Greater Victoria to mark 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge

Battle of the First World War seen as Canada’s ‘coming of age’ on the world stage.

The Vimy Ridge Memorial.

The Vimy Ridge Memorial.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge is sometimes referred to as a significant moment in the uniting of Canada as a nation.

While there is debate over whether that message came after the First World War ended, one thing is for certain, however, is that the battle marked the first time Canadian soldiers worked together and were commanded by Canadians, rather than British officers.

It also helped solidify the battle as a national event, as the Canadians did in approximately three days, what the British and French could not do from 1914 to 1916.

On April 9, 1917, the combined Canadian Corps including soldiers from the Greater Victoria area attacked the ridge, held by German forces. After days in artillery shelling, and following a creeping barrage of artillery fire, the troops advanced on Vimy Ridge and pushed the Germans out.

Captain Steve Green of the Canadian Scottish Regiment in Victoria says the battle not only significant for the Canadian component was unique at the time for the degree of planning and original thinking that went into it. British Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng placed the control of the Canadian Corps into the hands of Division Commander Sir Arthur Currie (a Sidney resident), who set the stage for extensive training and rehearsals prior to the attack a tactic employed by the Canadian Forces to this day.

The Canadian Corps included soldiers from the 50th Gordon Highlanders and 88th Victoria Fusiliers, said Green, forming the 16th Battalion. Made up of mostly Highland units, Green said the battalion was known informally during training in England as “the Canadian Scottish”, which is what Vancouver Island’s infantry reserve regiment in known as today.

Green said preparations for the attack at Vimy included plans for the rolling artillery barrage, as well as engineers (sappers) digging tunnels under German trenches, setting explosives to help clear the way.

“We did our thing,” Green said, “we thought outside of the box.”

The Canadian succeeded in taking and holding the ridge, yet more than 3,500 soldiers died and 7,000 were wounded. During the action, Private William Johnstone Milne of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded to British and Commonwealth forces for valour. He died at the ridge, after taking out enemy machine guns.

Milne’s sacrifice and that of his fellow soldiers, to take Vimy Ridge, is part of the reason behind 100th anniversary events in Victoria April 8 and 9.

John Azar of the Pacific Coast Branch of the Western Front Association, says the two days of events marking 100 years since the battle is an attempt to connect that past with present-day military service and link the community with its troops once again.

“We want to make the past relevant,” Azar said. “The sacrifice (soldiers) made (in the First World War) was so much more than in the Second World War.

“The experience of the people who served, during and after Vimy Ridge, and for those who survive, still resonates to this day.”

On Saturday, April 8 at 11 a.m. soldiers of the Canadian Scottish Regiment will march to Victoria City Hall and seek renewal of the Freedom of the City they earned in 1974. That ceremony will end at the Parliament Building lawn.

That evening, at 6:30 p.m. the 5th Field Artillery will be set up at Fort Rodd Hill National Park. At 8:30 p.m., their guns will fire a 100-round barrage to coincide with the start of the Battle of Vimy Ridge 100 years ago.

On April 9, the Bay Street Armoury hosts displays and a music program. Azar said there will be 30 to 35 different groups from local museums to community and military organizations on site from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The music portion of the day starts at 3 p.m.

The day of events is set to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the battle, taking place in France at the Canadian memorial at the top of the ridge.

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