Canadian Byng Boys returning after beating the Germans at Vimy Ridge, May 1917. Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001451
“In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation”
Brigadier-General A.E. Ross, 1936
On April 9, 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, commemorative ceremonies were held in both our nation’s capital and in France. While not the most strategically important battle won by the Canadian Corps in the First World War, it’s certainly a defining one.
In fact, if there’s a single moment in Canadian history in which our identity as an independent nation solidified, the victory at Vimy Ridge might well be it.
On that fateful day in 1917, Canadian troops succeeded in securing the German-occupied ridge for the Allies after several failed attempts by the French.
However, what really marks the battle as a turning point in our nation’s history is that it was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force jointly participated in a battle. Troops from all over the country fought together.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought on an Easter Monday, April 9 in wind, snow and sleet, with the first assault troops advancing up the slope in side-by-side formation at 5:30 in the morning.
The success of the Canadian combatants can be attributed to a number of things including meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training.
However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that acts of personal bravery were also paramount.
According to war historian Tim Cook, there were “countless acts of sacrifice, as Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts.”
There were over 10,000 casualties in the battle with 3,598 fatalities.
Several years after the war was won, France allotted 107 hectares of land atop the former battleground to Canada to be used as a park and war memorial.
Unveiled in 1936, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is engraved with the names of the 11,285 Canadians who were fatally wounded in France during World War I and who have no other known marked grave.
This important beacon of Canadian achievement and unity also decorates the back of our 20-dollar bill.
August 23, 1917
W. H. McMurray, M.C. was promoted to Captain and decorated with Military Cross by King George.
In a letter home, and printed in the August 23 issue of the Coronation Review, McMurray wrote: “I was three months’ ago promoted Captain and sent to England to train…
“My last great fight in France was at Vimy Ridge, where Canada slipped the cleanest victory of the way over on Germany, advancing in six hours to a depth of 3 1/2 miles and spearing 5000 prisoners and a bunch of guns.
“It was a splendid little scrap and one that I was proud to have been in. By the way, it was optional with me whether I went into it or went to England; as my recall came through on April 4th.
“As Vimy was to be attacked on the ninth, I begged to be allowed to remain, and they did, and I went over in the third wave of the initial attack and I had lots of excitement.
“I then started my new duties on May 1st, 1917, and being advanced to the rank of Captain on May 10th.
“My service in France was two years, 2 months 2 weeks to a day.
“I went over a private and came back whole in body, a Captain in rank, plus a Military Cross, which was officially handed to me by the King at Buckingham Palace,
“I’ve given up three of the best years of my life to this horrible game and am still very much in it.
Aug. 20, 1914
W. H. McMurray who for some time past has been the C.P.R. construction department left for the war. McMurray is a member of a Winnipeg Signal Corp. which has been selected out of all corps in Canada for duty at the front.
In the December 27, 1917 issue of the Coronation Review is a list of 180 men who served in World War I from our district including five who died, 25 wounded, 14 killed, one gased and four missing.
Many excerpts of letters home and news items in the pages of the Coronation Review, and reprinted in the “Back in Time” history book available at the ECA (Coronation) Review for purchase. Call 403-578-4111 to get your copy.