Opening of the Vimy 1917: the Underground War of Canadians Exhibition
Souchez, France, Saturday, April 8, 2017
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is perhaps the most famous battle in Canadian history.
And yet, how many people know the extent and importance of the underground war?
Thousands of Canadian soldiers toiled underground prior to the battle.
They excavated an extensive network of tunnels, dugouts and caves that proved pivotal to success one hundred years ago.
The tunnels were used to protect Canadians from enemy shellfire. They were used for rest, for shelter and for the element of surprise, leading up to the day of attack.
And today they serve another, unintended, purpose: as memorials.
Those soldiers did what people always do while confined for long stretches of time, bored, anxious, afraid and facing an uncertain future.
They left traces of themselves.
They left inscriptions and graffiti.
They left images of themselves, of loved ones, of religious and patriotic symbols.
They drew cartoons and badges.
They wrote their names.
In sum, they left unmistakable signs of their humanity in those tunnels.
One image in the Grange Tunnel is particularly striking: a Canadian maple leaf.
For many of those soldiers, it was the last trace they would leave before emerging into the terrible light of day on April 9, 1917.
This exhibit helps us to understand what many soldiers’ experience of Vimy was like in the months leading up to the battle.
It also helps us to understand who those soldiers were, where they came from, and what they thought about and felt.
The Vimy Memorial is inscribed with the names of 11 285 Canadians who were killed in France and whose final resting places are unknown. Almost 3 600 Canadians were killed at Vimy, and some 7 000 were wounded.
This exhibit helps to bring the memory of those Canadians back to life. Remembrance is an act of the imagination, and the images, artifacts and stories in this exhibit help us with the important act of imagining.
These carvings remind us that the titanic battles of the Western Front were fought by armies of young men. They were fathers, sons, uncles and brothers. They came from Canada— they were of Canada.
As commander-in-chief of Canada, it’s a privilege to be here with our delegation to honour those who served so bravely. In the past century, Canadian troops have demonstrated valour and dedication, following the example of their predecessors at Vimy.
Now let us remember why, following the war, the world finally chose peace.
Let me thank your community and the museum, as well as Library and Archives Canada, for this very special exhibit.
And I thank you all for honouring our veterans and for helping us to remember their sacrifices.