Yesterday Canada celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War. That battle in which thousands of Canadian, British and German soldiers died has become part of Canada’s national mythology, a seminal event from which its emergence as full-fledged country in its own right is often dated.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and and a total of 25,000 other Canadians were there, along with many other dignitaries, including members of Great Britain’s Royal Family, Prince of Wales, Charles, and his two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. French President Francois Hollande, were also in attendance.
But I daresay the dominant presence was the collective spirits of those who died there, watched over by one of the most strikingly-impressive, national war memorials ever conceived and built. The crowd has gone; the field of battle is relatively quiet again except perhaps for some visitors paying their respects. And of course the dead remain, in known and unknown graves.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial on the site of the battle near Arras, France was not designed as a celebration of war: there is not a gun to be seen in it, or for that matter even a soldier, other than the stone-inscribed names of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died during the war and had no known grave. Canada at War records list the names of 63,622 Canadians who lost their lives in service during The First World War. Of those, 3,598 died at Vimy Ridge. At least twice that number were wounded out of a force of close to 100,000 Canadian Corps soldiers. It was the first time all four of the Corps’ divisions were joined for battle, a fact that’s often mentioned as one of the reasons why it marks the beginning of distinctive spirit of Canadian nationhood.
The memory of those who died is indeed the central theme, as expressed in the maternal figure of Canada Bereft, weeping for her lost children, carved from a single block of stone. So is Peace, hence the lack of military symbolism.
Until another World War began just under 22 years later, the First World War was called “The Great War” and “The war to end all war.”
Such was the horror of trench warfare and the cost in millions of lives, that many believed civilized humanity could not possibly do such a terrible thing again.
I knew a Canadian soldier of the First World War 30 years ago. His name was Keith Hopkinson. He was a Sergeant in the First Canadian Division, a platoon leader who served throughout the war. He also served, teaching infantry tactics to new recruits, in the Second World War.
I approached him back then with a request for an interview about his war-time experiences, especially during the First World War.
“They’d never believe it,” he said, “they’d just never believe it.”
Besides, so many other good men had died who would never have a chance to tell their story. It didn’t feel right to be singled out.
And yet he needed to talk after all. The war still haunted him. Sgt. Keith Hopkinson, who loved life, is one of my heroes, one of the best and bravest men I’ve ever met.
Walter Seymour Allward, the Toronto architect and sculptor who designed the memorial, described his masterful creation as a “sermon against the futility of war,” according to Jacqueline Hucker, in her 2008 article, Vimy, A Monument for the Modern World.
And so it is, including right now, today, in the dreadful irony of a world still wracked by war, and standing on the edge of the very real possibility of a world-ending nuclear holocaust.
I was going to say something like, “not since the cuban missile crisis.”
But it seems somehow inappropriate. The man then, the President and Commander-in-Chief with his finger on the nuclear button was sane and rational. President John F. Kennedy, walked a fine line, listened to his advisors, hawkish as well as more cautious, thought the dangerous situation over carefully, and finally made the right decision. But it was, in the Duke of Wellington’s famous words after the Batttle of Waterloo, “a close-run thing.”
I confess, the young man I was, in October, 1962, didn’t grasp the full, frightening implications of what was happening, even afterwards for quite a while.
But now I do, and I find myself thinking about it a lot, regarding the absolute importance of having the right person in a position of such power when the time and similarly fateful circumstance comes
How can anybody possibly believe the demonstrably unstable personality now in the White House is the right person? He wasn’t even in the White House when he made and announced his decision, after it happened, to attack a Syrian air base with 59 cruise missiles. He was at his resort in Florida. He also talked about the possibity of the U.S. “going it alone” to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat. He played golf the next day.
It’s utterly mind-boggling that suddenly now many people in high places, and respected commentators like CNN’s Fareed Zakariah, who formerly expressed the deepest concerns about that man’s fitness for the job as President and Commander-in-Chief have praised his actions.
I hope I’m wrong, I really do; but I fear he is blindly and recklessly taking the world down a dangerous path to war, with the tragic help of far too many misguided enablers – now, incredibly, more than ever.
The spirits of the hopeful dead are full of tears this day.