Vimy Revisited

A WWI re-enactor, great-nephew of a soldier, reflects on the battle’s meaning for his generation and the consequences of the war to end all wars.

On our last evening we gathered for one final act of remembrance. The remaining volunteers of the Great War Project, all of us descendants of World War I soldiers and nurses, formed a circle around a small burning pyre. Into the fire we each placed a cross from the cemetery beside our camp, each of which bore the name of one of our ancestors. As the crosses burned, we stood in silent union broken only by the sound of ceremonial bagpipes. The ritual was the culmination of two weeks of living, eating, and sleeping in the manner of our soldier-ancestors. Now we took one final moment together to remember our departed relatives and ponder the horror they faced in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium.

Two weeks earlier, in July 2006, we had arrived in St-Bruno-de-Montarville, Quebec, thirty kilometres east of Montreal, to participate in The Great War, a four-hour series on Canada’s military efforts in World War I set to air this spring on CBC on the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Along with professional actors, 150 volunteers (myself included) had been invited by veteran CBC director Brian McKenna to take on the role of our ancestors who had fought in the war. Combining documentary, drama, re-enactment, and reality TV, the series is intended to help today’s Canadians understand the horrors of World War I. We spent those two weeks participating in the re-creation of the battles at Ypres, Courcelette, Beaumont-Hamel, Vimy, and Passchendaele. Along the way, we learned that filmmaking and war making are surprisingly similar. But more importantly, we realized, as we struggled to find our own meaning of the war, that Canada’s story was being passed on to a new generation of Canadians — scars, and all.

War in 1914 ignited a flurry of activity in Canada. From across the country, recruits for the first Canadian contingent poured into Valcartier, Quebec. When they arrived they found a country ill prepared for war. Equipment was late to arrive and discipline was suspect. “The result, after the tents went up and the raw recruits arrived was chaos,” notes Pierre Berton in Marching as to War. Whether by design or not, our own arrival in St-Bruno probably mirrored that of the Canadians more than any other part of our campaign. For the first few days we lacked equipment, ate half or quarter rations, and marched during the time in-between. Awaiting us was a film-set front, whereas the Canadians of 1914 crossed the North Atlantic to England, France, and Belgium.

From the time of their arrival, the Canadians were thrown directly into the fight. Arriving in the trenches in early 1915, the Canadian army faced a major German gas assault at the Second Battle of Ypres, the first such attack on the Western Front. The Canadians suffered heavy casualties, more than six thousand, but kept the German assault from fracturing the Entente lines. In the following months, the Canadian Expeditionary Force slowly grew from a single division to a corps of four divisions. Each division would see action over the course of 1916, and names such as Mount Sorrel, Courcelette, and Regina Trench would be added to the Canadians’ battle role.

During this time, young Canadians entered the line of trenches that now stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. It is difficult to imagine what that experience would have been like, that first long evening alone in the trenches guarding a muddy piece of forsaken land.

Awoken shortly after lights out one night, we were rushed up to the trenches that had been created for The Great War. There, we spent one night on guard against a possible German attack in the cold and mud that replicated Flanders and France. Throughout the night, the Germans, holding their own line roughly 200 yards away, would let off blank rounds to remind us of their presence; we would respond in kind. No attack came that night, but we all felt we had experienced something that brought us closer to our great-grandfathers and great-uncles. Of course we rose shortly after dawn to face cameras and a film crew, spared an artillery barrage or worse.

By the end of 1916, the Canadians had withdrawn from the bloody battles of the Somme, leaving more than 24,000 casualties behind. Together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions gathered in the shadow of Vimy Ridge, a geographic fortress that had twice swallowed British and French attacks and sent them reeling back to their own lines. Roughly eight kilometres long, the ridge rises slowly from west to east — the same direction from which the Canadians would advance — to its peak 110 metres above the surrounding lowland. From its highest point, Hill 145, where the Vimy Memorial now stands, an observer can see for miles across to the Douai Plain to the French city of Lens. A key part of the German defensive system in 1917, Vimy Ridge continues to dominate the landscape today.

