The First World War Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought and won by the four divisions of the Canadian Corps with much loss of life in April, 1917 is rightly celebrated as a formidable military achievement and notable nation-building event for Canada. Earlier attacks by British and French forces had failed to take the heavily-defended German position.
The striking memorial on the ridge that commemorates the battle and the 3,600 Canadians who died there is widely regarded as one of the most impressive of such monuments. German troops were even assigned to guard the site after the fall of France in June, 1940.
The celebration of the 100th anniversary of that battle this year has notably improved remembrance of it among Canadians of all ages.
But remembrance of another even more deadly battle in which the Canadian Corps played a decisive role in victory, also fought 100 years ago, is sadly lacking.
Perhaps the seeds of forgetfulness of the Battle of Passchendaele were planted in the blood-soaked mud of a slaughter that carried on over several months. History largely recalls it now as a tragic mistake that ultimately accomplished little if anything, at a terrible cost in lives, including 4,000 Canadians killed, plus 12,000 wounded.
Right from the start, in the planning phase many high-ranking military and political officials among the western allies were opposed to a major offensive in the Flanders region of Belgium. After almost three years of appalling trench warfare on the Western Front and millions of deaths on both sides, people like Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George and Ferdinand Foch, France’s newly-appointed and ultimately most capable military leader, thought it best to wait for American troops to arrive in force. The United States had declared war on April 6. But the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, was adamant and went ahead.
The battle began July 31, 2017 and continued through the late summer and early fall, with indecisive attacks and counterattacks, as battlefield conditions deteriorated. The Canadian Corps relieved ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) troops in mid-October for a final, decisive assault on the ridge and Passchendaele itself. By that time the blasted ground had ceased to exist as such: it was a sea of mud and blood.
“Canadian Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, inspected the terrain and was shocked at the conditions he saw,” recalls the Veterans Affairs Canada history of the battle. “He tried to avoid having his men fight there but was overruled by his superiors.”
“Despite the adversity, the Canadians reached the outskirts of Passchendaele by the end of a second attack on October 30 during a driving rainstorm.
“The task of actually capturing the ‘infamous’ village fell to the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion and they took it that day (November 6) . . . Canadian soldiers had succeeded in the face of almost unbelievable challenges.
As of 100 years ago, November 10, 1917, the Canadians had cleared the nearby ridge of German troops. Six months later the last, major German offensive would recapture all that ground, and then some.
“The fighting at Passchendaele took great bravery,” said the Veterans Affairs history. Indeed, beyond anything we might today find imaginable, unless you’re a surviving veteran of other wars, of course. Then you know.
Nine Canadians earned the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest award “For Valour” at Passchendaele. One of them was Private Tommy Holmes of Owen Sound.
Another was Major George Pearkes, credited by the Veterans Affairs account of likely saving the victory by leading a small group of men to fight off repeated German counterattacks on the vulnerable Canadian flank for more than a day.
I think again in Remembrance of one of my heroes, Sgt. Keith Hopkinson of Lion’s Head, a veteran of both the First and Second World Wars. A member of the 1st Canadian Division, he fought at Passchendaele, and at Vimy Ridge. Indeed, he took part in every battle involving the Canadian Corps and was wounded many times. But he kept going back into the trenches.
With the onset of the Second World War Sgt. Hopkinson again answered his country’s call, to train new recruits in infantry tactics. As he told the men under his direct, platoon command in the First World War, he also told those new recruits, “Mother Earth, Mother Earth is your best protector.” He had soon seen the tragic folly of being trained to advance as if on parade in the face of machine-gun fire.
Though he was otherwise reluctant at first to talk publicly for a Remembrance Day newspaper article about his wartime experiences, Sgt. Hopkinson was keen to talk to local high school students. He felt it was something young people needed to know, in the best sense of Remembrance – imbued, finally, with a deep appreciation and respect for life.
A recent Ipsos survey suggests a relatively small proportion of Canadians are well-aware of Canada’s war history. Far from it, unfortunately, and tragically, at a time when ignorance of that history is breeding a resurgence of the very evils the Second World War especially was fought to defeat.
Asked last month about the two most significant First World War battles in which Canadian troops participated, 49 percent of Canadians surveyed knew Vimy Ridge was one of them. But only 25 percent could identify Passchendaele as the other.
“Given a list of battles in different wars, only one in three (35%) are able to identify that Passchendaele was fought in the First World War,” said an on-line Newswire article, citing the Vimy Foundation as its source.
The survey found the lowest level of awareness among the youngest, “Millennial” generation, at 27 percent, compared with 44 percent of the older, “Baby Boomer” generation. Neither is anything to be proud of, especially to the extent that it also speaks to ignorance about what the Second World War was about if such basic knowledge of its history is lacking.
The resurgence of neo-nazism, and other forms of divisive, hateful, socio-political attitudes, including anti-semitism, cries out for us to learn, or re-learn, the lessons of history. We can’t afford to be historical neophytes.
That is also Remembrance. We must never forget.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times November, 2