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'Canada was born here,' says PM Trudeau in France at WWI Vimy centennial

Philippe Huguen, AFP | Britain's Prince Harry, Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, walk at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Vimy, near Arras, northern France, on April 9, 2017.

On Sunday, near Arras in Northern France, a WWI battle centenary commemoration looked for all the world like a celebration – even a birthday party.


Canadian pop stars entertained a massive crowd – organisers expected 23,000 – with ballads sung from the iconic white marble memorial at Vimy Ridge, turned into a stage. Canadian actors performed excerpts of soldiers’ letters. Dignitaries abounded. French President François Hollande spoke solemnly of Franco-Canadian friendship and this patch of land France gave Canada in gratitude in 1922. On stage, Britain’s Prince Charles quoted the Canadian national anthem, saying: “The Canadians at Vimy embodied ‘the true north, strong and free'.”

But it was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and William, Duke of Cambridge, on hand with his brother Prince Harry, who earned unabashed whoops from a crowd that included 10,000 young Canadians on field-trip pilgrimages to make this page of their high-school history books come alive.

On April 9, 1917, under the cover of a deafening barrage of artillery, thousands of young men surged out of the obscurity of the trenches at 5:30am and into the battle of their lives. It marked the first time all four Canadian divisions, made up of volunteers from all over Canada, would fight together for a single cause.

“It is through their sacrifice that Canada became an independent signatory of the Treaty of Versailles,” Trudeau told the crowd. “And in that sense, Canada was born here.”

Germany had been fortifying the position, a strategic lookout above the Douai plain north of Arras, since 1914. France had suffered more than 100,000 casualties in vain attempts to punch a hole in the Western Front at Vimy. And now Canada -- a young country with no military history, months shy of its 50th birthday and with a rag-tag bunch of eager but amateur soldiers – was being asked to succeed where the French and British had failed.

Nearly 4,000 dead

The Canadians would take the ridge in four days, served in the end by a collegial approach unheard of in the class-bound British forces and the inventiveness that a lack of military baggage affords. Canada suffered 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded in the four-day battle, adding to 10,000 casualties lost in preparing it. But the country’s very youthfulness turned out to be a battlefield asset.

For wartime historians, Canada’s First World War success at Vimy Ridge was a limited tactical victory, one that hardly changed the course of the conflict. It was an impressive positive in a war that had had desperately few of them, but merely one element of a larger Allied offensive that ultimately failed.

And yet to Canada, Vimy is so very much more than that. In Canadian mythology, Canada, population eight million, a far-flung dominion of Great Britain, became a nation in its own right in the small hours of that Easter Monday. The Vimy Monument graces the back of the Canadian $20 bill and a page of the country’s passport.

“I think it’s the most symbolic thing there is,” Alexa Bartels, 15, said, choking back tears, of Vimy’s significance to Canada.

“Just seeing this is so overwhelming, the birth of our country,” her Pickering, Ontario, schoolmate Kyle Hatley, 15, agreed.

For the Canadians, the battle was the culmination of four months of meticulous and often deadly preparations through the coldest winter of the war in muck heaving with rats. But on Sunday’s anniversary, the atmosphere was a world away from that freezing mudscape.

Near the monument, students in red Vimy 100 t-shirts and shorts sprawled on the lush grass of the erstwhile battlefield on a balmy day, the cloudless sky marred only by the fleeting furls of smoke of a 21-gun salute and the shooting-star contrails of airliners. Some Vimy veterans’ families attended in large groups, each wearing shirts or caps printed with their relative-soldier’s photo or name. Further afield, beyond bright red signs that alert visitors to unexploded ordnance, pockmarked terrain has grown thick with a century’s worth of trees. Grazing sheep are deployed to tend the grass. Lambs tail their mothers around dramatic shell holes, pits that swallowed up men and boys in 1917.

On stage, Trudeau spoke of soldiers’ missives home. “They thank [loved ones] for parcels and letters. They asked about brothers and sisters and they wrote about their fellow soldiers. Those who had fallen, those still fighting. Typical Canadians, they talked about the weather,” Trudeau said, to laughs from the crowd. “‘The sun has been shining a couple of times this last week,’ reads a letter from William Henry Bell dated April 7, 1917. ‘The sun is a kind of a stranger here. Say, that cake you sent sure was fine.’ William Bell died at Vimy on April 10, 1917. He was 20 years old,” Trudeau said, with an actor’s solemn flourish. Many of the teens in attendance would call their prime minister’s speech the day’s highlight.

In the audience, at least one soldier’s family, too, brought letters. Captain Claude Williams’s great-grandson Michael Boody, 37, from London, Ontario, brought a bound stack of photocopied letters. “These are the letters he wrote home weekly,” Boody says proudly. “Since before our six-year-old was born, we wanted to come here for the 100th,” he says. So Boody and his wife Erika, 33, did just that, with Miriam, 6, Genevieve, 3, and Sergio, 1, in tow.

“I think [Vimy] put Canada on the map. I wish I would have been here a hundred years ago to see,” Boody says wistfully, noting his great-grandfather’s letters cite French newspaper coverage of the “gallant Canadians” victory.

“He tried to sleep in the trenches last night,” said Boody’s wife, Erika, smiling. “He e-mailed everybody. He made a very valiant attempt because he wanted to do what his great-grandfather did. They wouldn’t allow it.”

Another Vimy vet, Oliver Dewar, had four sons who made the trip to Vimy on Sunday to pay homage to their father and three uncles who fought in the battle. Dewar’s sister was also part of the war effort, as a nurse. Three of the brothers were shot, one was gassed, but all four brothers and their sister survived.

‘Birth of a nation’

“We are the four brothers representing the four brothers that were here. Four brothers are back 100 years later. So, nice story,” said Les Dewar, 65, from New Brunswick, through a thick white moustache. He wore a cap that read “Vimy. Birth of a Nation.” Les’s father died when he was 12, but he, too, has letters to remind him of conditions at Vimy. One to the soldier’s mother told her he was just back from the frontlines and hadn’t washed his face or removed his boots in 10 days.

“I remember asking my dad, I was 15, 16, at the time – and it was something we never talked about – but I asked him if he ever shot anybody,” Les’s older brother Bob, 69, recounted. “He looked at me and he had these sky-blue eyes… and he said, ‘I shot my rifle but I hoped I never hit anyone.’”

For her part, Eleanor Palmer Friesen, 64, from Regina, Saskatchewan, called Vimy a “touchstone” for Canada. Her grandfather, John Palmer, was a Vimy vet. “He fought here in Vimy, survived, and then went on to be critically wounded at Hill 70 four months later, just at Lens where those coal hills are there,” she says, pointing into the distance. Like many of the men who fought for Canada in WWI, Palmer was a recent immigrant. He had arrived in Canada from Scotland in 1910 before setting off to Europe again to fight the war.

“It’s interesting, when our friends found out we were coming to Vimy… I’ve got name upon name of grandfathers, great-grandfathers,” Palmer said. “This is the story of Canada.”

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