Thousands of students armed with Canadian flags and banners paid silent tribute to nearly 3,600 fallen countrymen Monday as they embarked on a slow march to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
An estimated 5,000 students braved persistent, driving rains as they plodded solemnly from the towering limestone pylons of France's Vimy Ridge Memorial to a pair of cemeteries where some of Canada's First World War dead are buried.
“We stand on hallowed ground,” Gov.-Gen. David Johnston told an audience of thousands that included Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney and a number of French and Canadian dignitaries.
“A place of agonized conflict, a site of appalling loss of life, a vessel of sorrow, a crucible of courage, a hallmark of ingenuity, collaboration and resolve undertaken by men at arms in the cause of peace.”
The journey to Vimy helps Canadians understand the courage and sacrifices of those who fought for a free and peaceful world, Mr. Blaney said.
“By teaching youth about the courage and perseverance shown by the young Canadians who fought during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, we are helping to create a new generation that will shape the future of our great country,” he said.
“The youth here have been witness to the sacrifice of Vimy and will move forward with the same determination as those who fought with pride and conviction 95 years ago.”
The slow march, known as the Vimy Glide, was a tactic employed by the Canadian Corps as they moved up Hill 145, keeping just back of an advancing artillery barrage against well-entrenched German troops who had been beating back British and French forces for months.
Within four days, the Canadians had accomplished what their allies had lost an estimated 300,000 men attempting to do. By April 12, 1917, the Germans had been routed and would never regain the ridge. But the victory came at the expense of 3,598 Canadian lives.
Monday's weather conditions at Vimy, about 10 kilometres outside the nearby city of Arras, were reminiscent of those in April 1917. Participants unfurled umbrellas and donned raincoats and ponchos in hopes of keeping out a driving rain that kept up for most of the day.
Still, the enthusiastic crowd cheered lustily Mr. Johnston, Mr. Blaney and other dignitaries mounted a covered stage close to the $1.5-million, twin-pillared monument, designed by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward.
One moment of levity in the otherwise solemn procession, which took place earlier in the day, came when a bystander remarked: “Imagine 5,000 Canadian teenagers remaining silent during a two-kilometre stroll.”
Four Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic actions during the four-day battle: Capt. Thain Wendell MacDowell of Lachute, Que.; Lance Sgt. Ellis Wellwood Sifton of Wallacetown, Ont.; Pte. John George Pattison of Calgary; and Pte. William Johnstone Milne of Moose Jaw, Sask.
Canadian Gen. Arthur Currie was a driving force in bringing together four Canadian divisions to fight as a single Corps at Vimy. His chief was British Gen. Julian Byng, who later became Lord Byng of Vimy and served as governor general of Canada 1921-26.”
Mr. Johnston has noted that the Canadians brought new ideas to the fight at Vimy, where the German army had stood off repeated attacks by the French and British, who lost 100,000 trying to storm the position.
Mr. Currie and his men did things differently. They honed new ways of using artillery, they trained incessantly. And they entrusted the ordinary soldiers with the battle plan, explaining to every private and corporal what he was to do.
Monday's ceremony was the first major Vimy anniversary without a single living Canadian veteran of the First World War. The last died in 2010.