Canada was forged in the trenches of the First World War

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - OPINION - RICK HILLIER

Our memo­ri­als, many of which are far away in Europe, are sym­bols both of what it takes to build a na­tion, and what it takes to main­tain one

Re­tired gen­eral and for­mer chief of the de­fence staff of the Cana­dian Forces

Life is busy in Canada and for that rea­son, there seems to be only a fleet­ing mo­ment in November when any of us pay at­ten­tion to our his­tory. Nev­er­the­less, Cana­di­ans need to re­mem­ber be­cause in the mud and hor­ror of the First World War, our na­tion was forged.

On the Somme in 1916, with the French bleed­ing at Ver­dun and most of north­ern France and Bel­gium oc­cu­pied by Ger­many, the Bri­tish and Cana­di­ans had to do some­thing to lessen the chance of France col­laps­ing. But lessons from the Amer­i­can Civil War and ear­lier bat­tles in this war, if learned, were not ap­plied. On Day 1, there were 60,000 Bri­tish Empire ca­su­al­ties, of whom some 20,000 died.

This was a war still led largely by gen­tle­men, the so-called nat­u­ral lead­ers. They be­lieved their gal­lantry and val­our would be suf­fi­cient to win the day. So much so that the night be­fore bat­tle, one bri­gade com­man­der and his of­fi­cers fo­cused more on what the troops would eat for break­fast the next morn­ing, in­stead of how they would fight. This am­a­teurism was felt ev­ery­where, but nowhere more than the New­found­land Reg­i­ment. Some 800 New­found­lan­ders went “over the top” in the early morn­ing on July 1, and, in just an hour, most be­came ca­su­al­ties. Only 68 were avail­able for duty the next day. By its end, the Bat­tle of the Somme had be­come an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter, with more than 500,000 ca­su­al­ties dur­ing 147 days of fruit­less dy­ing for just kilo­me­tres of ter­ri­tory.

Cana­di­ans distin­guished them­selves by learn­ing from that dis­as­ter. With a team led by Arthur Cur­rie, per­haps Canada’s great­est mil­i­tary leader, they as­sessed what had hap­pened, what had gone right and wrong and how to im­prove. The Cana­dian Corps used those lessons at every level to change the way they led, pre­pared and trained, and hence changed the way they fought. This ex­pe­ri­ence cul­mi­nated in vic­tory later on Easter Mon­day,

April 9, 1917, when the

Cana­di­ans took Vimy

Ridge.

Sup­ported by thou­sands of Bri­tish sol­diers, con­fi­dent and thor­oughly pre­pared for bat­tle, they emerged from tun­nels at 0530 hours and at­tacked through snow, mud, barbed wire, ma­chine-gun fire and ar­tillery bar­rages. By noon, most of Vimy Ridge had been cap­tured, the Ger­mans dis­placed and our mil­i­tary rep­u­ta­tion for­ever changed. For the rest of the war, wher­ever the Cana­di­ans were, their pres­ence pre­saged an at­tack in the minds of the Ger­mans, be­cause we were the shock troops who brought suc­cess.

In the fall of 1917, the Cana­dian Corps, now with Gen­eral Cur­rie com­mand­ing, were sent to Pass­chen­daele where one of the most hor­rific and fu­tile bat­tles was un­der way. Our sons ar­rived on a land­scape churned into end­less mud, wa­ter and de­stroyed bod­ies from pre­vi­ous bat­tles by more than four mil­lion shells fired at the Ger­mans. My grea­tun­cle, Pri­vate John Clark, was among those who fought there. He ar­rived in Bel­gium in early sum­mer of 1917 with the New­found­land Reg­i­ment. He be­came a run­ner – re­spon­si­ble for run­ning or­ders and mes­sages be­tween com­man­ders and units. At the age of 20, on Aug. 13, 1917, he was wounded by ar­tillery fire and died at a field dress­ing sta­tion the next day. He rests there still.

The ar­rival of the Cana­dian Corps in Pass­chen­daele was a key mo­ment in our his­tory. Gen­eral Cur­rie in­sisted we would ful­fill our mis­sion in our way, with our tac­tics, on our time­line. He stood up for Canada, say­ing no one was go­ing to tell Cana­dian sol­diers what to do or how to do it. Gen­eral Cur­rie’s lessons shaped me and other Cana­dian com­man­ders when we did our job, decades later, in Afghanistan and on other op­er­a­tions around the world. Pass­chen­daele left us that legacy: We look af­ter Cana­dian sol­diers first.

That’s a les­son we must con­tinue to re­mem­ber by look­ing af­ter Cana­dian sol­diers as they be­come vet­er­ans.

The True Patriot Love Foun­da­tion is a na­tional char­ity that has pro­vided more than $25-mil­lion to 750 com­mu­nity-based pro­grams across Canada, de­liv­er­ing es­sen­tial sup­port and re­sources to our mil­i­tary and vet­eran fam­i­lies. This year, I part­nered with it in the mak­ing of a doc­u­men­tary film Forged

In Stone, which tells the story of the First World War and the one hun­dred years of sol­dier­ing since then, re­mind­ing Cana­di­ans of the great sac­ri­fice and ser­vice re­quired to build our na­tion and keep us strong to­day. We, as a na­tion, con­tinue to need Canada’s sons and daugh­ters to serve in the Cana­dian Armed Forces. Those great Cana­di­ans, in turn, both serv­ing and vet­er­ans, need our sup­port.

The film tours many bat­tle sites of the First World War, Com­mon­wealth War Graves and mon­u­ments. Our memo­ri­als, many of which are far away in Europe, are our phys­i­cal touch­stones to those mo­ments in his­tory when lib­erty and free­dom were in peril.

They are here to help us re­mem­ber the ter­ri­ble cost of de­fend­ing that free­dom and to hon­our the sac­ri­fice of the fallen. Equally im­por­tant, they are sym­bols both of what it takes to build a na­tion, and what it takes to main­tain one: lead­er­ship, self-re­al­iza­tion, con­fi­dence, ma­tu­rity and con­stant learn­ing.

Our growth as a na­tion is for­ever forged in those stones.

Lest we for­get.

We, as a na­tion, con­tinue to need Canada’s sons and daugh­ters to serve in the Cana­dian Armed Forces. Those great Cana­di­ans, in turn, both serv­ing and vet­er­ans, need our sup­port.

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