| Apr 05, 2007


Feature Article - April 5, 2007

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Feature Article - April 5, 2007

Victory at Vimy:April 9-12, 1917

by DonAntoine

It is expected that between seven and ten thousand Canadians -- teachers, students and descendents of WWI veterans who gave their lives at Vimy -- will commemorate on Easter Monday the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought 90 years ago in April of 1917. It is considered the place where the Canadian nation began its journey to full nationhood.

In 1922 France gave Canada 250 acres around Hill 145, the highest point of the nine-mile ridge. Canadian sculptor W.E.Walter Allward of Toronto started the monument in 1925. Eleven years later in July 1936, it was unveiled by King Edward VIII. This was the first time British royalty had recognized Canada as a nation. King Edward VIII stated the monument was for the people of Canada, for the valour of their countrymen in the Great War, and in memory of their sixty thousand dead.

The monument had thousands of tonnes of concrete for the base of the monument and 5,500 tonnes of snow white “trau” stone taken from an abandoned Roman quarry on the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia.

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Twenty craftsmen sculpted symbols for War, Peace, Faith, Hope, Justice and Truth. On the bottom of the Wall of Defence were the names of 11,285 Canadian Dead or Missing who had no known resting place. Our Unknown Soldier brought back from Vimy now lies at the foot of our own nation’s war monument. His name is somewhere on this list.

Queen Elizabeth II will attend the ceremonies at Vimy and present a Victory Cross Medal to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Fourteen years ago Canada created our own version of the Victoria Cross and our unknown soldier will be the first recipient. This has started discord among veterans and their organizations. This issue concerns all Canadians.

In 1856 Queen Victoria I created the Victoria Cross Medal. The basis of all honour medals is “action beyond the call of duty”. The Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War would have inspired her to create a medal ultimately above the ordinary. Metal from the cannons of the Battle of Balaclava was used to make the Victoria Cross Medal. Tennyson’s “ Charge of the Light Brigade” tells of the great bravery shown by the troops of this calvary charge – “theirs but to do or die”. Ninety four Canadians have won this honour, the first being Alexander Dunn, in 1854 at Balaclava, and the last was Smokey Smith in Italy in 1944. There where four Victoria Crosses given to troops at Vimy.

France had cleared the Vimy area of war debris, rifles, steel helmets and human remains. Canada brought trees from Canada and pines from Hungary.

From the top of the ridge, looking west one can see for miles-- to the east looking over the plains of Douai. For 24 miles there where 1000 gun pits. From the top of the ridge, and over the plains there were miles of tunnels, and room for billets, enough for their war uses. These tunnels were all hand-tooled into the chalk rock. France transformed the whole area into parkland with picnic tables and camping spaces, with many of these tunnel being rebuilt for tourists to walk through.

France has over a million visitors a year, the main attractions being Vimy Ridge and Beaumont Hamel. The latter is where the Newfoundlanders under British Command fought gallantly, bravely taking their objective, but with great losses.

Canada restored twelve other monuments in Belgium and France, the main ones being Flanders Fields and Ypres, where Canada fought in 1915, and then returned in 1918 to take these positions. The monument at Ypres is inscribed with over 7000 missing, presumed dead in unknown graves.

Before Vimy we look at the real reasons and necessities for Canada to unite our four divisions into a Canadian Corp.

In the fall of 1916 British Field Marshall F.M.Haig ordered our troops to attack the Somme, which British troops had failed to capture. British Lt. Gen. Bying commanded the Canadians, but our Major General Currie considered success impossible. It was a heavily fortified position with piles upon piles of barbwire. The heavy artillery was to destroy the wire, but these guns missed their targets leaving few holes in the wire.

Our troops could not attack in lines and stormed through the few holes in the fence in large groups. Over 1300 were mowed down by machine gun fire on the first attack, retreated and tried again before Haig called off the battle. Over 24,000 casualties (dead, wounded, gassed, and missing.)

Haig ordered the Canadians to attack Vimy Ridge on April 1, 1917. The Germans in 1914 had captured the ridge. They started a great fortress on the whole nine miles of the ridge. France and Britain fought the Germans for almost three years. The three nations lost 700,000 (Killed wounded or missing); France alone had 100,000 dead.

Our General Currie went to see the French Staff Officers to find our reasons for failure and successes. Currie laid out a plan on the ground, duplicated the three forward defense lines and the ridge itself.

Each platoon was trained to be in a certain position ata certain time. The artillery would lay a creeping barrage three hundred feet in front of the infantry who would move forward as the shelling advanced.

The guns had new fuses on their shells that would explode on contact with the barbed wire, totally destroying the wire. The artillery was comprised of more than 600 field guns that would fire an 18-pound shell. Two hundred and forty heavy howitzers arced their big shells over the ridge to hit the enemy guns. After firing 50,000 shells, 80% of the German firepower was eliminated.

The artillery started heavy shelling on March 20th for several days, then again on April 2nd until 5:30 am on April 9th and stopped for four minutes. This was the signal for the infantry to attack. Most of the enemy would take shelter in the tunnels; this aided our troops in taking prisoners. It was “come out or get a grenade” thrown in. Four thousand prisoners were taken. This first line of defense was taken on schedule - in 35 minutes. The rest was taken in four days.

Arthur Currie was promoted to Lieutenant General and was given a knighthood.

In 1914, Canada was a British Colony of nine million people - four million French speaking and five million English speaking. Half a million joined our forces. Six hundred women gave their final devotion to their country. More than 60,000 homes and families mourned the loss of their loved ones.

Our boys died that we might live.

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