5:30 came and a great light lit the place, a light made up of innumerable flickering tongues, which appeared from the void and extended as far to the south as the eye could see, a light which rippled and lit the clouds in that moment of silence before the crash and thunder of the battle smote the senses. Then the Ridge in front was wreathed in flame as the shells burst, confining the Germans to their dugouts while our men advanced to the assault.
– Private Lewis Duncan to his aunt Sarah, April 17, 1917 (as found in Vimy by Pierre Burton)
Beginning yesterday, Canadians are commemorating the historic Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. Being able to take this patch of land – the best defended German position on the Western Front, where British and French armies had failed – was a huge accomplishment for the four divisions of the Canadian Corps. In April 1917, it had been not quite 50 years since Confederation, and Canadians have always seen this victory as a “coming of age” for our country.
And an expensive coming of age it was – 3 598 perished in four days of fighting, while another 7 000 were wounded. With the Canadian population sitting at about eight million at the time, the losses in the battle were overwhelming.
In a gesture of gratitude after the First World War, the French government gifted land that included Hill 145 to Canada. The Canadian government, with architect Walter Allward, set about building a national memorial for the 11 285 Canadian soldiers lost in France who have no known grave. This magnificent memorial has captured the imaginations of Canadians for almost a century, and many citizens consider seeing the Vimy memorial a “bucket list” item, or a pilgrimage experience.
How does Vimy fit into the classroom? History and geography are obvious. In the lead up to Remembrance Day in the fall, my students chose soldiers from Saskatchewan who were lost in the war, used primary sources to get to know them, and then wrote tributes about the men to share with our school community. Our “Bring the Boys Home” project made men who’d been dead for 100 years very real for my group of 12 and 13 year old students.
We were also fortunate to be able borrow a “Giant Floor Map” from Canadian Geographic. Being able to “walk” the Western Front, get an idea of the location of the well-known battle sites, and visualize the topography, contributed to a better understanding of the First World War.
Other than the obvious history and geography content, talk of Vimy is also a good jumping off point for conversations on topics that range from the meaning of sacrifice to the importance of relationships between people and countries. My students and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we behave in everyday life, and about the leaders we choose, and how those actions can make a difference so that a tragedy of the magnitude of a world war never happens again.
We will remember them.
We will remember them by keeping the peace they gave their lives for.
We will remember them when we work together for the greater good.
We will remember them when we treat others with respect and caring.
We will remember them.