You could learn a lot about Canada’s national psyche from the country’s enduring fascination with the battle of Vimy Ridge, fought 95 years ago this past week.
Canadians fought dozens of major battles during the First World War. Yes, Vimy was the most tactically spectacular: One of the best-planned, best-executed Allied operations of the whole war. Vimy fully deserves the honour it carries in the national memory.
But the exclusive attention to Vimy obscures other Canadian achievements even more deserving of honour.
Who remembers now the Battle of Amiens in August, 1918? Yet it was this battle that broke the spirit of the German Army in the West. German troops broke and ran before a Canadian and Australian-led assault: the first German rout of the war. Between August and November, Canadians spearheaded a sequence of attacks that destroyed the German army’s will to fight.
Those battles — collectively known as the Hundred Days — have been brilliantly summarized in a short book that, if it were up to me, would be assigned to every high school student in Canada: Shane Schreiber’s Shock Army of the British Empire.
By Schreiber’s tally, the 100,000 Canadians who fought in the Hundred Days met almost one-quarter of the entire remaining German army on the Western Front: Forty-seven German divisions against four Canadians. The Canadian forces fought alongside an Australian/New Zealand contingent. The three Dominions together engaged some 40% of the German army.
Over those three months, the Canadians suffered more than 45,000 casualties, killed and wounded — or about as many as in the whole year from D-Day to VEDay in the Second World War.
Being a Canadian, of course, Schreiber underscores his point with a final statistical comparison to the U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne region on the southern portion of the Western front.
DURATION OF OPERATIONS
Americans: 47 days
Canadians: 100 days
MAXIMUM DISTANCE ADVANCED
Americans: 34 miles
Canadians: 86 miles
GERMAN DIVISIONS DEFEATED (OUT OF A TOTAL OF 200)
AVERAGENUMBEROFCASUALTIESSUFFERED PER GERMAN DIVISION DEFEATED
“The ultimate conclusion that must be drawn,” Schreiber sums up, “is that the Canadian Corps was able to make a highly significant contribution to the defeat of the German army on the battlefield at precisely half the cost in terms of life and limb as the American army.”
Unlike Vimy, the Hundred Days was a strategic as well as tactical victory.
And while few would dissent from John Moore’s verdict in Friday’s National Post that the First World War should never have been fought, it’s also true that once fought, it was vital that the Western democracies win. A German victory would have locked an exploitative military dictatorship in control of the whole continent of Europe — a point now agreed by German historians fully as much as non-Germans. Canada’s indispensable contribution to that victory ought to be a matter of national pride, to be celebrated gloriously in the now-impending centennial of the First World War.
But how? Not with more wreath laying. The last veterans of the First World War are gone, and will be longer gone in August, 2014. What we owe them now is not only sympathy for their sacrifices, but remembrance of their military achievements: a national commitment to remembrance that should carry on through the whole period of the anniversary, and culminate — not in April 2017 — but on November 11, 2018, the centennial of the day that Canadian troops liberated the Belgian town of Mons, firing what is often described as the last shot of the First World War.
This anniversary offers an opportunity to rediscover Canada’s heritage as a war-fighting and war-winning nation — in wars that, because won, made possible the free, democratic and peaceful Europe of the 21st century.