Vimy Ridge, the True Birth of a Nation
On a snowy morning, in early April, out in the French countryside, a nation was born. Although most Historians have argued the nation of Canada was born 1 July 1867, through the work of the estimable Sir John A. MacDonald, this is simply not the case. The unified, bilingual nation that is now Canada was forged in the fire of the Western Front. It started with the movement of troops in late December and early January, and from there blossomed into a proud sense of National identity.
The Dominion of Canada, a small, insignificant colony of the British Empire, entered into the Great War as anything but a nation. The United Kingdom was at war, and her colonies were going to help, no consultation or consent required. The mother country called out, and her sons around the world were expected to answer. That all changed that snowy morning, 9 April, 1917, at a little place called Vimy Ridge. Vimy, it is a name that should be burned into the collective consciousness of every Canadian, a part of our Nation half a world away. The mighty British army tried, and failed, to take that key position from the German army. The French, too, had tried, and been sent back, with their tails between their legs. Canada stepped up, a rag-tag band of farm-boys, lumberjacks, fisherman, and other ‘colonials.’ These were citizen soldiers, not a hardened army of veterans. Failure was expected. Fighting for the first time as a unified force, Canada’s young army rose up out of obscurity, and earned the right to be an independent Nation. It was the bloodletting at Vimy Ridge, the victory no one thought possible, that earned Canada the right to sit at the Paris Peace Conferences, be a signatory at the Treaty of Versailles. It was though this battle, where the quiet, unimportant colony did that which the great Empires of France and Great Britain failed to do, which proved to the world that Canada was ready for true self governance. That snowy Easter morning, our nation was truly born. It was there that Canada stood up, unhooked the yolk of British rule and announced its place in world affairs. And we owe the men who bled the ground red a great debt. We should remember them.
As a Dominion, we had “responsible government” but no real autonomy. While it can be argued that we were a nation before the battle of Vimy ridge, it is clearly not the case. Because we were merely a Dominion of the British crown, we still had to defer to the British Parliament, and the House of Lords, to manage our own affairs. We were still a colony. The British North America act gave the authority to manage our own affairs, to some extent. Of this there can be little argument; but how far did this go? An Austrian Arch-Duke is assassinated and before anyone knows what is happening, an entire generation of young men is being sent to the slaughter. Did Canada’s Parliament have any say? Were Canadians affected or threatened in any direct way? No; but still our young men marched off to war. In 1914, did Canada declare war? Did we even have that option? As with the Boer war, or the War of 1812, and all the others, when Britain entered the Great War, we were a part of it, directly or not. Why did our young men join up? Why did they willingly put themselves at risk, in a nation that many had never even seen, and to which they had little or no connection? Nationalism? Maybe, but we were not a nation yet. A sense of duty, and honour, tempered by a love of their dominion, which called upon them, as a part of its duty to the mother country, brought men and boys, Anglo and Francophone alike, to those recruiting offices. Canada had an army, barely, at this point. They went over seas and fought, however, as part of the British Expeditionary Force. The Canadian army did not have the right, in 1914, to fight as a unified division, as a National army. The regiments from Canada were part of Lord Kitchener’s great “plug and play” military. Companies and regiments from Canada were fed into British units and divisions, to fill gaps in the British Army. They had never, until Vimy, been given the right, or the dignity, of fighting side by side. That day, 9 April 1917, the Canadian Corps formed up, and under withering fire, took what was seen as and impregnable defensive work; the key position in the German line.
