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Monday, September 9, 2013
Vimy Ridge & Iraq - This article appeared on April 9, 2003, in the Calgary Herald To browse my leadership book, click here then click on the Google Preview button. Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog
VIMY RIDGE: CANADA’S FORGOTTEN HISTORY LESSON
last surviving Canadian infantry veteran of the battle of Vimy Ridge, Charles
Reaper, died in Winnipeg at the age of 103 on March 1st of this year. With his death we have lost our last living
link to that battle.What meaning should
we draw from his passing?
Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, Reaper was among the 100,000 troops of the
Canadian Army Corps that captured Vimy Ridge against a well-entrenched garrison
of German defenders. The battle turned
out to be a minor action within the larger Battle of Arras, led by the
British. Like the Somme, Passchendaele
and Verdun, Arras and Vimy were battles in that litany of horrific carnage that
used to be known as the Great War. Today
we call it World War I.
French had launched three unsuccessful campaigns against the ridge between 1914
and 1916 with a combined loss of 150,000 casualties. The British tried next with no success,
losing over 40,000. Then it was Canada’s
turn. The Canadians achieved that rarest
of outcomes in trench warfare: a breakthrough of all enemy lines. Soldiers like Reaper, standing on top of the
ridge at sunset 3 days later, could have kept on slogging all the way to Berlin
– if only they had been backed up with sufficient reinforcements. The war could have ended over a year earlier
had the British and French High Command not thought that a breakthrough at Vimy
to be a delusional impossibility.
of school children learned that April 9, 1917 was the day that Canada
supposedly came of age as a nation. For
decades following the battle, the date was marked by ceremonies to honour the
survivors and the fallen.
men were killed in the assault. 7,004
were wounded. This means 1 in 10 were
either killed or wounded during the 3 day-assault. Another 9,553 casualties
were sustained at Vimy in the months of preparation leading up to the attack. German casualties were even more
staggering. Pierre Berton, at the
conclusion of his book Vimy, asks “Was it worth it? The answer, of course, is no”. The victory at Vimy,
albeit impressive at the time and utterly unanticipated, in the end had little
impact on the outcome of the war.
what should we think of this battle, given the imperfect hindsight of
history? Should it be a source of
national pride? Did this country indeed
come of age as a result of the terror and agony its young soldiers endured on a
hummock of mud 86 years ago in northern France?
Charles Reaper was at most 17 when he was slogging through the trenches
and then up the ridge at Vimy. What do
we owe him? What do we own those names
of the fallen that are fading in the acid rain on cenotaphs across the
is said that the victory at Vimy, along with the rest of the country’s
contribution to the war effort, undoubtedly enhanced Canada’s stature as an
independent nation. For the first time
Canada fought not so much for Britain as with Britain. Now we refuse to fight not so much with the
United States as for the United States.
Pride? But at what price? Did the country come of age? What does ‘coming of age’ mean and how can it
be measured? In an era of globalization
and increased economic and political interdependency what is the place of
independence and national sovereignty?
government has decided not to send Canadian troops to war in Iraq. How does this decision to opt for neutrality
resonate with our history at Vimy Ridge?
we go back to Vimy and read the lists of names of those men, when we learn how
they suffered, how they were wounded, how they died, our debt to them stings
like salt on an open cut. They are more
than names in stone. They were like
us. They were sons, they were lovers,
husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles, friends.
Then they were gone.
is the value of understanding this history?
What use are these stories, these casualty figures? Do they help us to avoid repeating the errors
of the past? The history of the 20th
century after World War I suggests an opposite conclusion. Some feel that young people raised without
these history lessons hold fewer prejudices towards their peers from other
the sacrifices in blood made at Vimy remain indelibly scrawled on our
consciousness for the unassailable fact that they happened to people like
us. Families can trace the stains of
Vimy in their own histories. Communities
remember the losses. With the death of
Charles Reaper our national memory of that battle is gone.
This is what we owe those distant
thousands at Vimy Ridge: When the anthems are over, the flags put away, the
medals tarnished and lost and the graves overgrown, war must forever more be
seen as only an option of absolute last resort. Those soldiers who fought at
Vimy still cry out to us: Only speak the word ‘war’ when no other word can be
what would they make of our decision not to fight in Iraq were they to come
back to us today? Would they say we failed our friends? Or would they commend us for not feeding
troops and civilians to the cannons of this new war? The dead cannot speak. No one can presume to speak for them. We can only work with all our might to ensure
that the world will never again have to endure their horror.