In the Chamber
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The Battle of Vimy Ridge - A Nation Remembers
Hon. Joseph A. Day: Honourable senators, I would like to join in the debate on this inquiry. I wish to thank Senator Dallaire for bringing this matter to our attention. We will not be here on April 9, which is the actual commemoration date. I welcome the opportunity to support the work that has been done in restoring the Vimy monument and to thank Senator Dallaire for serving on the Vimy Memorial Conservation Advisory Committee.
Senators perform services in many different ways; this is just another example of how they are able to serve and perform worthwhile tasks for the Canadian people. We salute Senator Dallaire for that.
Honourable senators, I ask you to take a moment to view the eight paintings that adorn this Senate chamber. Each of these paintings depicts a scene from the First World War. Destruction, suffering, duty and honour are words that come to mind as I reflect upon these historic works of art. They are prominently displayed here in the Senate and are a constant reminder to us that generations before us gave the last full measure of devotion in the valiant fight to preserve peace and justice.
These paintings were commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook, a well-known New Brunswicker. Before he was made Lord Beaverbrook, which is the name of a small brook near his home in the Miramichi, Sir Max Aitken — New Brunswick born — had planned them as a testimonial and a tribute to the heroism and sacrifice of Canadian soldiers. This booklet is very helpful in that regard and I would commend it to you.
For those who have had an opportunity to visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, my words will do it little justice. Simply put, the monument, which was originally completed in 1936 by Toronto sculptor Walter Allward, is one of the most humbling and awe-inspiring war memorials ever constructed. With its two distinctive towers rising some 70 metres above the farmlands and rolling hills, the Vimy Memorial is a sight that brings to Canadians a sense of patriotism like few others.
Moreover, honourable senators, the figures representing peace, justice, truth and knowledge — as well as the 11,285 trees and shrubs that have been planted surrounding the monument to represent Canadian soldiers who have no known graves — serve as a timeless reminder of what these people fought for and the huge price that was paid for the preservation of peace as we know it today.
On Monday, April 9, 2007, as many as 5,000 young Canadians will travel to Vimy, sponsored by Veterans Affairs and the Government of Canada, for the ceremonies to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the rededication of the restored Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
The thousands of youth travelling to Vimy should be looked upon as an important symbol to the 619,000 Canadian soldiers who served in the First World War. It is through the youth of our country that the stories of tragedy, triumph and heroism will be passed on through the generations. That is why I support wholeheartedly the sending of youth to this rededication.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge marked a profound turning point in the First World War. For the first time, all four Canadian divisions that were fighting in Europe, and which had traditionally fought alongside either their British or French counterparts or were used as reserves to fill gaps in the ranks, fought together under the command of a Canadian general, Major-General Arthur Currie, toward the main objective — the capture of Vimy Ridge from the grips of the enemy.
Because of its elevated position, Vimy Ridge held immense military importance. Its highest point, referred to as Hill 145, rose 470 feet from the fields below, which created a daunting challenge to any force intent on taking control of the position. Indeed, this task proved too much for previous Allied attackers, as the Germans held their positions on Vimy Ridge in the face of Allied attacks for more than two years.
It must be noted, honourable senators, the military control of the ridge was not only important strategically, it was important symbolically. It had been 18 months since the Allied forces had recorded a major military victory, and the morale was low following the devastating losses suffered by Canadians and others at the Battle of the Somme.
This was 1917, three years after the beginning of the war, after young Canadians had long since lost that adventurous spirit they had when they left Canada in 1914. It was after a cold winter of living in the trenches in northern France; 600,000 Allied soldiers had been killed or mutilated on the Somme, 24,000 of whom were Canadians. Lieutenant-General Byng was determined that there should be no repetition of the Somme tragedy that had seen thousands of soldiers with little training and even less experience ordered to advance against German machine-gun fire.
In order to capture this important position, Canadian success depended, among other things, upon inventiveness and creativity. The use of tunnels to transport men and equipment, the ability to store ammunition in proximity to where it was required and the capacity to bring electricity and telecommunications to the forward positions were essential to the success on the battlefield of Vimy Ridge. Digging trenches and tunnels and building miles of underground railways was not glamorous, but they proved to be the vital component of the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge.
In Pierre Berton's book Vimy, he outlines that in December 1916, Lord Byng had given Sir Arthur Currie, his senior divisional commander and most trusted general, two main tasks. First, Currie was to analyze the Battle of the Somme and report on the lessons learned. Second, he was to advise Byng how those lessons might be applied to infantry tactics and training for the Vimy assault.
Following Currie's assessment of the Somme and further assessments of the French battle at Verdun, Byng and Currie decided that every Canadian soldier would be told the details of the attack, with the exception of the date of the attack. As a result, each soldier would have an understanding of his own objectives, as well as the objectives of others.
This type of thinking was revolutionary and meant that, if necessary, a private could replace a corporal and so on. In preparation for the assault on Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Corps distributed 40,000 maps, dealing with the entire assault, so that every section of a group of six to nine men was aware of the objective.
Symbolism can be found in this strategy. Just as the Allied leaders had put their trust in four Canadian divisions to attack Vimy as a unified front, Byng and Currie had put their trust in Canadian soldiers to command themselves responsibly with information that was traditionally not given to the soldier.
Despite these lessons, which had been learned through previous battles, Canadian success at Vimy came at a very high and heavy price. Throughout the four-day assault, there would be more than 10,000 Canadian casualties, of which 3,598 never came home; that is, 3,598 soldiers killed in that battle. These are staggering numbers that most Canadians find difficult to comprehend.
These were young men, many of whom joined the Canadian Forces full of youthful vigour and desire for adventure instead of remaining home to finish high school. They left their families and friends as boys, and they were soon faced with the terrible reality and confusion of global conflict.
I would like to read a stirring account from Pierre Berton's book, which depicts a frightening, yet sobering moment during one young soldier's time at Vimy.
Will Bird, who reached France at the end of December, 1916, spotted his first uncaptured German on the second night of sentry duty. Shivering at his outpost in No Man's Land, the young Nova Scotian could hear the Germans walking about in their trenches (and) coughing in the cold . . . Suddenly a Canadian flare burst in the sky above, bathing the German position in an eerie light. There, standing waist high in the opposing trench, less than a hundred yards away, was a young boy — no more than a teenager. Both men froze as they'd been taught to do when a star shell exploded, but Bird knew the boy had seen him. They stared at each other for a moment, two young men made enemies by forces over which they had no control. Then, suddenly, the German waved at Bird. Some impulse caused Bird to wave back too. The German vanished, and the brief instant of eye contact between the two men ended, but Bird never forgot that moment.
Overwhelmingly, honourable senators, it is those young men, boys even, to whom we must pay tribute 90 years after the battle of Vimy Ridge. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is truly a holy place which must continue to be restored generation after generation. We have an obligation as Canadians to ensure that the stories and memories of the Canadian soldiers who fought during the First World War continue to be told. We have the obligation to repeat the lessons learned during that horrible war, the inhumane conditions that humans were required to endure and the unacceptable price in lives lost that was paid.
On the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.