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 Prince Edward Island. 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.
Looking back over the First World War, the word "stalemate" was used with good reason to describe fighting on the Western Front. For four years, little changed apart from the casualty figures. Hundreds of thousands of troops died on both sides of that ridge, before the Nova Scotia Highlanders took the crest in 1917. It was a war of inches — won, lost and won again.
Those four years of unnecessary conflict, however, resulted in the disappearance of four empires and the devastation of two others, killed millions and set the stage for the rise of fascism and communism, the horrors of the Second World War and everything (good and bad) that has followed since.
For me, the historians’ debate misses the point of why we remember the battle for Vimy Ridge and what those Canadians — including my Nova Scotia Highlanders — accomplished that day in 1917. The monument displays the personal grief of a small country whose families were torn apart by a war that they did not want or start. It marks the resting place of those who did not come back, but it does not celebrate their sacrifice "to king and country." Its dedication in 1936 was the final act of a long funeral service, just as the war clouds gathered again in Europe.
Funerals are never for the dead. They are for the living, to strengthen and renew the bonds of the relationships they share that death, once again, has threatened. The Vimy Ridge site is a reminder to the living of the futility of war; the price that is paid by ordinary people for the folly of leaders whose egos outstripped their understanding and their wit; the desire for peace and compassion in the world; and the ultimate triumph of life over death. That is what we should remember on April 9.
Every generation has its defining struggle, its great work. Ours will not be measured by winning inches of dirt, as it was in 1917, but by changing how we live together, one person at a time, so there is justice for all living things. The spirit of those ordinary Canadians who charged forward on that Easter Monday is just as desperately needed today, as we struggle to live in a climate-changing world dominated by leaders who are as blind to their own folly now as they were in 1914.
Which empires will fall over the next four years still remains to be seen, but there will either be a sustainable future for all — or for none.
Peter Denton is adjunct associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada.