I have had some amazing experiences since moving to Europe, including a few once-in-a-life- opportunities. Attending the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France is at the top of that list.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 was the victory that not only validated the power and skill of the Canadian Forces, but has also become known as the moment when Canada was born. The Canadian Forces were still a part of the British Forces during the First World War. Many Canadians returned to Britain and enlisted in the British army, while others enlisted in Canada and became a part of the four Canadian divisions. Until April 9th 1917, the four divisions of the Canadian Forces had never fought together. The capture of Vimy was a hard won victory that had previously been attempted by the British and French. The Canadians lost 3,500 soldiers and another 7,000 soldiers were injured in the battle, yet they achieved the impossible in their first battle together and were hailed as heroes internationally. The sacrifice of these men, earned Canada an identity independent of Britain on the world stage.
A year ago, before I left Canada, I had the opportunity to attend the 99th memorial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge which was held at CFB Borden, just north of Toronto. The anniversary was commemorated with the unveiling of a new monument dedicated to the soldiers who fought at Vimy Ridge. During the ceremony, sand brought back to Canada from Vimy was placed inside the monument. Roughly 1000 civilians and media personnel were in attendance and several thousand members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Though it was a small ceremony, I was very moved by the experience and immediately started making plans to attend this year’s memorial in Europe.
One year later, I found myself standing before the Vimy Ridge Monument near Arras, France. Over 30,000 Canadians, civilians and military, gathered to mark the 100th anniversary of what is still the greatest military victory Canadians have ever achieved. A battle that is so important to our history that the French government gifted the 100 hectares surrounding the ridge to Canada at the end of WWI. The ceremony was both a celebration of the Canadian men who fought there and a day honouring the sacrifices they made in order to accomplish the impossible.
The ceremony was constructed to give a voice and identity to the men who fought at Vimy. Hundreds of pairs of boots were placed around the monument as a visual representation of the men who died there. In the hours preceding the main ceremony, the names of the dead were recited aloud for everyone to hear. The theme of the day was letters written by Canadians who were stationed at Vimy. Some of the letters were recited by Canadian actors Karine Vanasse, Paul Gross, Eloi Archambaudoin, and Ron Lea. Letters were also quoted in the speeches given by Prime Minister Trudeau, Prince Charles, and the President of France, Francois Hollande. The letters were used to tell the story of Vimy in the words of the men who created it.
Though the focus of the day was on the men who fought there, many of the people in attendance had personal connections to the monument. Many people made the journey to France from Canada to honour a family member or for an educational experience. There were military members, school children from Canada and the UK, and even one woman who was in attendance when the monument was unveiled in 1937 (she was 4 years old at the time). People came from all over the world to attend the ceremony. My family drove from Germany and many of our friends took the ferry from England or flew in from other parts of Europe in order to attend.
Vimy Ridge is more than a great Canadian victory, it has come to represent the values that set Canada apart from other countries. We are not a people prone to boasting and we rarely beat our chests in an effort to demonstrate our power. We are a people who come together to fight for our values and defend others who seek our help. We are far from perfect and we make no pretensions to being the greatest country in the world, but we are pretty awesome. The monument at Vimy represents Freedom and Peace, the principle pillars of our culture. The men who fought there represent our determination to keep those pillars standing in our part of the world.