As the sun rises on Vimy Ridge on Sunday, thousands of Canadians will be there to commemorate the centenary of the assault that some say forged a nation. The soaring marble statuary that dominates the skyline, just as the ridge dominated the battlefield, has come to mean more than its creators intended.
Or so the story goes. Debates rage among historians about the actual importance of the battle, or about how the memorial (and its significance) have grown over time to serve less noble purposes in the propaganda wars of another era.
For me, the battle for Vimy Ridge is personal. The unit that — without the promised artillery barrage — climbed out of their trenches and took the summit of the ridge on Hill 145 was the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Its second-in-command was my grandmother’s cousin, Major James Layton Ralston, a lawyer and politician from Amherst, Nova Scotia. The officer commanding “C” Company, who made the decision to go forward, according to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, was Captain Harvey Crowell, a friend of my grandparents whom I met once, when I was 12. A small man, he was an accountant.
For me, the mythology of Vimy Ridge is thus not about its importance as a battle or the magnificent monument to the sacrifice of a nation. It is about a small group of ordinary Canadians — miners, loggers, fishermen — understrength because of illness, inexperienced in battle and used to fetch, carry and dig, led by lawyers and bookkeepers — and sneered at as “the Highlanders without kilts” — who simply got the job done when the professional soldiers could not.
No doubt my Nova Scotian roots are showing, but it is the same attitude that the young nation demonstrated throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during the Depression and in the darkest days of the Second World War, too. Scattered across the Canadian countryside are small churches with large memorial plaques, showing how many men went to war. The stars next to the names of those who did not come back are silent memorials to the sacrifices made by those who sent them, too.
The futility of such a sacrifice was not something that people realized only afterward. Everyone who was there knew exactly how little it all meant. They fought to end the war, not to win it.