I’m not surprised that a new survey conducted by Ipsos for the Vimy Foundation has found that less than half (47 per cent) of Canadians knew that the Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought during the First World War, while two-in-five erroneously believed that it was fought during the Second World War. Another 10 per cent thought that Vimy Ridge is a Canadian mountain range or ski slope that was used for practices leading up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
Still, 82 per cent did know that it was a famous battle in which Canadians fought bravely.
“While it is encouraging that a clear majority of the country recognizes the important place the victory holds in our history,” said Jeremy Diamond, the director of the Vimy Foundation, “it is troubling that we are seeing a significant level of confusion among Canadians related to Vimy.
“However,” he added, “the foundation sess an opportunity to further educate and engage millions of Canadians as we countdown to the centennial in 2017.”
Vimy Ridge is the story of ordinary Canadians doing the extraordinary. Typical of those who fought was Peter Gisli Thompson from Gimli. The only son of immigrants Gisli Magnus and Monika Helga Thompson, he left the family farm homestead at Krossi (the Crossing in English), leaving it in the care of his widowed mother (Peter’s father died in 1908) and his four sisters, and travelled to Winnipeg, where Peter enlisted on January 28, 1916, at age 26.
Like all the privates at the time who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Peter received a meagre $1 a day to fight — and possibly die — for his country. From this lowly wage, Peter sent home $15 a month to his mother to ensure his family’s well-being while he was in the army.
Overseas in France, Peter was with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders when the attack on Vimy Ridge began.
“There it lay, facing Canadian lines — a low, seven-mile escarpment of sullen grey, rising softly from the plain below,” wrote author Pierre Berton in his book Vimy when describing what confronted the Canadians on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, “rising softly from the plain below, a monotonous spine of mud, churned into a froth of shellfire, devoid of grass or foliage, lacking colour or detail, every inch of its slippery surface pitted or pulverized by two years of constant pounding. At first glance it didn’t seem very imposing, but those who knew its history and looked ahead to that moment when they must plough forward ... toward that ragged crest aflame with gunfire, it took on an aura both dark and sinister.”
Our soldiers who took on the “dark and sinister” ridge were said to have entered the battle as colonials, but emerged with a new sense of nationhood, succeeding when so many others had failed. During the years of bitter fighting since the start of the war, tens of thousands of French and British troops perished at the approaches to 135-metre-high Vimy Ridge.
Using new and imaginative tactics, a strategy emerged that within three days allowed Canadian soldiers to accomplish what others had failed to do in three years. In fact, by mid-day April 9, three of the four Canadian divisions engaged in the battle reached their objectives.
The difference between Canadian and British troops, who were used to a rigid class and command structure, was that the Canadians were flexible in their tactics and they were well-trained, well-led and driven by a commitment to learning, according to Brig.-Gen. William Griesbach who was with the Ist Brigade at Vimy.
Most of the tactics had been tried piecemeal by other armies, but it was the Canadians under British General Sir Julian Byng who combined past lessons into an overall strategy.
Sir Arthur Currie, the second-in-command during the attack (he made a report to Byng of new tactics that should be employed), was another typical Canadian who fought in the war — he had been a school teacher and a real estate agent. He had no combat experience other than serving as a “Saturday Soldier” in the Canadian militia. The men who fought under him were, for the most part, young men like Peter, or even teenagers.
Canadian gunners perfected the use of a “creeping barrage” that went before the troops at 100-metre intervals every three minutes, keeping the German troops off guard as the Canadians went forward.
In addition, each and every soldier knew their objective and had maps with their objectives laid out, a clear departure the British practice of reserving battle plans for officers. Currie made this innovation so that the death of an officer would not impede the advance by leaving the troops rudderless on the battlefield. Even a lowly private would be able to take over the charge if necessary.
On the last day of the historic battle, Brig.-Gen. Edward Hilliam, an Alberta rancher, would lead his men onward to take Hill 145 — better known to the troops as “the Pimple” — the last enemy stronghold. His report following the battle was signed, Lord Pimple. In a war where success was measured by mere metres, the Canadians had advanced a staggering 4,095 metres — the greatest Allied advance to that point.
“I am glad to say that I was through it, as it will be one of the biggest things in Canadian history,” wrote Medical officer Harold McGill to his fiancee.
The victory at Vimy Ridge was called by a Paris newspaper, “Canada’s Easter gift to France.” In gratitude, the French in 1922 would donate the 91-hectares at Vimy Ridge in perpetuity to Canada.
Today, a massive monument in recognition of the Canadian success stands on Hill 145.
Following Vimy Ridge, other Allied forces began to see Canadians not as members of the British contingent, but as a distinct national force.
At home, Canadians shared in the pride of their soldiers. Vimy Ridge would for years be remembered with celebrations on April 9 commemorating the Canadian triumph.
The victory was costly. The Canadian army suffered 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded, including Peter from Gimli, who on the first day of the battle received a shrapnel wound and was taken to a French hospital. Later, he would be transferred to an English hospital where it took months for him to recover.
Canada’s new sense of nationhood was won through the untimely death of many of its finest citizens. Some 60,000 Canadians fell on foreign soil during the so-called “War to end all Wars.”
“This is Good Friday, and I am spending the day girding myself for action. For our Easter Sunday, with peace on earth and good will towards men, I take part in the greatest battle in Canada’s history ... So this is to say farewell in case I go down,” wrote Lieut. Gregory Clark to his father. Unlike so many others, Clark, awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the assault on Vimy Ridge, survived the war, as did my grandfather Peter Gisli Thompson.