In April, about 25,000 Canadians came together at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in northern France to honour the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Tim Cook, an author and military historian of the First World War at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, was on hand for the moving memorial.
Of particular significance for Cook were the young Canadians in attendance.
“I knew the 100th anniversary would matter, but I didn’t anticipate 25,000 Canadians going back to Vimy Ridge as they did April 9. That’s really incredible — 12,000 to 14,000 teenagers,” he said.
“What I saw on the 100th was this sense of mourning and grief and loss and these young people talking about the terrible tragedy of it and how this generation of young people sacrificed. But then also pride and this idea of victory and how the Vimy attack and probably the larger war itself changed us in some way.”
Cook was in Saskatoon recently promoting his book, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, and giving a presentation at the University of Saskatchewan as part of the ongoing commemoration of the First World War, in conjunction with the university’s Great War Committee.
The book discusses the battle of 1917, in which Canadians earn the reputation as the most effective fighting machine of the Western Front.
It also describes the 1936 towering monument designed by Canadian architect and sculptor Walter Allward, as well as national and global events leading up to the current day.
Cook said Gen. Alexander Ross, a battalion commander at Vimy Ridge and later head of the Canadian Legion, coined the well-known phrase, “the birth of a nation”.
“It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then … that in those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation,” said Ross.
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson later used the phrase during Canada’s centennial in 1967 and 50th anniversary of Vimy.
“It was the birth of a nation and it is appropriate as we celebrate the centennial anniversary of the creation of our country we should recognize the one event, which above all others leadeth a nation half a century later,” said Pearson.
Cook said Canadians look back on the First World War and Vimy and realize it has become a key event.
“There’s a built-in unity story there because Canadians from across the country were fighting at Vimy for the first time,” he said.
Cook said the quotation provides an opportunity to think about the idea of Vimy as it unfolds over time.
“What does Vimy as the birth of a nation mean and what does it represent?”
Capturing Vimy was an important battle for the First World War and without a doubt for Canada as a nation, which in 1917 was a young dominion of the British Empire.
Canadians won the meticulously planned battle where all other Allied offensives had failed, albeit with high casualties.
The battle was the first and only time during the war that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated on a battlefield as a cohesive formation.
The Canadian Corps, 100,000 strong, suffered 10,602 casualties during the four-day battle. One in 10 soldiers was killed or wounded.
“In fact, the ninth of April, the first day of the battle where we captured most of the ridge, is the single bloodiest day in Canadian military history (3,600 dead),” said Cook.
“We captured it at a terrible cost. That victory was important, but victories don’t always lead to monuments and commemorations. And it wasn’t simply the victory at Vimy that led to this idea of a birth of a nation.”
“Vimy becomes the synthesis for the larger war and if you need to point to something, it’s where we built our monument,” he said. “So the monument is crucial to the Vimy story. It’s this anchor in the Vimy story. It’s the place we go to. It’s the place we return to.
“It would be wrong to claim that Vimy gave birth to our country. Instead I think it would be right to say that Canadians gave birth to Vimy and all that has meant to us as a people over 100 years.”