Monday, April 09, 2007

Vimy Ridge

Today is the ninetieth anniversary of the First World War battle of Vimy Ridge, a milestone in Canadian history:

... Vimy Ridge enjoys mythic status as Canada's most famous battle of the First World War, and occupies a privileged place in Canadian nationalism. When the four divisions of the Canadian Corps, operating together for the first time, captured Vimy after British and French forces had failed, it marked our coming of age. We went up the ridge a colony, it has been said, and came down a nation.
Canadians are remembering that battle today:
When Marcel Vion was harvesting his autumn crop of beets not long ago, the earth suddenly opened up before him, and revealed a lost tableau from 90 years before. Beneath the front wheels of his tractor, and for metres beyond, were the remains of a Canadian underground field hospital, entombed in the earth for generations.

"Sappe," the 69-year-old farmer muttered -- "tunnel" -- and hit the brakes. This was not a surprising occurrence. Two years earlier, a nearby farmhand had been knocked out cold when he'd strolled into a furrow filled with leaking mustard gas. One farmer has been killed in the past decade, and others injured, by the shells of 1916. Such is life in the farmlands below Vimy Ridge.

This town has an active munitions depot, which still receives regular, deadly deposits from the area's farmers, and its own active mine-clearing team. It contains thousands of still-lethal antiques, and its gas-leak alarm still occasionally strikes fear into the town's residents.

Nine decades after the Canadian Corps stormed up Vimy Ridge in a thick hail of heavy munitions, the battle's presence is still felt. The battlefield remains deadly to this day, and a great many of the Canadian soldiers still lie shattered beneath these farm fields. This is a place where this battle, for a myriad of reasons, will never be forgotten.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Queen Elizabeth lead a 90th-anniversary commemoration of Canada's most memorable battle of the First World War in northern France today, the nearby residents will need no reminding.

"It is as if the war is never going to end in this parish -- the Canadians have left their mark everywhere, on every life," says Boguslaw Borzecki, the priest at Vimy's small Catholic church, built in 1777 and rebuilt in 1946, whose stained-glass windows pay tribute to Canadian soldiers. "The people here still remember, every day they remember."
And so do we.

A day after six Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan, standing beside us yet again, a moment of quiet, and of thanks, is the least we can offer in gratitude.

This is the Last Post for today.

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