The Easter Monday That Changed The World

April 9, 2012

On an Easter Monday a little over 90 years ago, the world changed forever. On that day a terrible battle was fought and won, in a place called Vimy Ridge, in France.

The battle marked the first major victory for the Allied nations facing the German and Central Forces. Prior to the victory at Vimy Ridge, those same Allied forces had been met with one staggering defeat after another. The First World War was the first post Napoleonic-era war and Europe and the rest of the world would never be same. In the end, the war was to cause the disintegration of four empires that had changed the world. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires were lost. Half a dozen new states were created in Europe, and Poland and Lithuania were recreated. Most importantly, the First World War was a transitional war. Whereas wars were once fought exclusively for territory and resources, the First World War was fought about ideas and the imposition of those ideas, some of which were less than savory, to be sure.

With newest technologies of the day factored in, the engines of war were fierce, indeed. The casualties of the day were unprecedented.

On April 9, 1917, Easter Monday, four Canadian divisions from that new nation across the Atlantic, were called upon to fight together in Old Europe, to secure Vimy Ridge, a hellish place on this earth that had claimed 150,000 French lives alone. Other thousands of British soldiers were to make the ultimate sacrifice, too.

For a week prior to the actual battle, artillery barrages and exchanges could be heard across the channel in the south of England, 100 miles away.

On that Easter Monday, the Canadian soldiers were given a hot breakfast (about as common as Loch Ness monster sightings) and some rum:

The notion that this was a day like none other here was established early on when, in the darkness before zero hour, the troops were treated to a rare hot breakfast. There was bacon, bread, butter, tea and oranges — and after the meal, an issue of rum for every soldier, “which was rather small,” grumbled Private Leo Kelly, a 19-year old, who nonetheless remarked, “We don’t need rum to fight. All we need is grub and cigarettes.”

Maybe so for the young Quebec private, full up on a rare warm breakfast and energized by the prospect of battle, but for Lieutenant Stuart Kirkland and his platoon, who had spent the night packed into a front-line trench in the cold and muddy darkness, the rations of rum were essential.

“We stood there in mud to our waists all night waiting for the eventful hour. After fifteen minutes before the time set, I took two water bottles of rum and gave each of the men a good swallow, for I was bitter cold standing in the mud all night.”

Where the French and British had failed, the Canadians had succeeded. Three days later, the cost of victory became clear, with 3,598 Canadians having paid the ultimate price as some 7,104 lay wounded. The raw numbers are meaningless. In a country with such a population 1/10 that of the United States, that is the equivalent of 36,000 deaths in a single battle. Note: Reader Mark notes in a comment that based on population statistics, the Canadian losses today would be 46,100.

There are thousands of soldiers that have still not found rest. This week, the remains of Canadian Private Herbert Peterson, will finally find peace. He was found a few years ago, along with another soldier who may have been carrying the wounded private when they were both killed by a bomb blast. DNA tests confirmed Peterson’s identity. Further tests will identify his mate.

Women from far away places could be found at the front.

From the very night in 1914, when she read in Vancouver newspapers that Britain had declared war on Germany, she announced to her family that she was going overseas to drive Red Cross ambulances. In the months that followed, she contacted the war office in Ottawa and the Red Cross in Britain. Neither appeared interested in helping her make her way to the battlefields of Europe. So she saved what she could and eventually paid for her own passage across the Atlantic. The next hurdle she faced was Canadian army inertia. Waiting patiently for an answer at first, Grace finally forced the issue, demanding and getting an audience with the Minister of Militia and commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Sir Sam Hughes himself, in London in 1916.

“I’ve come from Canada to drive an ambulance,” she told Hughes and an entourage of officers in Hughes’s luxury suite at the Savoy Hotel.

“I’ll stop any woman from going to France,” Hughes blustered. “And I’ll stop you too.”

“Well, Sir Sam, I’m going to France,” she insisted. “And I’ll get there with or without your help.”

She did get to France and Grace McPherson’s contribution to the war effort was immeasurable.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge saw four Canadian divisions fighting together, under Canadian command. Those soldiers came from every region of the young nation. After the war, Brigadier-General A.E. Ross said of the assault on Vimy Ridge, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

To “witness the birth of a nation” has nothing to do with armies, battles or soldiers, even though that more often than not appears to be the case.

Truly great nations are born when the ideas that elevate mankind and society are so great, they can no longer be contained in the realm of the ethereal. Those great ideas must find life. Those ideas require real and meaningful outlets where the principles and ideals those ideas represent, can freely express themselves. That is how great nations are born.

On April 9, 1917, Easter Monday, the world changed.

New nations came into being, nations that were willing to fight for an idea. Nations that shared the idea of freedom did not need to fight each other. The free exchange of ideas led to the free markets of exchange and collaboration.

Empires were created to exploit resources and to extend dominance. Free societies are created to exploit ideas. In the short time free societies have existed, they have created more wealth than all the empires combined.

As we have noted,

In the course of just over 200 years, we have provided the world with ideas, contributions and realities that are in the consciousness of every human being on the planet.

Easter is an expression of rebirth, of finding meaning and purpose. It is about elevation and potential, possibilities and hope.

The battle for Vimy Ridge was not a battle for a few yards of ground, in a war of territorial conquest. Rather, it was a battle between dark and light- those who would oppress and those who would defend the rebirth and resurrection of mankind’s potential. The Old Europe of empires and colonialism came to an end at Vimy Ridge.

The world changed forever on that Easter Monday, because on that day, it became clear to all that the ideas of freedom, rebirth and fighting evil are ideas that are worth defending, even at enormous cost.

We can only hope that those lessons are not lost, even as we fight the tyranny of oppressors and their stated evil, today.

For more on Vimy Ridge, see this:

Closest to the surface here in Vimy are the 3,598 Canadians who died in the four-day battle, along with the 20,000 Germans who were killed and wounded that Easter holiday. It was a successful battle for the Canadians, one that used novel innovations in artillery, aviation and communications to outsmart a highly entrenched enemy.

Beneath those Canadians and their April, 1917, enemies, scattered downwards for metres, are remains of the British and below them the French soldiers who had tried to take the hill for horrifying months: In total, an estimated 200,000 corpses scattered across this small stretch of countryside, their remains only partially collected. They are joined by macabre bits of the 600,000 men who were injured, many horrendously, in their attempts to take this hill.

See this and links embedded within, for more.

Portions of this post have been previously published.

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