Through this engagement, Canada was seen internationally, to have come of age. When the war ended, of all the colonial states that were involved in the conflict, our nation was deemed ready to take part in the negotiations; Newfoundland, Australia, South Africa, and others, were present only as “dominions of the British Empire” with no voice of their own. Canada was their, as a partner, albeit a small partner, but with a voice of her own for the first time, having independent representation in world affairs. What our four Canadian divisions did that day, wrought a nation with mud, blood, iron, sweat, and tears. The Canadian Corps, four divisions strong, rose up out of obscurity, having developed new methods of fighting that are now used world wide, including a more hands on approach to leadership, working in smaller groups than any army prior, with every soldier knowing his role, and those of his immediate superiors, so that in the face of huge casualties, the assault could go on. The perfection of the creeping barrage, a trick developed earlier but never fully perfected prior, was demonstrated, having been extensively rehearsed. The operation was Canadian planned, perfected, and performed. The effectiveness of the Canadian troops was obvious. The German line wired in at the beginning of the battle that they were under assault from hand picked shock troops. Our fledgling nation did what no one else could, and our methods were adopted world-wide. Many of them, including the development of what have become known as sections or squads, the effective use of rolling Artillery barrages, the reintroduction of “fire and movement” and the communication of all levels of leadership to ensure that everyone knows what to do, are still key practices of militaries in all the great nations of the world today. We not only carved out our place in the world, we reshaped it in our image. This was a defining moment in world history, and it was our moment!
This was not merely an “Anglophone” victory, as some might claim. The WASP population were not the only troops on the ground, and despite what certain politically motivated historians or educators blinded by the “politically correct” movement may tell us. We are taught from a young age not of the great victories, the bravery, of the Canadian Army on the Western Front. Indeed, for the most part, until college or university the only discussion of the First World War that young Canadians are exposed to are a few brief mentions of the home front, and of the conflict between French and English Canada. The claim is that French Canadians felt no loyalty to either Britain or to France, and were unified in their opposition to Canada’s involvement in the war. This is all part of the movement to rewrite Canadian History to create evidence for the Quebecois Nationalist movement. However, the records from the period tell a different story, one which, for the sake of being “politically correct” has been white-washed out of our national heritage. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Canada did not have the logistics to accept the huge number of would be soldiers who flooded the recruiting stations across the nation. One of the main reasons was the fact that, until that point, the Canadian Military was an Anglophonic entity. Special Francophone regiments were formed, as a result of the overwhelming number of young French Canadian men who wanted to do their part, some because they felt a tie to either France or Britain, others because they felt the growing sense of pride in the burgeoning colony in which they were born. Some felt that the aggression of the German Empire was unjust and needed to be stopped, and still more, politics aside, were looking for adventure and glory. Whatever their justification, the number of young French speakers who sought to join up, many of whom fought and died in the conflict, prove that the victory at Vimy was not an “English” victory, but a pan-Canadian one, a unifying moment in our collective national history, which has been forgotten on all sides.
By 1939, things had changed. When Britain declared war on Germany again, a pathetic twenty-one years after the “War to end all wars” were Canadian boys automatically called upon to do or die for Mother England? No. The government of Canada finally had the right to decide for itself. What had changed? Where did this new found sovereignty come from? It was forged from the mud, blood, and bullets at Vimy Ridge. Why then, less than a century later, is this shining moment in our shared history so unsung? Do students in our schools read of the heroic deeds of their forefathers, fighting over seas for freedom and justice? No, they do not. The majority of Canadians do not have an inkling of these events, and how key they are to the birth of our nation. It is time that we change this. It is time to remember. Ninety-six years ago today, young men from across Canada, were moving throughout the Western front towards a single location; a place the name of which should be burned into the minds of all of us who have come since. United for the first time, men from throughout the Dominion of Canada bonded together. The stirring of a National identity, a pride in a nation that, technically, did not yet exist, began. They fought and died for us, a generation butchered for our freedom. We should remember their sacrifices, with pride. This 9 April, when you are sitting down to a drink after work, or pausing over your evening meals, take a moment to reflect on that day, the horror, the valour, and be proud of our country. Remember. One hour every November is not enough. They fought and died for our freedom, our independence and status as a nation won through their sacrifice. We should remember and honour them every day, particularly on the day that Canada was truly born. Vimy Day is not a statutory holiday, perhaps it should be. Nevertheless, take a few minutes to remember. Raise a glass to those who fell. They fought and died for us. Every 11th of November, we say the words "at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them." Lets keep that promise