Sunday, 9 April 2017
Vimy Ridge Centenary
Today is Vimy Ridge Day, which commemorates the First World War battle that has become a Canadian symbol of achievement, nationhood and sacrifice. Mainstream historical interpretation holds that Canada became a truly independent nation at Vimy Ridge, no longer viewed simply as part of the British Empire.
2017 is the centenary of the battle of Vimy Ridge and it is being marked across Canada this weekend by many events.
Vimy Ridge is an escarpment in France near Arras. The German army captured it at the beginning of the war in 1914. Neither the French nor the British succeeded in taking it back and, as a result, they believed Vimy Ridge to be untakeable.
But on April 9-12, 1917, the Canadian Expeditionary Force captured Vimy Ridge, thanks to "a mixture of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support, and extensive training, as well as the failure of the German Sixth Army to properly apply the German defensive doctrine." (Wikipedia)
Like all such victories, however, Vimy Ridge came at a terrible price -- 3598 Canadian soldiers killed and 7004 wounded. German casualties are unknown but 4000 prisoners of war were taken.
Today, a hundred years later, the landscape of Vimy Ridge is still heavily scarred from the battle, scars which are easily visible in the following aerial photograph. The whole area remains honeycombed with tunnels, trenches, craters and unexploded munitions. As a result, much of the site is closed off for public safety. Only sheep are allowed to wander those spots, in order to graze and keep the grass short.
Vimy Ridge is now dominated by the huge Canadian National Vimy Memorial. Designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Allward, the Memorial is constructed of white limestone bonded to a cast concrete frame and features 20 sculpted figures. Its towering twin pylons represent Canada and its ally France. The Memorial took many years to design and build after World War I. Its purpose is not to glorify war but to memorialize our national grief about the human price of victory.
Our country's grief at the terrible cost of Vimy Ridge and World War I is encapsulated in the central figure of the Memorial -- standing at the front, framed between the twin pylons -- the statue called Canada Bereft. She stands on the high parapet, looking down at the stone sarcophagus of the war dead found at its base. Before her stretches the Vimy battlefield. She is facing east, where each new day dawns.
Designed to evoke the Mater Dolorosa, the grieving mother Mary of Michelangelo's Pieta, Canada Bereft grieves for all time, on sunny days and in the rain, day and night, in summer, winter and all the other seasons of the turning year. The laurels of glory and victory hang forlornly from her hand.
The only personal connection my family has to World War I is a soldier named Charles Walker who was mortally wounded at Vimy Ridge and died about a month after the battle. I will post his story next month on May 8, the centenary of his death.