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Vimy Ridge 100th Marked Across Canada

Communities lower flags to remember the fallen

It was the battle that saw nearly 3,600 Canadian soldiers make the ultimate sacrifice, and 100 years later, thousands of people converged on the memorial site to pay respects, say thank you, and to remember them.

Vimy Ridge in France was the location of a somber occasion on Sunday, April 9, as scores of people from coast to coast arrived at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial to mark the 100th anniversary of the epic battle between the Canadian Forces against the German Empire.  Those in attendance included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family, as well as French President Francois Hollande and French Minister for Cities, Youth and Sport, Patrick Kanner.

For everyone who made the trip, it was a time to acknowledge that many people had given their lives so that Canadians today could live theirs, and reflect on the enduring legacy that the Battle of Vimy Ridge continues to have to this day.

The scene at the National Vimy Memorial was picturesque and bright, with the sun shining and making for optimal conditions to hold such an event with thousands of people.

But 100 years ago, the scene was very different; the sun that shone down on the masses this past Sunday was nowhere in sight, replaced with rain and sleet and making for a battlefield that was muddy, bloody, and unpredictable as upwards of 30,000 Canadian soldiers lay huddled in trenches, waiting for the gunfight and the battle to kick off.

The story of Vimy Ridge paints Canadian soldiers in a brave light, coming together to complete their objective in horrible conditions, and many paying the hardest cost.  From the official Wikipedia entry on the Battle:

“Fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras, the Battle of Vimy Ridge took place specifically in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France.  From April 9-12 in 1917, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought against three divisions of the German Sixth Army.  The objective of the Canadian Corps was to take control of the German-held high ground along an escarpment at the northernmost end of the Arras Offensive.  This would ensure that the southern flank could advance without suffering German enfilade fire.

Supported by a creeping barrage, the Canadian Corps captured most of the ridge during the first day of the attack.  The village of Thélus fell during the second day of the attack, as did the crest of the ridge, once the Canadian Corps overcame a salient against considerable German resistance.  The final objective, a fortified knoll located outside the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, fell to the Canadian Corps on 12 April. The German forces then retreated to the Oppy–Méricourt line.

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, as well as the failure of the German Sixth Army to properly apply the new German defensive doctrine. The battle was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a battle together and it was made a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice. Recent historical research has called this patriotic narrative into question, showing that it developed in the latter part of the twentieth century. The nation-building story only emerged fully formed after most of those who experienced the Great War directly or indirectly had passed from the scene. A 100-hectare (250-acre) portion of the former battleground serves as a memorial park and site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.”

Addressing the crowd in French at the Vimy Memorial, Prime Minister Trudeau touched on the unitedness of Canadians during the hellish time of war.

“These ordinary and extraordinary men of the British dominion fought for the first time as citizens of one and the same country,” Trudeau said.  “Francophones and anglophones. New Canadians. Indigenous peoples. Side by side, united, here in Vimy, within the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.”

Representing the British monarchy, Prince Charles said Canada’s military showed a strength that is still seen today.

“This was and remains the single bloodiest day in Canadian military history,” he said.  “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.”

Governor General David Johnston motioned to the white towers of the Vimy Memorial in his address, stating what they stand for and what they remind us as everyday Canadians.

“Those spires stand for peace and for freedom,” he said.  “They stand for justice and hope. And they remind us that one cannot exist without the other. Without freedom, there can be no peace. Because freedom without peace is agony, and peace without freedom is slavery.”

With the Battle of Vimy Ridge having been a century ago, it meant that those who had fought both at Vimy and during the First World War were now gone, so organizers needed to find other ways to remember them and their own stories.

What they came up with was a solemn and fitting image, as one pair of empty black combat boots for each of the men who died fighting for the ridge was placed at the top of the monument or on the neatly-trimmed green grass of the surrounding ridge.

Not only that, but performers took on the personas of those who lived through that time, bringing not only the fighting soldiers back to life, but also their mothers and fathers, wives and even nurses.

As the anniversary memorial event commenced in France at the heart of the bloody and historic fight from 100 years ago, communities and organizations all across the country, such as local branches of the Royal Canadian Legion, paid respect by lowering their Canadian flags and flying them at half-mast; a gesture to show that even a century later, the legacy of the Battle of Vimy Ridge remains intact and will never be forgotten.

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