"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."
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.