Vimy Ridge and Arras -- big pictures, little cameos

As usual since arriving in Dublin, the birds woke me up before sunrise. Normally, I roll over and go back to sleep. This morning, April 9, I thought to myself: "H-hour. Over the top."

A hundred years ago this morning, the four Divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force scrambled from their trenches during a snowstorm and a storm of artillery to launch the assault on Vimy Ridge.

By 1 p.m. they had accomplished what had been previously considered impossible: they had captured the strongly held German positions on top of a hill that overlooked the Douai plain. 


In Canada, the battle is notable for many reasons. It was the first time that all four Canadian divisions fought together.  Soldiers from every region of the country were forged into a brotherhood on that day. Back home, a new sense of national pride emerged as Canadians learned that our soldiers had succeeded where previous attacks had failed. 

Billy Bishop watched the battle from the cockpit of a Nieuport 17.  Manfred von Richtofen's "Flying Circus" had recently been transferred to this part of the front, and the average life expectancy of new Royal Flying Corps pilot during "Bloody April" was at 11 days. Bishop had been at the front for a total of 24 days, and already he had been promoted to Wing Commander of 60 Squadron.

Below him, the carnage was appalling.  Some 3,500 Canadians lost their lives during the assault on Vimy Ridge. Another 7,000 were wounded. Writing this from Dublin, I'm surrounded by mementos of the "blood sacrifice" of those who fought in the Easter Rising -- the year prior to Vimy Ridge.  

Padraig Pearse and the other poets, playwrights and intellectuals who led the rebellion were steeped in the notion that blood would be shed to give birth to a nation. The same was true for Canada -- only our blood was shed in support of the British Empire, instead of against it.

This morning, a delegation led by Prime Minister Trudeau is holding commemorative services at Vimy Ridge. Among the thousands attending will be Ottawa school children led by my friend Julian Hall. Julian is passionate about Canadian history and his enthusiasm inspires his students. Julian was born and raised in Wales, and came to Canada after he married a Canadian whom he met in Australia.  We're covering many of the red areas on those imperial maps!

Julian has had each of the students research the life of an individual Canadian soldier killed at Vimy Ridge. They have gone to France this weekend as part of a group, but as well they are each making a personal pilgrimage to keep alive the memory of someone who died a hundred years ago.

The assault on Vimy Ridge was one event of a much larger action known as the Battle of Arras, which began on April 9 and lasted until May 17.  

For a while, it looked like the Canadian victory in taking Vimy Ridge might lead to the long-awaited breakthrough of the German lines that would end the war. It was not to be. 

But elsewhere along the front that morning, Second Lieutenant Edward Thomas of the Royal Garrison Artillery was killed in action shortly after arriving at the front. Thomas had been born near London but his family was Welsh. He was a good friend of the American poet, Robert Frost.

In his column, "An Irishman's Diary" in this weekend's Irish Times, Frank McNally writes about how it may have been Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" that drove Thomas to join the army and go off to fight. 

And so, in the spirit of Julian's method of focusing on one individual to come to an understanding of the thousands who died 100 years ago today, let me share one of the poems of Edward Thomas.


Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude. 
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon: 
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain, 
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead, 
Like a cold water among broken reeds, 
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff, 
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death, 
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.