The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a defining moment in Canadian history. More than 10,500 Canadians were wounded – about 3,600 of them killed – during the battle, which occurred April 9-12, 1917. The battle was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Field Force participated in a battle together and it became a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice. A portion of the former battleground is the site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
James Ross Sutherland fought in this battle, and as a young girl, Joanne Sutherland asked her father plenty of questions about what exactly happened when he fought at Vimy Ridge, but James Ross Sutherland never detailed the horrors he witnessed as a soldier with the 44th Battalion in the First World War. “He was a man who was very open and challenged you to discuss things, but when it came to the topic of the First World War, I came to realize that was a wall that I was not to come to,” Sutherland said.
Even in a postcard sent to his mother in 1917, James didn’t expand on what he had seen overseas. In fact, he even apologized for the condition the postcard was in after he held on to it through the epic battle at Vimy Ridge, something he described in his note as “a little bit of excitement.”
With the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge just a year away, Vimy Foundation director Jeremy Diamond is aiming to increase awareness about the battle’s importance. According to a recent poll, Canadians agreed that commemorating the 100th anniversary of the battle should be one of the most important events during Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations in 2017.
Diamond says the organization expects next year’s gathering at the battle site in northern France to be the largest since the 1936 unveiling of the Vimy monument. “We are hearing from people on a regular basis about the centennial,” Diamond said. “There is this incredible energy and interest from people a year out that want to be involved because they know the battle site to be something special.” The centennial celebration will also include the grand opening of a new $10-million education center.
Sutherland has visited several times, and each visit has been “so moving.”
“Visiting Vimy is something I believe all Canadians should try to do,” she said.
Part of what makes the experience so incredible, says Sutherland, is walking the grounds where Canadians fought and getting a sense of what the soldiers went through. Her father, James, was one of the soldiers who helped successfully storm a high ridge known as “the Pimple.” The capture of that hill led to the Germans accepting their loss to the Canadians.
Sutherland hopes the anniversary will help Canadians appreciate what the thousands of soldiers went through during those four days a century ago. “There’s a difference between learning about the dates of battles and knowing about the people and what they had gone through,” Sutherland said. “We wouldn’t be living in the country we are today if all those soldiers hadn’t done their service.”
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