As Canadians prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, it is important to remember that the nation’s pride in that victory also set a dangerous precedent for the balance of the First World War.
Along with the Canadian fighting mettle demonstrated at the gas-infected Battle of the Somme, Vimy tagged this country’s army as one of, if not the best, the Allies had.
As historian Pierre Berton noted in his book Vimy: “Claude Williams wrote home that ‘the Canadian has lived down his reputation as a ‘rag tag’ army and is now considered the best in the B.E.F. The Imperials think a great deal of the Byng Boys’ … Vimy convinced the Canadians that they were the finest troops on the Western Front. By naming them assault troops in the battles that followed, the High Command confirmed that belief.”
It therefore followed that six months later Canadian General Arthur Currie’s troops found themselves slogging it out as the main assault force in the mud and brine of Passchendaele.
That highly questionable one-month long fight cost the young nation 15,654 casualties and more than 4,000 killed.
For Sarnia the death toll reached four.
But as bad as the losses at Passchendaele, they didn’t come close to what the Canadians endured in the War’s final onslaught.
By the spring of 1918 the military brass could smell the blood of Armistice. And because of their reputation at Vimy Ridge, the Canadians were again chosen to spearhead what became known as Canada’s Hundred Days.
In essence, the plan called for an all-out continuous assault at Amiens, France to end only when the Germans were spent. This meant proceeding over canals and through heavily fortified enemy strongholds, including the never before threatened concrete encampment of the Hindenburg Line.
The battle commenced on August 8, 1918 and continued until the guns went silent on November 11, 1918.
The encounter was unceasing, relentless and deadly.
In Sarnia, residents watched — no doubt with great trepidation — as the published casualty lists grew daily at a pace and intensity never before seen during the War. Sarnia’s blood was spilt and lives lost at an unprecedented rate.
So fervent were the Brass that they ordered fighting right to the surrender, even though they knew five hours earlier that peace had already been negotiated. Lives were lost for no reason, except perhaps to satisfy the ego of their superiors.
By the time the final push was over the leading Canadians had suffered a staggering 45,835 casualties and 6,800 killed.
For Sarnia, a mere 96-day period resulted in 44 of its boys not coming home. That is war deaths at a rate of almost one every second day of the campaign – fully 38% of the city’s entire First World War dead.
Sadly, five of those young men still lie interred at an unknown location on the battlefield.
This slaughter, beyond current comprehension, had as its genesis the heralded reputation of the Canadian Expeditionary Force confirmed at Vimy Ridge.
Randy Evans is a First World War historian in Sarnia
EDITOR’S NOTE: A ceremony is being held Sunday, April 2, at the Sarnia Cenotaph in Veterans’ Park to honour the four men killed at Vimy: Frederick Johnson, David Montgomery, David Kerr and Roy Lumley. The service and wreath-laying begin at 4 p.m.