By Tom Dercola
It’s Winnipeg, April 1917, a world far removed from our own. There are no VCRs. There are no CDs, no cell phones, no computers.
The Easter weekend had just finished in Winnipeg. Women had put away their Easter bonnets they bought at Eaton’s for $4.95. Horse drawn delivery wagons made the rounds. A trip to the butcher for prime rib roast cost 21 cents a pound. A man could buy a shirt and tie for $1.50. Winnipeggers had even decided they could no longer eat “hamburgers” because it reminded them of Hamburg, a city in Germany. Ground beef on a bun came to be known as a “nip”.
Yes, it’s a world far removed from our own. And it’s a world at war, one to be known as the Great War or World War I.
On April 9, a silent movie about Joan of Arc opened at the Dominion Theatre, where the Richardson Building now stands. Admission started at 25 cents. April 9 also marked the first day of the battle of Vimy Ridge. The Ridge in northern France was strongly defended by the Germans who believed that no army could take it. Just two years earlier the French army had tried, and suffered more than 150,000 casualties.
What had brought the Canadian soldiers here to the Fields of Flanders? Patriotism? Thirst for adventure? The promise of three square meals a day? Whatever it was, it wasn’t the idea of easy money. Ordinary soldiers were paid just a dollar a day.
Seldom had soldiers ever had to exist in worse conditions that those endured by the soldiers in the front lines in France. Worse than the constant threat of death was the wretchedness of life in the trenches. Forced to huddle in the earth like animals, the men were constantly wet, cold, dirty. Boots and uniforms mildewed and fell apart. “Trench foot”, a rotting of the flesh between and around the toes, was common. So was “trench mouth”, a painful and contagious disease of the gums. Everybody had lice. There were the smells of sweat and urine and fear and death. Rats as big and bold as alley cats ran though the trenches and grew fat on the dead and dying.
At Vimy, the Germans had held and strengthened their position on the Ridge for more than two years and believed it absolutely secure. Where the British and the French had failed, now it was Canada’s turn. Our troops faced an incredible challenge. In one day, no, in one morning, these civilian volunteers from a small country with no military tradition were expected to do what the British and French had failed to do in two years.
The timetable called for them to be on the crest of the Ridge by noon. And they were expected to achieve the victory with 50,000 fewer men than the French had lost in their attacks.
After weeks of careful training and rehearsal, and supported by almost 1,000 artillery pieces, the Canadians attacked along a six and one half kilometre front. For hours before the infantry attack, the Canadian artillery had poured more than one million artillery shells onto the German lines. By noon the Canadian boys had captured the crest of the Ridge. Within five days this Canadian army had gained more ground, seized more guns, and captured more prisoners than the British had done in any previous battle.
The cost to our country was high-3,600 men dead and more than 7,000 wounded. But historians say this victory marked Canada’s beginning as a nation. It was the first battle in which all units of the Canadian army fought together, and their success was overwhelming. Canadians rejoiced and felt new pride in our tiny country. To many this battle marked the birth of modern Canada. Brig.-Gen. A.E. Ross declared after the war, “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
We should continue to think about Vimy Ridge. It should be more than just a park on Portage Avenue.
Tom Dercola, president of CJNU, was a history teacher for more than three decades.