“You might be able to get to the top of Vimy Ridge, but I’ll tell you this: you’ll be able to take all the Canadians back in a row boat that get to here.”
The German officer who made this comment, Easter week, 1917, was standing on the Pimple, just beyond the steepest point of the 8km Vimy escarpment. His seasoned troops were deeply dug in, and held the high ground. He had every reason to believe that the Canadian divisions assembling in the fields below would soon be just as dead as everyone else who had attacked the German positions.
He was quite wrong, of course.
The Canadians took Vimy Ridge. Then they took the ‘impregnable’ Pimple.
They did it in four brutal days of fighting. They did it even though veteran French forces and British forces had, since 1914, been thrown from the Ridge time and again, with colossal losses. They did it despite the skeptics and the bull-headed attitudes of most of the military brass of World War I.
It cost them 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded, but they did it.
Then those still left in fighting trim climbed aboard transports and headed off to the next fight.
In the late 20th century our patriotic nation-builders often claim that Canada was born that week of 1917 at Vimy Ridge.
They talk of an independent, energized Canadian identity taking shape, a national spirit emerging out of the battlefield near Givenchy-en-Gohelle.
But did the Canadian divisions who won at Vimy know, or even sense this?
Probably not. Too many other tough and bloody battles already lay behind them: too many hard fights still lay ahead. There was work to be done.
Yet the New York Tribune, late March, 1917, made it clear that the Americans at least knew there was a powerful nation stirring into life beside them. “The Canadians have swept up the famous Vimy Ridge…They have had their hour. We shall know later at what price this achievement was accomplished, but no praise will be too high.
Well done, Canada.”