I've always been a bit of a history buff, but not much of a war buff, and though a pacifist I might be, I think it important to recognize some of the battles of the past if only so we can avoid the horrors of war in the future.
History buff or not, if you're Canadian, you're sure to have heard of the infamous Battle of Vimy Ridge, a battle in which a young nation proved itself to be a formidable force and a dependable ally.
Queen Elizabeth II marked the occasion by praising this country and our sacrifice.
“Today, as people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean gather to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, there will be difficult memories of loss and of suffering, but also memories of many heroic acts of bravery and of sacrifice on the part of those who served. On this day a century ago, thousands of Canadian soldiers stood far from home together with their allies in defence of peace and freedom. They fought courageously and with great ingenuity in winning the strategic high point of Vimy Ridge, though victory came at a heavy cost with more than 10,000 fallen and wounded,” noted the Queen. “As Colonel-in-Chief, Captain General, and Air Commodore-in-Chief of Canadian Armed Forces units, I have often borne witness to the professionalism and dedication, as well as the sense of equality, of respect, of perseverance, of sacrifice and of hope that infuses our military. It is our duty to remember and honour those who served so valiantly and who gave so much here at Vimy Ridge and throughout the First World War.”
During the ceremony held in France, Canada's Governor General David Johnston painted a picture of the day of the battle with some powerful words.
“On this day a century ago, as dawn broke over Vimy Ridge, the morning air suddenly exploded with an unholy roar. The noise has been compared to a physical assault, shattering the quiet of daybreak. It was the deafening sound of a thousand howitzers, field guns, mortars and mines firing together, in unison. It was the sound of 15,000 Canadians charging into battle from tunnels, from trenches and dugouts,” noted the Governor General.
A powerful, horrifying picture indeed.
That Canada's most infamous battle in war happened a century ago is somewhat comforting. While we Canadians proved ourselves very capable of engaging in battle and marching toward victory, we as a nation have largely avoided war in recent decades, and perhaps Vimy is part of the reason – while our victory was an enormous achievement, it came with serious cost: it resulted in thousands of dead and injured Canadian soldiers. We Canadians seem to have taken very seriously the lessons of war, and while we have engaged a time or two, the primary role for our military these days is a role in which we take much pride – peacekeeping.
Our Prime Minister perhaps said it best during his address at the Vimy Memorial on Sunday.
“The sculpture of Canada Bereft is an emblem of a nation’s grief. It’s an emblem of loving care – which evokes also the thousands of Canadian women who bravely answered the call, serving as nurses, or who provided critical support at home,” noted Prime Minister Trudeau. “But this monument is also symbolic of Canada’s birth – and our enduring commitment to peace. As I see the faces gathered here – veterans, caregivers, so many young people – I can’t help but feel a torch is being passed. One hundred years later, we must say this, together. And we must believe it: Never again.”
We talk about freedom a lot in this country. We enjoy our freedom, we value our freedom, and as our Governor General pointed out on Sunday, freedom is the key to peace.
“Above and behind me, extending high into the sky over us, behold the towering twin pylons of the Vimy Monument. See how they soar so boldly above us. Those spires symbolize the enduring friendship between Canada and France, underscored by the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who helped liberate this country in war. Those spires stand for peace and for freedom,” the Governor General explained. “They stand for justice and hope. And they remind us that one cannot exist without the other. Without freedom, there can be no peace. Because freedom without peace is agony, and peace without freedom is slavery.”
Remembering Vimy isn't about politics, it isn't about glorifying war, it's about peace, it's about freedom. It's about remembering that the peace and freedom we in Canada know today came with a heavy cost, paid largely with the blood of our young soldiers.