‘From Vancouver to Vimy’

From Vancouver to Vimy; As Canadians mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Vancouver teens reflect on whether the lessons of the First World War have any meaning today:[Final Edition]
Janet NicolVancouver Courier.  Vancouver, B.C.:Apr 4, 2007.   

 

Class has just started in Pat Gordy’s Grade 11 social studies class at Vancouver Technical secondary school. Thirty students spill in from a noisy, crowded hallway. Some rush in, others move at a snail’s pace. T-shirts and jeans are the standard uniform and many enter with a backpack slung over their shoulder and books in their arms. They sit at desks lined in rows in a relaxed posture, a few with iPods and snack food at the ready.

Nine decades earlier, many young Canadians their age were in different uniforms and their posture was less relaxed as they marched up a dangerous slope in France at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. And while most teens in Vancouver have no relatives who fought for Canada in the First World War, the teens in Gordy’s class know Vimy is more than a hill in northeast France. It’s a part of Canadian history.

“Canada had their first major accomplishment at Vimy Ridge,” says Julie Kwan, a student in Gordy’s class at Van Tech, which enrolled its first students in 1916. “Canadians were heroic. They risked their lives and Canada became more independent as a nation.”

Kwan, 17, has been learning about the war in class. Gordy tries to get her students to think about the impact of war on the nations involved and at the home front. Kwan believes the government covered up what was really going so people would go to war. “It was very traumatic for the soldiers,” she says. “I don’t think a lot of us would go to war today because we have learned what war is really like.”

Her view is not alone among Vancouver students. While those teens studying the battle seem to come away with a sense of pride in what Canadians–many who were their age and most barely older– accomplished 90 years ago, many recoil from the horror that came with it. But others also say they believe the right cause can be worth the cost. On April 9, when that bloodied battlefield on French soil turns 90 and thousands of Canadians– including 4,000 students- -return to Vimy for a re-dedication ceremony of the monument that marks the battle, the meaning of war will not be lost on Vancouver’s youth.

Umair Mahmood, 17, echoes Julie’s words about Vimy. He believes the battle gave Canada its identity and prompted national unity. He also notes Canada’s role in the war was critical.

“The First World War was a terrible lesson,” he adds. “But it didn’t prevent another war.”

Mahmood does not oppose conscription, which occurred in Canada in the final year of both world wars. “It depends on the cause,” he says, “but the rights of pacifists and people who object for religious reasons should be respected.”

Canada’s current military role in Afghanistan is a good one, Mahmood believes. But he adds, “If we lose too many soldiers trying to rebuild that country, we should leave.”

As for Iraq, Mahmood is still unclear on why the Americans invaded. “They should have pulled out after Saddam Hussein was executed,” he says.

A show of hands among Gordy’s class indicates none have relatives who fought in the First World War. In fact, few students enrolled in Vancouver’s 18 high schools today have personal connections to “Britain’s” war, as the face of the city has become multicultural. Van Tech students come from families that speak a total of 52 languages. Across the city, students represent 100 different language groups, according to the Vancouver School Board website.

In contrast, the 1911 census reported almost three-quarters of the city’s population listed British ancestry and men outnumbered women 3 to 2. When the call came to help “King and empire” on Aug. 4, 1914, voluntary enlistment was immediate. Vancouver sent the highest percentage of soldiers of any city in North America.

Teenagers were recruited from the cadet corps, instituted in the high schools by the Vancouver school board when the war began. The corps were not dismantled until 1920.

As Gordy hands back tests on the war to her class, it is hard to imagine only four generations ago, Van Tech students were in the line of fire on the Western Front. Their sacrifices are remembered, by name, on a memorial scroll in the school’s foyer.

On April 9, 1917, Easter Monday, the four Canadian divisions serving on the Allied side fought together as a national unit for the first time in the war in a massive pre-dawn attack on the German- held ridge. Previous attempts by the French and British armies to take the ridge failed at a cost of thousands of lives.

