I’ve been holidaying in Europe with the family this month – England, France and soon to Estonia. I haven’t been blogging, just soaking things up and relaxing.
But today the kids and I went to Vimy Ridge and it kind of keeps with the theme of some of the reconciliation posts I made here last month.
It is said that Vimy Ridge was the event that defined the young Nation of Canada, which was only 50 years old when 100,000 of it’s men, women and children (yes many many soldiers were under age) assembled on the slopes of Vimy Ridge and launched the first battle in the Arras Offensive in April 1917, a battle that would lead to the stalemate being broken and the eventual victory for the Allied forces a year and a half later.
Almost 3600 Canadians were killed and another 7000 or so wounded that morning. That is nothing compared to the losses of 150,000 French and Moroccan forces that tried to take and hold the ridge in the years prior to 1917. But for Canada, that was and still is, the greatest single loss of life in a day of military action.
Much is made of Vimy, especially these days when Canada’s military role has now fully evolved from peacekeeper to combat again. Vimy is often evoked to draw on Canadian sentiment to gather support for our military campaigns overseas. As we approach the 100th anniversary of that battle, I expect the sentiment to be further reinforced, especially by politicians.
But here is the thing. You simply have to visit Vimy to really understand this: if Vimy defined the kind of nation we are then it is a nuanced and complicated thing. For our greatest ever battle was not celebrated by a triumphalist monument declaring our greatness (in fact a staue stomping a German helmet was rejected in the design), but rather a huge sombre memorial to the costs of war, and the responsibilities of peace. There is simply nothing to celebrate at Vimy Ridge. If you were to read into what Canada is by attending that site you will see the kind of country Canada is: brutal and unrelenting in its pursuit of a military (or colonial) objective, but capable of deep reflection almost immediately afterward. Perhaps it was because Vimy was not a final victory, but simply a small part of a much much larger effort that the commemoration there is as sombre and reflective as it is. Or perhaps it was just an acknowledgement that war is a steaming pile of horror often for unclear objectives or far distant motives of power and politics divorced from the sacrifice that actual soldiers suffer. Our current government parrots this same pattern, championing new military actions, while ignoring the needs of veterans who return from these wars physically and emotionally scarred for life.
The monument itself consists of a number of important figures with names like Sympathy of the Canadians for the Helpless, The Spirit of Sacrifice, The Breaking of the Sword, Canada Bereft and The Mourning Parents. Inscribed on the eastern side of the monument are the names of Canadian soldiers whose remains were never found. The monument itself stands at the site of the objective of the battle and for several hundred meters to the west, the ground is still chewed up with craters and trenches, off limits because there is still unexploded ordinance in there, along with the bones of hundreds of human beings, blown to pieces in the battle. It is a place alive with suffering, terror and death. There is nothing beautiful about it, except perhaps for the birdsong, or the flock of sheep that graze the craters or the pines trees that lean upward towards the ridge top, appearing out of the corner of ones eye like some many soldiers charging for the top.
It is a place that is deeply moving and powerful and it does say something about the kind of country we can choose to be. For I wonder if we have ever really enacted the spirit of Vimy Ridge. Of course we are a country that is a small player in the military world, but when we fight we are ruthless. But we are also a country whose defining battle resulted in a reflection on our care for the helpless, on the practice of sacrifice, on the breaking of swords, on the deep mourning of what has happened in the name of Canada, and of the care for those who have lost children. In this way, Vimy says something about our national need to reflect and reconcile our actions with a morality that is lost in violence. I wonder if we have actually done that. I wonder if we can see this as an invitation to practice these principles in an ongoing way. I wonder if in the spirit of Vimy Ridge, if we are living up to the ideals that are emblazoned in that massive marble statue on top of a lonely escarpment in Pas-de-Calais.