The question for the commander of the Canadian Corps, British general Sir Julian Byng, was how to capture and hold this formidable feature. In January 1917, Byng and Canadian general Arthur Currie set out to accomplish this. Currie was sent south as the Canadian Corps representative to study the French positions around Verdun. During the previous year, the Germans and French had each suffered close to half a million casualties fighting over the French fortifications at Verdun. Now, Currie was instructed to find the lessons from the bloodbath that would propel the Canadians to victory at Vimy. He noted the importance of properly training all troops, issuing clear maps, and giving soldiers direct objectives with specific results. The effectiveness of these lessons would be driven home at Vimy.

Advances in artillery also improved the Canadians’ chances at Vimy. At the Somme, months of shelling had failed to suppress the enemy or cut gaps in the barbed wire fields guarding their positions. Soldiers were now able to advance as closely as possible behind a “creeping barrage” of exploding shells and pounce on the enemy before they could recover and man their positions. A new fuse was also developed that exploded on contact with the barbed wire, clearing the way for advancing troops, allowing them to stay on schedule. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew McNaughton worked extensively to locate and identify German artillery positions. By watching and listening for artillery gun blasts, McNaughton’s gunners were able to triangulate the positions of many concealed German emplacements. Almost 70 percent of the German guns were knocked out before Canadian soldiers ever set foot across no man’s land.

In the hours before the attack, the Canadian soldiers huddled in the trenches above ground and in thousands of mines dug through the chalk under the ridge. They passed the time writing letters home, going over lastminute briefings, joining in Easter prayer services, and making final preparations. An evening of film shooting brought us underground to the Capleton Copper Mine Museum, just outside Sherbrooke, to re-enact these tense moments. While there, I reminisced with Stephen Workman, a doctor from Halifax. His great-uncle Donald Ross spent the eve of the Vimy attack lying in the mud and snow, writing in a letter home that the “future did not look very bright to any of us.” Private Ross was “shot thru the foot” crossing no man’s land but managed to make it across and jump into an enemy trench. Immediately confronted by German soldiers, he engaged in close combat, using his rifle as a club after firing all his rounds of ammunition. Ross survived the attack and recuperated from his foot wound in England, returning to the front at the end of August 1918. He was killed in action on September 2, 1918.

The stories shared during the many hours of training and filming brought together Canadians from all walks of life. In my own small unit, descendants came from as far west as Victoria and as far east as Miramichi. Together we had a Gemini award winner, a rock star, high-school and university students, construction workers, and salesmen.

The stories we shared revealed both the day-to-day life of the soldier and the horrific realities of war. Doug Trevors, a stay-at-home father of three, enjoyed recounting the story of his great-great-uncle receiving a dozen eggs shipped all the way from Canada with only one cracked. “We cooked them in the trenches,” Earl MacDonald excitedly wrote home to his family. Stories of everyday life were tempered by his meeting with French citizens liberated from German occupation during the final hundred days of the war. MacDonald wrote about a husband and wife whose daughters had been taken away:

He was very quiet and didn’t say much,but the old lady
kept sobbing half the time and talking away partly to
herself and partly to us. Pretty near every one of our
boys had tears in their eyes while they tried to comfort
her.Well, you know that a lot of our boys can speak
French, so we have no trouble finding out things. This
was last Sunday morning and it has been the same
thing every day since.

As much as putting on the uniform and re-enacting the battles, our great-grandfathers’ and great-uncles’ stories helped us understand the life of the soldier and the intense moments of terror the Canadian Corps faced on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1917.

At exactly 5:30 a.m. an incredible explosion rocked every soldier for miles around Vimy Ridge. Right on cue, more than one thousand artillery pieces opened fire on the German positions. The barrage hammered the front German lines and began slowly creeping up the ridge. All four Canadian divisions rose from the trenches and their underground positions and moved closely behind their artillery. Within the first thirty minutes the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions had smashed the German front lines. Careful coordination insured that fresh troops were immediately brought forward to continue as the artillery barrage moved on. Only the 4th Division struggled to meet its objectives, held up by heavily defended Hill 145 and a land feature known as “The Pimple.” Heavy fighting and a second push ensured that both were in Canadian hands by April 12, securing Vimy Ridge for the remainder of the war. Canadians had risen shoulder to shoulder from across the country and participated in a stunning military display that established their reputation as one of the most formidable units on the Western Front.

