Despite the union of Canada's four founding provinces into a single independent nation in 1867, much of the international community still thought of Canada as essentially a British colony. Canada remained a part of the British Empire, and most of its population had strong cultural and historical ties to Great Britain. The development of a distinctly Canadian identity developed over time, spurred on by events like the Confederation, the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1885, and Canadian exploits in World War I (1914-1918).
Canadians had already fought for the Empire during the Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902, at the request of Britain. At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, young Canadians flocked to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force; ultimately over 600,000 Canadians would participate in the "Great War." Most of these soldiers saw action in the horrific trench warfare of the Western Front that stretched from the English Channel through the farmlands of Belgium and France. Vimy Ridge is a promontory that rises above the plateau of eastern France that represented a target of intense military significance.
On the Western Front
The glamour of a war to be fought "Over There" and the patriotic zeal that had swept Canada in the fall of 1914 began to harden into a grim realization that the War was a conflict of enormous suffering for its participants. Each side constructed labyrinth-like trenches, which were riddled with disease and inhuman conditions. Attacks were often mounted by men directed to charge over stinking quagmires of mud, decomposing bodies, unexploded shells, and barbed wire straight into enemy machine gun and artillery fire.
The Allies, including Canada, fought many great battles against Germany in 1914 through 1917—including the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, and Verdun. Millions died, including thousands of Canadians. Despite these efforts the Western Front was essentially stalemated. Territorial gains by either side were measured in yards, not miles.
The Assault on Vimy
Until 1917, Canadian troops were under the command of British generals in various locations on the Western Front. In March 1917, the Allied commanders assigned Canadian General Arthur Currie (1875-1933) to plan an attack on the heavily fortified German positions at Vimy Ridge, held by its experienced Sixth Army commanded by General Ludwig Von Falkenhausen (1844-1936). The attack would be led by the entire Canadian Corps, which would be operating together for the first time. Currie and his staff put their men through intensive training and rehearsals in preparation for the battle, and an enormous amount of artillery was gathered to pound the German positions and force the enemy soldiers to stay under cover.
A ferocious combined Anglo-Canadian artillery barrage on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, was the first stage in the Canadian assault on the ridge, a bombardment that was followed by both tunneling brigades and by infantry troops. The Canadians drove the Germans from their positions, and were able to hold Vimy Ridge for the Allies. By April 12, the ridge was securely under Allied control. Victory had come at a terrible cost—3,598 Canadian soldiers were killed during the four days, and another 7,600 wounded. The German defenders suffered 20,000 casualties and lost 4,000 men as prisoners to the advancing Canadians.
The Significance of Vimy
Capturing Vimy Ridge was a tactical success, weakening the overall German position even though it did not force them into a wholesale retreat. It is best remembered today as a great moment in Canadian history and a unifying event for the country. Soldiers from all corners of Canada fought together, and fought well. The French had suffered over 150,000 casualties in various unsuccessful attempts to secure Vimy Ridge since 1915, and it is estimated that all sides in the war suffered 800,000 casualties fighting over Vimy Ridge. That a distinctly Canadian force had succeeded where others before them failed was a source of great pride to the nation of Canada.
Canada's small population of only 7.5 million people in 1914 was stretched to its limit by the war effort. A total of 60,661 Canadians were killed in battle during World War I, with at least 150,000 more wounded. In recognition of this sacrifice, the government of France formally ceded the top of Vimy Ridge to Canada, where a sweeping stone monument now stands inscribed with the name of every Canadian soldier killed at the great battle. It is one of two National Historic Sites of Canada found outside the national borders of Canada.
The Vimy Ridge Memorial and Unidentified Remains
In 2007, Queen Elizabeth rededicated the monument at Vimy Ridge. In front of a crowd of 15,000 people and joined by the then-Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, she offered thanks for the sacrifices of Canadians in various wars. The rededication ceremony was the culmination of a three-year, twenty-million dollar restoration project. Another memorial is planned for the centennial anniversary of the battle in August 2017.
As of 2016, about 20,000 of Canada's war dead from World War I remained missing. This was in part due to the chaos that surrounded the conflict both during its many battles and upon its conclusion. Bodies were often buried quickly with little documentation left behind as to the location of grave sites or even the identities of soldiers in known burial sites. Among the missing were forty-four soldiers from the Canadian Scottish Regiment, a unit that was officially called the 16th Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Canadian Division. These soldiers were killed during the battle at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, but their remains were never accounted for. Since 2014, Canadian historical researcher Norm Christie has sought to locate the unmarked grave containing their remains and rebury them with honour in any of Canada's military cemeteries. Christie believes that for unknown reasons, although documents list the bodies as being located in a potato field in the region of Vimy Ridge, they were never removed from their original burial site. To help locate the graves of these men, Christie has sought funding from the public before factories can be built upon the land where he believes them to be buried.