But the innovative leadership of General Arthur Currie, a former school teacher and real estate agent from Vancouver Island, made a difference. Currie departed from the haphazard strategies of previous battles, particularly the Somme, and ordered his troops to repeatedly rehearse their roles for the battle. After months of planning, Canadians succeeded in taking the ridge by late afternoon on the first day. They fought fiercely for three more days, asserting a hold on the trenches and hillsides along the ridge. The national pride that followed their victory is considered one of the first moments when Canada had a sense of itself as a true nation instead of a mere colony of Mother England.

But 90 years later, it also serves as reminder of the atrocities of war.

Over on the West Side, Kitsilano secondary has at least two students with great-grandparents who served in the First World War, though not with Vancouver battalions. Alexander Will and Max Forsyth, both 17, are Grade 11 students in Paolo Altan’s history class. Kitsilano opened during the war, in 1917. Set in a neighbourhood close to the city centre, its students come from a wide range of backgrounds.

Will says Vimy “proved we are a nation capable of fighting” but doesn’t think we should idolize war heroes because “it continues the cycle of violence.”

Vimy is part of Canada’s military history, he says, and “makes people remember the horrors of war.” Will doesn’t think his generation will forget about the war, despite the fact only two First World War Canadian veterans, both more than 100 years old, are still alive. “The war is still part of the school curriculum,” he says.

As for our modern battles, Will believes Canada didn’t have a choice about fighting in Afghanistan, but says we have been there too long and have shouldered too much of the burden. “We should go as peacekeepers, not as a military force.”

And Iraq?

Will thinks America’s involvement is “unjustified and opportunistic.”

War “is not a great thing,” he adds, but the government should increase funding for the military. “We can’t rely on our allies to protect our sovereignty.”

Classmate Max Forsyth considers Vimy a great victory. “It showed others what we can do.”

But the toll for the war was high and Forsyth wonders if it was worth it. And he thinks people should remember everyone who died, “not just the heroes.”

Forsyth questions whether Canada’s role in Afghanistan is effective. “Is there any significant changes?”

As for Iraq, Forsyth believes the attempt by the Americans to stabilize the country has proven too hard and they should pull out. “Let [the Iraqis] figure it out.”

When Altan teaches Forsyth and his classmates about war, he tries to personalize the stories, reminding students how young Canadian soldiers were when they enlisted in 1914 and their commitment and sacrifices. “I want them to carry the message of sacrifice throughout their lives and to realize there may be a time when they will sacrifice for the greater good.”

The B.C.-based battalions were spread out among the four divisions. The majority were with the 4th Division, which succeeded in taking the eastern slopes of the ridge, driving the enemy from Hill 145, the highest point along the ridge and where the Vimy memorial now stands, and later, the Pimple, further north. The battle left 3,598 Canadian soldiers dead and thousands wounded.

Among those killed at Vimy were 31 Japanese-Canadians from B.C. who had signed on with Alberta battalions, having been refused in their home province. A monument in remembrance to Japanese-Canadian soldiers was erected in Stanley Park in 1920.

And in 1924, the Cenotaph at Victory Square was dedicated to all fallen soldiers and unveiled by Mayor W.R. Owens. Etched in granite is a question haunting us still. “Is it nothing to you?”

It’s the same question that faces the students at Magee secondary in Kerrisdale. Originally built in 1912, it was torn down in 2000 to make way for a new school. But the honour role of alumni killed in battle in Canada’s wars survived the move to be displayed in its foyer.

Today, more than half the school’s students come from homes where English is not the first language, according to the Vancouver school board website. But students of all backgrounds seem willing to learn the history of their country.

Kiara LeBlanc, 17, studies Grade 11 history in Steven Hall’s class. She believes Vimy needs to be remembered because so many people lost their lives. The battle was important because “finally Canada won,” she says.

LeBlanc supports Canada’s role in Afghanistan because she says it’s important to be “good neighbours” with the United States. “We may need their help some day,” she says. She doesn’t think we should put a time limit to our involvement. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”

Canada’s decision to stay out of Iraq was a tough one, LeBlanc says. But she thinks former prime minister Jean Chretien did the right thing.

Jackie Liu, 16, also in Hall’s class, says Canadians proved we were a true nation and not a colony at Vimy. “We were successful because we used new strategies and planned the attack, rather than rushing in to battle.”

