That the First World War’s battle of Vimy Ridge was instrumental in the development of Canadian nationhood was witnessed this week by the thousands who flocked to France to mark the event’s 100th anniversary.
Four Canadian divisions, along with one from Britain, took on three German divisions, emerging victorious. Three thousand, five hundred and ninety-eight men died in the battle, and 7,004 were wounded. It was the first time in Canadian history that troops from across Canada fought together for a common goal. The battle raged from Apr. 9 to 12, 1917.
Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris was among the estimated 25,000 people gathered on the historic battlefield last Sunday, commemorating the centenary of the momentous battle. He says he was touched and humbled by the two-hour ceremony.
“It was something that every Canadian should have had a chance to do. Of course, it has been 100 years since the battle at Vimy Ridge and, as an MPP, I attend many Remembrance Day services and each and every one is very touching, whether it is at a cenotaph or a legion, but to be able to participate in a service actually on the battlefield was truly breathtaking,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Francois Hollande, England’s Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry were there to say a few words and lay some wreaths, honouring the Canadian sacrifice in 1917.
Harris was there, in part, to represent the 12 soldiers from the Waterloo Region who died in the conflict 100 years ago.“They came from Waterloo, two from Kitchener, one from New Hamburg, one from Baden, several from the Galt area – it was extremely moving,” he said in an interview from France.
He highlighted the immense human loss for Canada, comparing it to current conflicts where Canadian soldiers have been killed.
“Four Canadian divisions fighting together for the first time, we were a population of around 8 million people then; 100,000 soldiers went to fight at Vimy, 3,598 died in that four-day battle, and some 7,000 were injured or wounded,” he said. “When you look at the war in Afghanistan, it was over a decade long, and I believe that Canada lost over 100 soldiers. To lose over 3,500 in four days was a massive event, but more importantly, they scaled the ridge and overtook the Germans. It was something that Great Britain and the French couldn’t do.”
One part of his trip that stood out was the warm welcome Canadian visitors received on their journey to honour the fallen.
“On the way into Vimy, around some small towns and villages, homes were flying the Canadian flags and smiling people waving at the buses going to the ceremony,” he said.
He was also happy to see so many young people in the crowd. There were more than 12,000 Canadian students at the ceremony on Sunday.
“Our plane was full of students in red coats and it makes you think, 100 years later, it is a great sign of how important that battle of Vimy Ridge was,” said Harris.