Monday, September 9, 2013

Vimy Ridge & Iraq - This article appeared on April 9, 2003, in the Calgary Herald

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 The 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?

On 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.

The 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. 

Generations 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. 

3,598 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.  

So 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 country? 

It 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? 

Our 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?  

When 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.  

What 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 countries.    

Yet 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 spoken.

But 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.

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