94th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge
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Ottawa, Friday, April 8, 2011
It is a profound honour to be here today as we mark an important moment in the history of Canada—the battle of Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge has come to mean many things to Canadians. After that pivotal, four-day offensive which began on April 9, 1917, Canada was forever changed.
More than a victory on the battlefield, Vimy Ridge was a turning point in our sense of nationhood. It symbolized Canada’s growing strength and independence among the nations of the world. The battle was masterminded by the innovative Major General Arthur Currie, who went on to become the first Canadian commander of the Canadian Corps, and as an interesting coincidence, later Principal of McGill University, a position I had the honour of occupying for 15 years.
Where others failed to capture this key position on the Western Front, Canadians succeeded.
How did they do it?
The battle for Vimy would not have been won without the bravery and determination of thousands of individual soldiers. But a number of key tactical and technological innovations also lay behind the victory.
For example, the Canadians took a new approach to artillery fire at Vimy, having learned hard lessons earlier in the war. Rather than alternating between shelling the enemy lines, then attacking, troops timed their advance on Vimy Ridge to coincide with the artillery barrage. With great precision, they moved forwards 90 metres every three minutes, under cover of their own guns. This coupling of artillery fire and forward progress took incredible courage, but it enabled the Canadians to advance and dig in before the enemy could regroup and counterattack. It was a technological innovation in mathematics and physics—to precisely aim and time the artillery to avoid friendly fire casualties.
Training was also critical to success at Vimy Ridge. For months, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps prepared for the assault. General Currie ordered the creation of a full-scale replica of the battlefield, complete with the simulated chaos and confusion of war. For the first time, maps were given to all troops, not just senior officers, allowing soldiers to better understand their goal and to improvise when necessary. In modern management, we think of this as trust in subordinates to use their own intuition in adjusting to changing circumstances—a reversal of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.
Technological innovations were likewise of key importance. A new generation of shells equipped with highly-sensitive fuses was able to explode on contact with barbed wire, helping to clear the way for the advancing Canadian infantry. Fortifications were surveyed using aerial photography, while enemy gun positions were detected with the help of microphones and sound waves.
General Sir Julian Byng—a future governor general of Canada—also set up a unique intelligence-gathering organization to prepare for the offensive. Byng was much-loved by the soldiers of the Canadian Corps, respecting their abilities to think rationally and make sound decisions in battle. His faith was well-placed.
Innovation, learning, collaboration and critical thinking were all vital at Vimy Ridge, as they are in our own time. I believe our future success—in every sphere of society—rests upon these same basic principles.
I would now like to turn my attention from the reasons for victory at Vimy Ridge, to its cost.
I believe we must remember this occasion not only as a military victory and symbol of Canada’s place in the world, but also as a tragic day for the thousands of dead and wounded, and for their families and loved ones.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we now stand, helps us to remember all that we cannot comprehend about the soldier’s experience of the First World War.
We do not know the name of the soldier who lies beneath our feet, nor do we know his age, the unit he fought with, or the date of his death. But we do know that he died near Vimy Ridge.
By invoking the memory of this fallen soldier—this young man—whose name and identity are lost to us, we are also reminded that, in truth, death is never anonymous. Each soldier, family member, friend and neighbour faces untold hardships during wartime. These private struggles often go unrecorded, but they are no less real for that.
Our task of remembering, of trying to understand and avoid the grim reality of war, is more important than ever. Mr. John Babcock, the last surviving Canadian veteran of the First World War, died last year, aged 109.
It is now up to us to preserve the flame of remembrance.
I am encouraged to see so many young people gathered here for this solemn occasion. This is the largest youth contingent ever to observe Vimy Ridge Day in Canada, and it is an honour to share this moment with you.
We put our faith in the youth of this country because you can renew our hope and vigour for tomorrow. You have also renewed our commitment to learning from history, and I want to thank you on behalf of all Canadians.
In 2017, Canada will mark another important milestone: the 150th anniversary of Confederation. As we approach this date—which, incidentally, will also mark the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge—I want to invite you to join me in imagining our country as it could be.
What are your hopes and dreams for Canada, and for our place in the world in this new century? How can we move forward while continuing to respect the past?
I would like to take this opportunity to commend the supporters of Encounters with Canada and the Army Cadet League of Canada for your efforts to educate and inspire our young people. You have truly answered the call to service.
And, as governor general and commander-in-chief of Canada, I want to thank the veterans—past and present—for all you have done for our country. You represent the depth of our commitment to the common good, and we are forever grateful.