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APRIL 9, 2012 10:06AM

Canada's Day

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"It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then ... that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation."

-- Brig.-Gen. Alexander Ross, commanding officer,
the 28th (North-West) Battalion at Vimy


    It's not much to look at on an army ordnance map -- a sort of whaleback feature in Nord-Pas-de-Calais that's less than five miles long and nowhere even 500 feet above sea level, overlooking a broad plain of small villages, roads, trees and fields.
    On April 8, 1917,  it was in German hands, and had been since October 1914. The fortifications had defied the British and French armies in 1915 and 1916, costing the Allies 200,000 dead and denying them the high ground they so desperately needed on the Western Front near Arras.
    On April 9, 1917, that all changed.
    At 5:30 that morning, the men of the Canadian Corps left their trenches and tunnels and advanced into the teeth of a blizzard of snow, sleet and hot jagged metal; by evening, they had claimed a place in military annals, consolidated their reputation as elite shock troops ... and altered forever their country's future.
    The Corps had been used piecemeal in other engagements and acquitted itself admirably, perhaps most notably holding the line at Second Ypres in 1915, when the Germans first used poison gas.
     But this time was different. This time they went into battle together, 100,000 strong, shoulder to shoulder, from sea to sea to sea. And they would not, they could not, fail.
    The assault was supposed to be just part of the opening phase of the British-led Battle of Arras, a diversionary attack for the French Nivelle Offensive. But nobody told the Corps they were supposed to be a sideshow, and they wouldn't have listened if anyone had tried.
    The facts of that Easter Monday are well-documented elsewhere: the planning genius of Arthur Currie; the devastating accuracy of Andy McNaughton's guns; the courage, tenacity and spirit of the men who set out to take an impregnable fortified position -- and took it. By nightfall, the fighting was all but over in the only successful offensive by any command under the British since the war began in 1914.
    The cost? In Western Front terms, virtually nothing: a paltry 3,600 dead Canadians, 7,000 others wounded.
    The British usually ignore the battle, concentrating on their own nearby completely abortive assault at the Scarpe instead. The French, more gallantly and more accurately, call it Canada's Easter Gift to France, and after the Great War, they donated 220 acres atop the ridge on which to erect a permanent monument to that day.
    That memorial stands there now, a symbol that rises above mere topography. Twin pillars soar nearly 100 feet into the sky, representing Canada and France and the bond that exists between our peoples. Carved into the base are the names of 11,285 Canadians killed in that country alone who have no known graves.
    And standing solitary before the plains beyond, the "Promised Land," as some of those who took the ridge called it, is a brooding, hooded, haunting figure. Her eyes are downcast and her chin is resting on her left hand, while the right holds a limp bundle of laurel at her side. Below her is a tomb, draped in more laurel branches and bearing a helmet and a sword.
    Exquisitely carved from Dalmatian stone, she is known as Canada Bereft, forever silent, forever mourning the loss of those 3,600 sons killed capturing the heights, and the 65,000 others who died that small nations -- including their own -- might some day be free.
    No, it's really not very much to look at on an army ordnance map, this low swelling over the Douai Plain called Vimy Ridge. It's not very long, nor is it very high.
    But it was big enough to build a nation on.

 

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easter monday 1917, repost

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Comments

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Very well told Boan.
Americans know so little of the history of Canada.
I remember how little I knew till I moved there.
Really interesting I didn't even know that was how the battle played out only that the Canadian force had lost so many during it. My Salute to Easter Monday and all those that perished and fought.....o/e
An interesting read. Canada's part in world wars has been very overlooked as far as I can gather.

Good to see you here and I hope you'll continue to educate us as regards your beautiful part of the world.
Bo, Thanks for re-posting this in recognition of Easter Monday as a memorial day for the Canadian lives lost at Vimy Ridge and war in general, and for those whose resting places remain unknown. May I add that the Vimy Ridge Memorial was designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward. During its building the excavation was executed with great care as the ground was littered with live bombs. It took eleven years to complete and Allward once said the inspiration for it came to him in a dream.

He created the two pylons to represent Canada and France - beset by war and united in a common goal. "The pylons are often interpreted as sentinels guarding peaceful world. Or as a gateway to a better world where peace prevails."

Allward feared the sculpture would be destroyed in the WWII. Thankfully, it was not.
Thanks for this story. Vimy Ridge is an important story for all to know.
Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Well for those who know the price that was paid and the brave effort it took to win the battle, that momument is indeed a beautiful thing. Well told, my friend.
Canada is always overlooked, like it's just a limp felt hat on top of the US. You do a great job of educating everyone about important role Canada has played on the world stage.
Boanerges, thanks for sharing a bit of your history, that monument is very somber and haunting. Congrats on the EP.
(Sorry I haven't responded before now -- the flu has struck the household with some kind of awful intensity.)

Mission, you would have a pretty unique perspective on both Canadian and American history.

O/E, I know you have a special interest in the First War. I'll join you in that salute.

Thanks, Linda. It's good to see you again. Vimy's importance militarily was one thing (and it did change how the brass hats did business) but it was also a symbolic turning point in Canadian affairs.

SS, right you are. In fact, after the region was over-run in the Second War, rumours began circulating that the memorial was used for gunnery practice by the Wehrmacht. Hitler travelled to Vimy to have his photo taken to show that was untrue. Even he knew it wasn't about triumphalism.

Thank you, Mary.

The Redhead has seen the monument in real life, David, and assures me photos cannot do it justice.

BV, you have my gratitude for your long-standing support of these occasional forays.

Thanks, 'Bug. It is very moving, even in two dimensions.
Very weld done, yet another reason why I love Canadians.
Thanks for this recap on Vimy Ridge, including a few points I did not previously know (and thanks to Scarlett's input on the sculptor).
Various & Bo: Another reason the sculptor was top of mind is I just found out the other day, when speaking to a Peterborough artist friend of ours, that Walter Allward sculpted the War Memorial sculpture in Ptbo. I used to hang out in the park where it was when I went to Trent and always admired the sculpture. In fact the story is - as I recently learned - he was in the middle of sculpting the one in Ptbo. when he was commissioned to do Vimy Ridge. He also did a memorial somewhat close to 'you boy's' stomping range - the Stratford Cenotaph.
The pictures are breathtaking. I didn't realize that Canada Bereft, who looks so impressive in the last picture, was also in the picture at the top. It certainly puts the pillars in perspective...

I feel a little crass saying I enjoyed the story, so I will say that I very much enjoyed the storytelling. You are a wonderful writer...
(Hi, guys. A little tardy again, but that *#$)# flu is still laying us out.)

Thank you, Deborah.

That's very generous of you, John.

One thing I can always count on, VA, is that some one of my OS friends is going to be able to fill in more blanks. In this case, SS is the culprit, with her info about Allward.

Speaking of you, SS, I did not know that about the Stratford Cenotaph. If ever I'm that way again, I'll look it out. Meanwhile, may I suggest a book called "The Stone Carvers" by Jane Urquhart? It deals with Vimy monument (and, of course, a whole lot more).

No need to feel crass, OM (and how bloomin' great is it to see you here again!). I have yet to see the monument in person, but I'm told the figures, particularly Canada Bereft, are magnifi
you have a talent for these things
I have a friend in Toronto who reads yous posts faithfully and appreciatively...as do I. Learning, learning, learning...
Thank you, Kathy, for saying that.

Huh, Nikki, I wonder who that might be? Glad you liked this.