Liu believes Canadians should help the Afghan people rebuild their life, but our stay should come with a time limit. The American war in Iraq is a mistake, he believes, because “they didn’t have a correct reason to invade.”

Hall and his colleagues at the other Vancouver schools say they don’t spend a lot of time teaching the First World War because history is only one-third of the Grade 11 curriculum. But he tells his students to think about the number of schools in Vancouver that would have been wiped out when comparing war casualties. About 56,000 students are enrolled in Vancouver schools–still fewer than the number of Canadian soldiers killed in the Great War.

When listening to today’s high school students talk about a critical moment in Canadian history, it’s striking to realize they are the same age as many of the young men who fought at Vimy 90 years ago.

Britannia secondary, the oldest surviving high school in East Vancouver, was established in 1907. “It was the school of hard knocks,” recalled former alumni Dr. William Miller in an interview for a 75th anniversary school publication, Fond Memories, published in 1983.

Miller, a graduate of 1916, clearly remembered the war years. “Two or three of the lads who were almost military age joined up and when they joined up, this was about 1916, they gave them their graduation,” he recalled.

“My brother went overseas. He got his left arm shattered and he lived five years after he came home. Quite a number of those lads were involved in the war.”

Miller, who went on to become a dentist, also remembers the Irish Fusiliers performing drills at McSpadden Park and the 29th Battalion, known as “Tobin’s Tigers,” drilling at Hastings Park.

“One name I remember was Howard Odlum. I think he joined up about that time. He was only about 17, something like that.”

According to Canadian Expeditionary Force personnel database held by the federal government’s Library and Records Canada, Howard Odlum lived within a few blocks of Britannia on Woodland Drive. He told recruiters he was an 18-year-old bookkeeper when he joined in September 1914. It was common for young men to lie about their age to enlist, especially in the euphoric first months when people believed the war would be over by Christmas.

A private with the 7th Battalion, Odlum survived the battle of Vimy Ridge but died later that year, on Aug. 15, at the battle of Hill 70. He is one of the 11,285 Canadian names posted on the Vimy Memorial as “missing, presumed dead,” their bodies never recovered after battles all along the Western Front.

Alan Napier was only 17 when he enlisted, urged on by his Vancouver high school principal and his father, John. His story is told on the 54th Battalion website.

The Napiers lived on Prince Edward Street, close to John Oliver secondary, originally called South Vancouver High School when it opened in 1912. Alan had been an apprentice engineer but on July 11, 1916 he signed on to the Duke of Connaught’s Own, six months after his father, 41, a building contractor, joined. Father and son sailed to England together leaving behind John’s wife Kate and three younger children.

John and Alan were later transferred to the 54th Battalion. On that fateful day of April 9, 1917, John took part in the attack on Vimy Ridge while Alan remained behind. John suffered an arm wound during the initial assault and was returning to a medical station when he was killed by an artillery shell.

After learning of his father’s death, Alan suffered extreme shock. In consideration of Alan’s age, the military agreed with his mother’s request for a discharge. Alan returned to Vancouver later that year, resuming an active life up to his death in 1985.

Alan’s father is buried at Vimy Ridge memorial park, in one of the many cemeteries surrounding the memorial.

The first troop trains full of young people left Vancouver Aug. 22, 1914, nearly three years before the bloodshed at Vimy. After months of training, soldiers arrived on the front the following April, only to be victims of the Germans’ “secret weapon”–poison gas. Casualties continued to mount after the battle at Ypres as trench warfare and the use of modern weaponry took a toll. Battalions of 1,100 men and officers were depleted many times over during the course of the war and by its end, of the 43,000 British Columbians serving overseas, 6,225 died and thousands more were wounded.

In the area surrounding Vimy Ridge, one memorial tree has been planted for each of the Canadians who died in the war. There are more than 60,000 trees.

Along with his friends and peers, Alexander Will moves from one class to another at the sound of Kitsilano’s school bell, able to enjoy a peace his great-grandfather did not. But Will doesn’t turn his back on the past, comparing the number of Canadian casualties at Vimy with those of American soldiers in the current Middle East conflict. “More people died at Vimy than in Iraq,” he points out. “It makes you realize how deadly the war was.”

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