The war continued for another year and a half of hard fighting. A few months after Vimy, Arthur Currie would lead the Canadians to victory at Hill 70, overlooking the city of Lens, which would be captured shortly after. It was the first time the Canadian Corps had fought under the command of a Canadian, and the casualties were similar to those at Vimy. One of the roughly nine thousand casualties was my great-uncle Harvey Tiffin. Part of the 107th Battalion, Canadian Pioneers, he was working to remove bodies from the battlefield when his company was assaulted with mustard gas shells. While he and the eighty-four men of his company gassed that night were not fighting the battle that some would call the birth of the nation, it does not make their experience any less real. His family had already lost one son, my great-uncle’s nephew, killed in the weeks between Vimy and Hill 70 at the age of nineteen. My greatuncle was lucky; he would live a long life, even if he never fully healed from the scars of that August night.

By 1918, the Canadians were among the most experienced and qualified formations in Europe. During the last year of the war they would play a leading role in pushing back the German army until the armistice was called on November 11, 1918. Sadly, for most Canadians, these achievements have been largely forgotten. As Canadian historian Shane Schreiber notes in Shock Army of the British Empire, “the victories of the 100 days have languished unappreciated in the shadow of the Canadian Corps’ earlier and more publicized victory at Vimy Ridge in April of 1917.” However important the whole of Canada’s war effort was, Vimy quickly became a singularly powerful event — an iconic victory that helped Canadians find meaning in a war that took the lives of thousands of young men.

Why is Vimy still important today? The Great War by Brian McKenna, I think, will reinforce the idea that Canada as a nation was created on that snowy April morning. On the other hand, Pierre Berton, while acknowledging the achievement of Canadians at Vimy, argues that no great moment in a country’s history should ever be celebrated if it involves the slaughter of so many soldiers on either side. Though ninety years have passed and only two Canadian veterans of the Great War remain alive, these views still contend. This moment in The Great War best sums it up for me: As part of the filming, we, the greatgrandsons and grand-nephews of those who fought, were asked to stand on “Vimy Ridge” after re-enacting the battle and shout “Vive le Canada!” in celebration of the Canadian victory. Some answered the call with excitement and enthusiasm. But others resisted, doubting, despite McKenna’s insistence, that their ancestors ever performed such an ardent act, concerned that this cinematic device glorified war. The result was eerily muted — a reflection, perhaps, of the number of ancestors being represented who were killed or maimed during the battle.

I responded with mixed feelings. There is no doubt in my mind that Vimy and Canada’s participation in World War I is a pivotal moment in our history. Even today, however, we continue to struggle with the harsh reality of war. Our focus on death and remembrance often directs our attention to the violence that was received rather than the violence that was dispensed. At the Great War Project, I “died” at every major battle, but not once did I “kill” anyone. As French historians Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker describe in their study 14–18, “it is easier, however painful, to accept the idea that one’s grandfather or father was killed in combat than that he might have killed others.”

By the end of the war the Canadians were one of the most respected and professional fighting units on the Western Front because of their ability to kill and thoroughly destroy their enemy. The effects of the violence administered by Canadians are still as profound as the effects of the violence they endured, both of which were felt as we revisited the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Of course, re-enacting battles can never, thankfully, bring us close to the full experience of the Great War. None of the participants in the project ever believed that they truly underwent what actually happened in the trenches. What we had was a unique chance to share stories of our ancestors, endure a bit of the everyday life of a soldier, and reflect, as we did that last evening around the burning pyre at St-Bruno, on the consequences of this war.

— Text by Joel Ralph

This article originally appeared in The Beaver, April-May 2007.