One day last April, I stood on a green field and cried as I watched the sun caress the newly-restored Canadian National Vimy Memorial. One cold day, 90 years ago, Pte. Joseph Banville of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces stood by the same ridge, knee-deep in mud, and died for peace. The memorial honours him, as well as thousands of other faceless young Canadian men, for his sacrifice.
April 9 was the 90th anniversary of the capture of Vimy Ridge in France. On that day in 1917, a group of Canadian soldiers conquered Vimy, but at a tremendous cost. Almost 3,600 Canadian soldiers traded their lives for the ridge. Their sacrifice put Vimy Ridge into the hands of the Allied Forces – a feat thought to be impossible. The British and French forces had tried and failed to take Vimy many times before. If these two great armies had been defeated, how could the farmers’ sons from Canada hope to do any better? After months of behind-line practising, the Canadians battled for Vimy and won. After long months of stalemate, the war now began to tip in the Allies’ favour.
When I went to Vimy, I went with 3,600 Canadian youth, each student representing a fallen Canadian soldier. I stood in the place of 21-year-old Pte. Banville. By reading his registration papers I was able to connect more with Joseph Banville. I learned that he was 1.7 metres (5’6″ feet) tall with blond hair and eyes that were grey like a stormy sea. He was born in Amqui, Que., at the base of the Gaspe peninsula. He died at Vimy Ridge on April 9. He, like so many others, died in a world of mud and gunfire, a world completely alien, yet completely essential to the Vimy of today.
Today, Vimy Ridge is a place of quiet remembrance and stone-etched grief. Made of extremely durable limestone and adorned with two 30-metre pylons and 20 statues representing sorrow, remembrance and peace, the Canadian National Vimy Monument is magnificent. Due to the height of the ridge, the highest stone sculpture – representing peace – is approximately 110 metres above the plain to the east. The most striking of the statues is the Sorrow of Canada. Bent with grief and weariness, the woman stands alone in front of the two pylons. She represents Canada and the heartache the country must have experienced at the lost of so many sons. The master carver, Walter Seymour Allward, carefully sculpted a statue that brings visitors to tears. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is not a triumphant monument of victory, but is rather a monument of remembrance and lament.
In contrast to the past suffering, the day of the ceremony was glorious, without a cloud in sight. It was as if God had decided to push the dark past away from Vimy with celebratory sunshine. As world leaders spoke, the sun steadily shone. The weather seemed to agree with the words being spoken; the messages of light, hope, peace and remembrance echoed in the bright sun.
The most touching part of the ceremony was when a young woman, Sierra Noble, took out her fiddle and played the Warrior’s Lament. The song echoed over a quiet field as all people stopped their cheering and shouting to listen to the heart-wrenching tune. The song was not mere music, but an expression of the message of the Vimy memorial. Sorrow and woe resonated in the air just as passionately as the flats and sharps. The playing stirred feelings of remorse at what had passed on the ridge 90 years before and kindled hope that it would never happen again.
I am not a soldier. When I open my eyes in the morning, I do not see tents or muddy trenches. I walk to school without fear of bombs or attacks. I have not sacrificed my present for the future of another. I am just a young woman who lives peacefully in a country of hope, freedom and peace. I know that without the sacrifice of Joseph Banville and thousands like him, I would not have the opportunities I have today. Across the world, nameless, faceless soldiers have given their lives for our freedom. I thank these heroes for our hope.
We Both Stand Here
As I stand here, miles from home,
in my glossy clean green army shirt,
sun shining on my face,
wind in my hair,
hope and peace in my eyes,
I think of him.
Standing here, miles from home,
in his muddy, bloody, ripped uniform
rain beating his face, mingling with his tears,
wind cruelly shoving him down,
war and despair in his eyes,
And I cry.
– Anna York-Lyon
Anna York-Lyon is a Grade 10 student at Immaculata High School in Ottawa. Her grandfather, a decorated veteran of the Second World War, lives just down the road from her. For more information on the Vimy Memorial, please see Veterans Affairs Canada’s Web site: www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers