The Significance of Vimy Ridge

What does the word Vimy mean to you? I once put this question to a university class in Canadian Studies. At first, I was gratified that the majority could relate the word to one of the crucial battles of World War I.

Disheartening, nevertheless, was the sizable minority who did not have a clue as to the importance of Vimy — once a household word in all parts of Canada. One student’s response was that he used to have a girl friend who lived on Vimy Road in Truro, N.S.

Be assured that this individual quickly learned the reason for the naming of this street. There are more than one hundred physical features, towns, villages and streets across Canada recalling the battle of Vimy Ridge. This fact indicates the deep imprint that the event made on the Canadian people. For example, a railway siding located not far from Sackville was so named. More on this later.

As generations roll on, the events of that far-off Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, are fast receding from our national consciousness. This is unfortunate, not the least because of the heavy casualties suffered by the Canadian Army. In all, 3,598 Canadian lives were lost in this battle alone.

During the spring of 1917 military strategists developed elaborate plans for the capture of Vimy Ridge. The battle proper was preceded by a general bombardment of enemy lines. On the morning of April 9, at 5:30 a.m, in the face of a blinding sleet storm, every gun on the 20-kilometre front opened up. At the same time a series of heavy mines were exploded.

Then the First and Second Divisions of the Canadian Corps led the assault, fighting their way from the foot of the ridge to the crest which dominated the plains beyond. This was the first time that the Canadian Corps had attacked as a national unit, and their important victory was heralded as the biggest single advance on the Western Front up to that time. In the fewest possible words, this was the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

But beyond military significance, there are other reasons for recalling Vimy Ridge. What Canadian soldiers accomplished that day had great symbolic importance in establishing Canadas identity as an independent nation. To understand why, its necessary to sketch briefly Canadas position during World War I.

On Aug. 4, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, Canada was automatically involved. At the time the country was self governing internally; however, relations with other countries remained largely under British control. The next four years changed that situation, thakks to Canadas involvement in World War I and the diplomatic skill and determination of the then-prime minister, Sir Robert Borden.

Almost from the outbreak of war Borden encountered resistance by British authorities toward independent Canadian decision making. Canada was expected to train and send its soldiers overseas, provide munitions and supplies, and at the same time, leave overall direction and control to the mother country.

This situation can be best illustrated by an incident early in the war. Canadas Governor General was Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught. It so happened that he held the rank of Field Marshal in the British army. As such, the prince was not above meddling in Canadian military affairs.

This activity brought him in direct conflict with Prime Minister Borden. Their clash led the latter to wryly observe: There are two types of people who should never be named Governor General; a Prince or a Field Marshal. Unfortunately, the Duke of Connaught is both. Borden was soon calling for the appointment of a Canadian as Governor General and the establishment by Canada of overseas diplomatic missions.

Although years were to pass before these two objectives were achieved, Borden can be credited with laying the foundation for Canadian control over external affairs and eventually our independent status as a nation. As casualties mounted and Canadian heroism and achievement on the battlefield became acknowledged, Borden pressed for more formal recognition of Canadas contribution to the war effort. This was partly achieved in the aftermath of Vimy Ridge. Following this victory, Canadian troops were placed for the first time under the command of a Canadian general, Sir Arthur Currie.

Borden’s hand in dealing with the prevailing British point of view was greatly strengthened by the strong performance of the Canadian army overseas. But his finest hour came at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Here Borden led the campaign for separate representation by Canada. He was also largely responsible for the indusion of Canada in the International Labour Organization and the League of Nations. Borden also insisted that Canada sign the Peace Treaty separately from Britain; and further that it should be ratified by the Canadian Parliament. The country was coming of age.

One of the most complete accounts of the Battle of Vimy Ridge has been written by Pierre Berton. Toward the end of his book entitled simply Vimy, he asks some probing questions: Did the achievements [mentioned above] really spring from Vimy? Or was Vimy simply a convenient symbol, a piece of shorthand. .. to stand for a complicated historical process that was probably inevitable? His answer: Does it matter? What counts is that in the minds of Canadians, Vimy took on a mythic quality… and Canada was short of myths……. The loosening of Imperial ties was accelerated by [the war] in general and by the Vimy experience in particular.

First-hand reports by those who survived the red wine of war at Vimy Ridge helped fuel this national consciousness. Many years after the event, one veteran, Fred Robichaud of Amherst, was interviewed by Dr. David Beatty. His recall of April 9, 1917 was crystal clear.

As recorded in Beattys book Vimy Pilgrimage, Robichaud remembered: I went out in the first wave. The weather that morning turned freezing cold, and the sleet which slanted down toward the German lines, blinded many German soldiers… Our battalion, the 25th Nova Scotia Rifles, captured the Turko-Gaben trench at about 7:30. By mid-morning, the wind commenced to blow and the sun broke through. We saw hundreds of gray clad German soldiers hurrying in disarray down the slopes of the other side. Our machine gunners helped hurry them along. Vimy Ridge was ours.

One reminder of the battle was the naming of Vimy Siding, located not far from Frosty Hollow, on the main railway line between Dorchester and Sackville. The siding was the site of a water tower, required in the day of steam engines. A few years later someone carved the inscription Vimy Ridge April 9, 1917 on the face of a granite boulder located at the siding. The only clue to the sculptor were the initials JOR. Eventually the replacement of steam by diesel engines eliminated the need for the siding and the monument was largely forgotten, except by a few local residents.

Some time ago, the presence of the monument was drawn to my attention by Dick McLeod. I immediately added it to my list of topics for future Flashbacks. Later, I uncovered a couple of references suggesting that the inscription was the work of German internees from the Amherst and Sackville Internment camps established during World War I.

This explanation did not ring true on several counts. First, the naming of the siding took place after the war. By this time, the Internment camp was closed. More important, it was highly uniikely that German soldiers, interned or otherwise, would commemorate a battle in which they were soundly defeated. I resolved to continue my research into this mystery and to visit the site someday.

Other priorities intervened and my visit did not take place until last summer. On Aug. 8, I received a call from Bob McLeod Would you be free to make a trip to the Vimy monument tomorrow? I jumped at the opportunity and the next day a group set out from Westcock to travel through the woods to the site of the old railway siding. We were fortunate to have Ken Campbell in the lead, as he was familiar with the territory. Dick, Bob and Charlie McLeod rounded out the expedition.

Thanks to Ken’s skill we reached our objective without difficulty. We found, in addition to the monument described above, that the area had been cleared, some park benches set up and written material on the battle posted for the benefit of visitors. Over 80 years after April 9, 1917 someone had taken the trouble to spend considerable time caring for this site deep in the woods and far from human habitation. Who was it? The mystery deepened.

On my return to Sackville I found part of the answer much more quickly than I expected. Since August 8 was a Wednesday, I picked up my copy of this newspaper. By sheer coincidence, as we had never discussed the topic, Tribune reporter Eric Collard had filed a story explaining the role of John Wightman in caring for the monument and its surroundings. It was Wightman who was responsible for the benches and the neat and tidy appearance of the area. Unfortunately, Eric was unable to uncover the identity of the sculptor “JOR”.

One should never underestimate the readership of the Sackville Tribune-Post! A week later Dave Duncan, of Hamilton, Ont., unraveled the other part of the mystery. In a letter, Dave on behalf of his father Earl Duncan, now 87 years old, was able to verify that the carving was completed by John O’Rourke. Earl worked with his father (Arthur Duncan) at the site and remembered both the monument and its sculptor. Thanks to a series of coincidences, the mystery of Vimy-in-the-Woods was now solved!

On Saturday next, Nov. 11, when we recall ALL those who made the supreme sacrifice in war and in peace-keeeping, let’s pause and remember that emotion filled word Vimy. It’s important for all Canadians.