Royal Canadian Mounted Police paraded on a hill during the ceremony. Photo by Gael Turine for The New York Times
Several hundred people gathered at Canada’s national war memorial at sunset on Saturday to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a fierce World War One fight in northern France that looms large in Canada’s national identity.
For a country not generally given to national chest thumping, the battle at Vimy, where Canadian troops overtook German lines, has been cast by many Canadians as a pivotal moment in their nation’s formation. That sentiment was reflected at the ceremony in Ottawa and at others across Canada throughout the weekend, and at the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge near Arras, France, on Sunday, where about twenty-five thousand people gathered, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and relatives of those who fought in the four-day battle.
“This monument is also symbolic of Canada’s birth and our enduring commitment to peace,” Trudeau said at the base of the soaring white memorial. Speaking of the nearly four thousand Canadian soldiers who died during the battle, he added that “it was through their sacrifice that Canada became an independent signatory of the Treaty of Versailles, and in that sense, in that way, Canada was born here.”
The ceremony in France was attended by other world leaders, including President François Hollande of France, Prince Charles of Britain and his sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
Many of the Canadian ceremonies were low key. In Ottawa, the crowd stood largely silent for the opening of an overnight vigil, listening to choral music; watching musical performances, including by a young indigenous drummer; and quietly placing candles on the steps of the monument for each of the Canadians who died.
Although Canada entered World War One at its outset in 1914, Vimy was the first battle in which its divisions fought as a unified force and successfully broke down a German line that had defeated British and French forces. Over the past century, the fight, in which seven thousand Canadians were also wounded, has come to be viewed as the moment when Canada finally stood apart from Britain.
About four thousand candles were placed at Canada’s national war memorial on Saturday, one for each of the Canadian soldiers who died in the battle at Vimy Ridge in France during World War One.
In Quebec, Canada’s involvement in World War One has always been a topic of controversy. Many of the French-speaking residents of the province were the leading opponents of the government’s introduction of conscription in 1917. Riots erupted there in protest, and the move further eroded French-speaking Quebecers’ support for the war.
Though the view that modern Canada was created out of the country’s involvement in World War One is now widely held outside Quebec, a debate continues over the degree to which the sense of nationhood can be attributed to the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
“It’s really something of a puzzle to me why Vimy has become this,” said Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian professor of international history at the University of Oxford and the author of two diplomatic histories of World War One. “I can’t exactly explain why at certain times and moments in our history we focus on certain things from our past, but we certainly focus on Vimy.”
Vimy has endured as a symbol of Canada’s role in the war partly because of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial on the battlefield. Despite being an ocean away, the memorial’s two pylons have appeared on Canadian bank notes and are so well known that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation used the monument’s silhouette as the logo for its broadcast on the anniversary.
After the war, France gave a hundred hectares of the battlefield to Canada, and the Canadian government decided that the memorial would serve as the country’s primary overseas monument to World War One, a struggle in which a country of just eight million people lost nearly seventy thousand soldiers. Its design was selected through a highly publicized competition. The result, unveiled in 1936, was also designated as the memorial to the nearly twelve thousand Canadians who died in France during the war but had no graves.
“I don’t think we’d be talking about Vimy right now if the monument had not been built there,” said Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and the author of several books about World War One. “At the same time, I don’t think we should downplay the battle.”
By the 1950s, interest among Canadians in World War One and Vimy in particular had waned. Professor MacMillan, who is 71, said the battle was not a part of her schooling. But on Sunday, nearly half the crowd in Vimy was schoolchildren who had flown there from Canada to attend the ceremony.
Dr. Cook, who recently published a book on Vimy and the Canadians’ search for an iconic battle, said there had been a rekindling of interest in the battle during its fiftieth anniversary in 1967. He credits this to Lester B. Pearson, the Liberal prime minister at the time, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a flying officer during the war, who in a widely recalled speech put forward the idea that Vimy was “a symbol of the coming of age of Canada as a nation.”
Rico says more almost-forgotten history...Sheep graze (above) on the former battlefield at Vimy Ridge, France, where lawnmowers cannot be used because of concern over unexploded ordnance still there.More recently, Professor MacMillan said, Vimy was part of an effort by Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister who preceded Trudeau, to promote “the idea that Canada was a nation forged in war,” a notion the professor said was “very dubious”.
Historians differ on their view of Vimy. Next to Dr. Cook’s book in some Canadian bookstores is The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War by the historian Ian McKay and the writer Jamie Swift, who dismiss as “romantic militarism” the widely held view that modern Canada was formed by the heroic action of its soldiers at Vimy. In the magazine Canadian Issues, Swift wrote that the now-standard assessment of the battle “replaces history with patriotic fantasy”.
While Dr. Cook acknowledged that myth has come to surround the battle and its role in history, he said that did not mean it was not an important national symbol. “Nations use battles to tell their stories,” he said shortly before flying off to the celebration in France. “Vimy matters because it matters.”