In 1914, Canada’s population was 7.2 million people. Montreal was the financial capital of Canada with a population of 470,000. Toronto was a centre of manufacturing with a population 376,000. Winnipeg was Western Canada’s boom town and ranked in third with a population 136,000. Roughly 80% of the population were British. Canada became a country in 1886 yet was not fully independent of the British Empire.
My grandmother on my mother’s side emigrated from Pirbright, England in the early part of the 20th century. I can’t imagine the boat ride on the North Atlantic or the train ride through the wilderness of Ontario from Montreal to the wheat fields of Brandon Manitoba. Her brother immigrated to Australia some time before 1914.
In 1914, the world was at war on a scale of unimaginable global reach, death and casualties. Some 424,000 men and women or 5% of Canada’s population served in the Canadian Expeditionary force. Visit any place from the smallest hamlet to our major cities, at least one Cenotaph and countless memorials stand in silent memory of the 60,000 Canadian soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice. The war affected all families. Imagine your neighborhood, condo or apartment block where all your male school chums, brothers, cousins, best friends and neighbours had vanished.
Vimy – a name burned into the souls of all Canadians.
Located 8km north east of the northern French city of Arras and 175 km North West of Paris, Vimy Ridge occupied a strategic location providing the Germans a clear view of the Douai plain and protected its valuable coal fields.
Three German Sixth Army divisions composed of 40,000 troops occupied the ridge in underground concrete fortifications. The French and British had failed on previous assaults to take Vimy Ridge at a cost of over 150,000 casualties.
The Canadian Corps composed of four Canadian divisions was given the task of capturing Vimy Ridge. The Corps strength was 97,000 Canadian and 77,000 British soldiers. For the first time the Canadians fought as a singular combat unit.
On a snowy Easter Monday, April 9, 1917 at 5:30 AM sharp, the Battle of Vimy Ridge opened with the thunder of 1,000 artillery pieces and incessant rattle of machine guns. A total of 1.6 million artillery shells were allocated to the offensive. The assault by 20,000 soldiers over a 6.4 km front by the Canadian Corp was underway.
Under the command of Canadian Lt. Gen Arthur Currie and British field Marshall Byng, the Canadian assault was a masterwork of tactics, planning and preparation Canadian troops were dug in subterranean fortresses to the front. The assault on the ridge was conducted using a precisely timed wall of artillery shells enabling soldiers to walk behind the wall to their objective. The command structure was divided into small units which did not rely on a central command structure. Aircraft provided aerial reconnaissance and assault roles. New technologies enabled the aircraft to communicate with the ground. A key tactic was to take ground held by the Germans and focus on defeating their counter attack.
The assault continued through the day with all objectives taken except the 4th Division’s capture of the highest point of the ridge. The ridge was finally taken on March 12 with the majority of objectives achieved on the day of the battle. The cost – 3,000 Canadian soldiers dead and 7,000 wounded. The German sixth army took 20,000 casualties.
After Vimy, the dynamic of WWI changed from Trench Warfare to set pieces. Canada and Australia played a major role in the use of mechanised warfare at the Battle Amiens to bring about the defeat of the German army leading to the cessation of hostilities at 11 AM on November 11, 1918.
The psyche of the country after the war is hard to fathom. The sorrow of the nation captured in Samuel Barber’s Adagio and powerful memorials in the honour for those who gave their life for our freedom. Let the names “Passchendaele”, “The Somme”, “Cambrai”, “Beumont Hamel”, “Mons” and “Vimy” be remembered.
Dig into your family tree – there is likely a soldier who was in the Great War. Discover his life story. Take a moment to visit a memorial and read the names of the fallen. Bless them for making Canada the great country that it became. Time may march on but we will not forget them.