. His mother never forgave him, her only son, for running off to war when he was so young.

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