Today is the hundredth anniversary of the day after the four divisions of the Canadian Corps launched their assault up Vimy Ridge, and stormed to the top, as part of the Battle of Arras in the Great War. This was a task the British and French armies had failed to accomplish. In the national mythology, it was the day we truly became a nation, at the cost of more than ten thousand casualties, including three thousand five hundred and ninety-eight dead; and rather more, I should say, among the Sixth German Army. The engagement was essentially settled in the first light hours of April 9th, which was Easter Monday. The mop-up continued until the 12th, when we took “The Pimple,” silencing the enemy’s last artillery.
One cannot argue with mythology, and I was not arguing with my grandfather, Harry Roy Warren, when he appeared to me in a dream last night. This helped me recall what he had had to say about the whole affair, when he still lived. He said that the gods were with us, in the form of the magnificent British artillery and logistics that lay behind us; the remarkable generalship of the very British “Bungo” Byng, and of our beloved Canadian, Arthur Currie; and most importantly, the sky. After an unusually cold and prolonged winter, it was hurling snow and sleet into the faces of the defenders, who were often shooting blind. But to our farm boys, from across the fair Dominion, it was, if one could overlook the shell-bursts, just like home.
Grandpa was more impressed with the casualties. It was the first in a long string of engagements in which the Canadians were used as shock troops — Hill 70! Amiens! Cambrai! — as the allies broke the German lines, setting stage for the rest of the twentieth century.
“We did our share of the damage,” was his Canadian way of putting it. He recounted his own experience in an understated manuscript entitled, “Up the Line with the Best o’Luck.” Somewhere along that line he ceased calling the enemy “Jerry,” “Heinie Hun,” and “The Bosch,” and started calling them “Bavarians,” and “Germans.” Finally, his heart went out to the poor bastards, in occupation duty. Both he and his flyboy son from the Second instalment of World War raised me with a curious affection for “them”; and a patriotism with no jingo in it.
Grandpa was never a pacifist, nor ever a mythologist. “We did what we had to do.” It was hardly for the sake of making Canada independent, for in his view we were already independent enough. He fought with his horse, and with his band of brothers; for them and for the nursing sisters; for Byng and Currie. Those were real things, and the need to stop the Kaiser was a real thing, too.
But: “It would have been better had the whole damned mess not happened.”
The glory of war belongs finally to the politicians who brought it on, and to their eloquence in appropriating the results. I have an instinctive aversion to wreath-laying speeches by men who weren’t there. My eyes are on the vets.
Grandpa’s finest moment, post-war, was when a troop of young reservists marched by his front lawn at Port Credit; and he an old codger in his eighties. Year of grace, 1977. In the faces of those boys he remembered the faces of the boys with whom he had once marched. With great difficulty, he had dressed himself once again in full uniform for Armistice Day, campaign medals dangling. As they passed, the troop leader called, “Halt!” As one man, they turned to grandpa and saluted. He saluted back.