November 11, 2005

"It will be one of the biggest things in Canadian history"

When the Germans retreated from Paris in 1914 and the battle lines stabilized, they held Vimy Ridge in northern France, a 14-kilometer long stretch of high ground near the town of Arras. This was a powerful position, supported by a network of trenches, tunnels, and natural caves; machine-gun and artillery emplacements; and a light rail supply line. The ridge was thought by Allied commanders to be impregnable: British and French forces had lost 150,000 men trying to take it.

Then the Canadians came on the scene in 1916. They rehearsed on a full-scale mockup of the ridge so that they knew what they could expect from the enemy. Tunnels were excavated to move Canadian troops and ammunition out of view of the Germans. No operation on the Western Front was more thorougly planned than the assault on Vimy Ridge.

Starting on April 2, 1917, the Canadians began a shock-and-awe campaign against the Germans: an intense artillery battering in which a million shells were launched. It was the largest barrage in history to date, and it is said that the noise could be heard in London.

Then in the early morning of April 9 - Easter Monday - in the freezing cold in the middle of a snowstorm, under the command of Field Marshal Julian Byng and his subordinate, General Arthur Currie, the first wave of 20,000 Canadian soldiers advanced on Vimy Ridge behind a rolling barrage. By the end of the day, the Canadian Expeditionary Force had achieved the impossible: they had taken Vimy Ridge. All of their objectives had been achieved by April 12. The most significant of these objectives were the near-miraculous taking of Hill 145, the highest and best-defended ground on the Ridge, by the inexperienced 85th Battalion against overwhelming odds; and the capture of Hill 120, known as The Pimple, the northernmost hill of the ridge from which German machine-gun fire threatened the Canadians' left flank.

The battle of Vimy Ridge was of limited strategic value. In fact, it was but one skirmish in a larger operation, intended as a diversion while the British and French attacked the Germans elsewhere. The British and French commanders were not optimistic that it would succeed. In the end, Vimy Ridge was the one resounding success amidst failure. But it was not without cost: 3,598 Canadian soldiers were killed and over 7,000 injured.

It is said that Canada became a nation on April 9, 1917: not that our political situation changed, but because the Canadian Expeditionary Force ceased on that day to be a colonial army. At Vimy Ridge, Canada took its place amongst the great nations of the world. Four Victoria Crosses were given to Canadian heroes because of their valour at Vimy. In no other battle before or since have as many of the British Commonwealth's highest honour been awarded.

Today the Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands atop Hill 145, on 250 hectares of land granted in perpetuity to Canada by France. Its massive twin spires are a tribute to all who died serving their country during the First World War. Upon the memorial are inscribed the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in France but have no known gravesite.

Private Percy Winthrop McClare, my grandfather's second cousin, is one of those names.

Winnie McClare was part of the 24th Battalion. Their objective - met in about 30 minutes - was to push through to the Germans' second line. Winnie made it through the battle with only a minor shrapnel wound. Writing home a week later, he said that "[i]t was some battle and I am glad to say that I was through it, as it will be one of the biggest things in Canadian history." It was.

Sadly, that was Winnie's last letter home. He was one of 31 soldiers who died in a German attack on the French village of Acheville, just east of Vimy Ridge, on May 5, 1917. He had been at the front for less than a month. He was 19.

World War I was 90 years ago. That is enough time for me to have lived my life nearly three times over. It is certainly long enough for the sacrifice of thousands to become less "real" and more an abstract historic fact. At this time last year, Canada had eight surviving veterans of the war. Today, there are five, and their average age is 105; this is the first year since 1919 that no WWI vets were present at the national remembrance ceremony in Ottawa. As they pass on, World War I becomes more abstract. Digging up this little bit of family history over the last year has gone a long way toward making the war real for me. We remember best what is closest to us.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Notes

I've let the letters of Winnie McClare stand on their own for dramatic purposes; it's time to give credit where due. All letters are taken from Intimate Voices from the First World War, edited by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis (New York: Morrow - HarperCollins, 2003). This book collects personal accounts of WWI from letters, diaries, and eyewitness accounts. Thirteen different countries on both sides of the war are represented.

I have preserved spelling, punctuation, etc. as printed. The editors cite as their source The Letters of a Young Canadian Soldier During WW1, ed. Dale McClare (Dartmouth, NS: Brook House, 1999).

Private P. W. McClare is also memorialized on page 279 of the First World War Book of Remembrance displayed in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.