Location: Battle of Arras in Nord-Pas- de-Calais Region France
Canadians killed: 3,598 wounded 7,004
Amount of ground captured: 3,700M
One would think Vimy is a word that every Canadian should know especially as April 9th approaches. But how many Canadians could really tell you what took place there in France at0530hrs on April 9th 1917. I would venture to guess not very many by all the Government ads in the media commemorating the battle and reminding us to remember. As an old soldier whose Regiment fought there, I wonder, because after all is Vimy not supposed to be the pivotal point in Canadian History. Is it not when we finally became recognized as a Nation separate from Great Britain? And was this not do to my Regimental forbear’s sacrifice and courage during those 3 days. I am told that many current scholars are debating that point today. I am not sure what those thousands of men who fought there would think about the debating going about their sacrifice. Because clearly they did not have any such luxury nor do I recall any of those vets telling me even thinking about it in those terms so many years after the battle had been won. But it is nice to see the government trying to remind Canadians in the lead up to Vimy’s 100th Anniversary and the brilliant sacrifice made by so many young men.
When I joined my first Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, as a young starry eyed 13yr old cadet there were still members of the Regiment who had fought at Vimy alive and still very active in the Regimental Association. One of the very first of these vets I was to meet and come to respect very much was Brigadier General J. A. Clark the Regiment’s Honorary Colonel. He presented me with my first Seaforth cap badge. General Clark had commanded the Seaforths at Vimy and all those years later was still very active with the Regiment. General Clark and many of his WWI vets still spent time with us young cadets especially when we got invited to the Regiment’s Vimy dinner which was held to commemorate the battle and the men who died there. As a young lad I would sit back and listen to the WWI vets talk Vimy through with their comrades like all soldiers do who survive such fierce hardships especially once the scotch begins to flow. Don’t get me wrong, this was not bragging I heard but the tears of remembrance. For you see General Clark took 35 officers and 977 other ranks over the top at 0530hrs and by the end of the battle on the 12th and after capturing Hill 145 he had 11 officers and 62 men remaining. 423 Seaforths never returned home, never got to sit at that dinner and those that did attend were scarred for life.
Do you remember witnessing all the ramp ceremonies when we brought those brave dead home from Afghanistan? Try and imagine if you could a ramp ceremony for those 3,598 killed at Vimy in just 3 days. To put it in context you would need a fleet of over a hundred flat bed trucks to move the coffins assuming of course the air force even had enough aircraft to transport the bodies. Think about the impact Vimy had on Vancouver in 1917, with a population of around 100,000, to learn 423 sons would never be coming home. How many homes do you think were affected by grief? What would the rest of Canada think if all 3,598 repatriations were televised to the entire country like all those Afghan ones we watched? Would we still have to be reminded of the victory at Vimy? Could we forget?
I don’t recall any Vimy vet telling me they forged a Nation that day. I do recall being told about the endless battle preparations and rehearsals for the assault. They told me of the 1.5 million artillery shells fired just before H hour into the German trenches and as the assaults went in. They told me about the cold wind at their backs as they moved across snow and sleet covered open ground. Ground I might add where not too many months before 100,000 Frenchman had died trying to take Vimy. They told me of how hard the Germans fought and of the intense hand-to-hand combat they endured. One vet even recommend I get really good with the bayonet because as he put it, “you never have enough ammo or grenades but you always have your bayonet” of course by now a lot of scotch had been consumed.
The most important thing I remember is watching these now old men look at the Seaforth Regimental Colours and the Battle Honours they fought and won. Seeing them pause at Vimy on the Colours and wipe away a tear say’s it all. For you see what they fought for, in my mind, was the Seaforth and their friends – that kilted family we belong to.
In 1976 General Clark passed away at 90. I had the honour to select and train the carrying and firing party for his military funeral. A proper send off for a very brave and diligent Seaforth. I trust the volley of fire and the lone piper warned his men he was coming so they would stand too at the pearly gates to greet him; his Seaforths who never grew old or so I would hope! And I would hope it is true for all us old soldiers when we are called home to join our friends and comrades.
Vimy, lest we forget Canada because they are all gone now!
Vimy Ridge Cross photo source and more : http://www.seaforthhighlanders.ca/seaforthnews/vimy-ridge-memorial-cross-restored-to-fine-fettle-for-seaforths
Lieut.-Col. J.A. Clark : http://www.seaforthhighlanders.ca/people/