Vimy, Then and Now

I remember, when I was eleven years old, meeting a nice little old man over lunch one day in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.  My father, my grandmother and I had driven to Acadia University for the dedication and inaugural concert at Denton Hall, the new music building named for my grandfather, Harvey.

At lunch, he was sitting at a neighbouring table, so we went over and I was introduced.  Apart from the awkward attention I received posing for photos by the dedicatory plaque, the encounter with this little old man is the only clear memory I have of the occasion to this day.

His name also was Harvey, he told me.  He had been a good friend of my grandfather, and was pleased to meet his grandson. He also wanted me to know how much my grandfather had meant to so many people.

Afterward, when I asked about this little old man, I was told he was a long-time friend of the family, had worked as an accountant and had helped to get the building named after Grandpa.

Only years later, and thanks to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, did I learn that ninety-five years ago this Easter Monday morning, then-Captain Harvey Crowell had led “C” Company of the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders out of the trenches on the left flank to begin the final assault that captured Vimy Ridge.

The promised artillery barrage to lead the way did not materialize.  The men were standing in mud and water, loaded down with weapons, ammunition, and supplies, and the hour was at hand.  Without the barrage, the assault should have been just as disastrous as hundreds before had been, especially attacking uphill against German positions that had remained impregnable for most of the war.

Crowell stood up and signaled for the attack to begin anyway, and his company led the way.  Captain Percy Anderson, when he saw Crowell’s men moving, signaled his company on the right flank to move, and both groups (who had never seen battle before) stormed up the hill and well past their objectives straight into what has been called the defining moment in the history of Canada as a nation.

Whether it was a sense of duty, of determination or of some other kind of resolve, Crowell’s courageous choice was mirrored by that of his men and the other Nova Scotia Highlanders that day.   Shortly after the assault began, Crowell was hit in the shoulder by an explosive bullet, but carried on with his men to maintain control of the ground they had won.

They had literally accomplished the impossible.   According to Berton, two hundred men from the battalion were still sick with the mumps in England, so it was under strength as well as inexperienced.  At the front, they had never fought in a battle, instead providing support through digging trenches, hauling ammunition and supplies, and guarding prisoners of war.

The success of these green troops (who accomplished what the professional warriors had not) was due in large part to their training by Crowell and their battalion commanders, one of whom was battalion adjutant, Major James Layton Ralston.

The Canadians before Vimy had gone through planning and training that was unique to that point in the War.  While historians might like to debate the point, you could say this training was the result of the new ideas and fresh perspectives of outsiders.  They were committed to getting the job done in the best way with the fewest casualties and cared little for the way things had always been done before.

Like the rest of his battalion, Ralston was not a professional warrior.  He was a lawyer and provincial politician, re-elected in 1916 as he headed for war in Europe.  Trained by a lawyer and led by an accountant, the Nova Scotia Highlanders just got the job done.   Those who survived Vimy and the rest of the Great War then put down their weapons, returned home, and went back to serving their communities in other ways.

As Harvey is my middle name, my father’s is also a family name — Ralston.  Cousin to my grandmother, James Layton Ralston went on to become Canada’s Minister of National Defence from 1940-1944, resigning over Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s refusal to enact conscription to reinforce under strength Canadian units at war in Europe.

There are few left who can remember even dimly that Easter Monday morning ninety-five years ago – my grandmother was nine, living in rural New Brunswick, and can’t recall it – so we are not able to count on memory any more.

But the facts of what happened that day are shaded by the people who were there.  For me, Vimy is not about military triumph or turning points in the war.  It is about that nice little old man, who took the time to encounter an eleven-year-old boy because it was an important moment for him.

I learned other stories about him, demonstrating what happened that day was a life-pattern, not an accident. When my grandmother (in her sixties) finally graduated from Acadia — though class of 1930, she had to withdraw to fight tuberculosis — Harvey Crowell was Chairman of the Board of Governors. As she knelt down on the stool to receive her degree, careful of her arthritic knees, he leaned over and said (with an open mike) “Oh, bless your dear heart!” for all Convocation to hear.

What took those men out of the trenches when they had every reason not to go or to falter once the assault began, was something more than training or determination.  It was the relationships that they had shared before the War swept them up, the relationships that they had created as a group through their experiences, including the training.

The ability to encounter other people, to recognize that moment of Presence in which time is set aside, leads to relationships no amount of calculation can construct and to possibilities no one can begin to predict.

Harvey Crowell obviously had that ability, because I experienced it.  I suspect my grandmother’s cousin did, too.

When we look at the impossible struggles of our own time, those insurmountable problems that experts have been unable to solve, I find both hope and strength in what future generations will describe as “ordinary people.”  Were I to suggest to my Canadian Forces students they should be trained by lawyers and politicians, and led into battle by accountants, incredulity quickly would be followed by unanimous hilarity.

We have become so accustomed to underestimating ourselves and other people who lack the title of “expert” that we fail to see the resources we have at hand for solving the problems we face.  The answers are not to be found in the numbers – though numbers matter, as accountants would be quick to agree.  The answers are also not to be found in laws and legalities – though law and legality matter, as lawyers and politicians would be quick to agree.

The answers are to be found in that moment of decision Harvey Crowell confronted ninety-five years ago on an Easter Monday morning, in his courage to do what he knew needed to be done, and in the relationships he had with the men who were watching for his leadership and trusted it.

Heroism is found in many more places than on a battlefield.  Many of the battles we fight have nothing to do with the scenery of war.  But it is our personal resolve, our individual resolution to do what is needed, not for ourselves but for the greater good — to accomplish what the world needs us to do in that moment – this is what changes history.

It was that same resolve, founded on the relationships he had with a later generation of Canada’s soldiers, sailors and airmen, that James Layton Ralston demonstrated in leading Canada through the darkest days of the Second World War in his role as Minister of National Defence.  His refusal to abandon those relationships led to his resignation and a slide into personal obscurity, but that would not have mattered as much as the integrity of his choices to support his men as they had always supported him.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge shaped the character of Canada only because it emerged out of the character of Canadians, whether they were there or at home.

The Canada whose character we shape today emerges from who we are, individually and in relationship with other people both at home and around the world.

What we choose, matters. 

Why we choose it, matters more.