Thoughts on Vimy

This year marks the hundred-year anniversary.

It’s perhaps the greatest triumph our nation has ever undertaken. Canada was born on a frozen windswept ridge in France in 1917. 

But don’t forget the truth of what happened that day. Don’t let anyone you know forget what happened that day. 

A bunch of kids far from home died miserably and screaming. Children became orphans. Wives became widows. Mothers were left with nothing more than a final letter from a son, or a husband, or both, who assured them to assume the worst if they were reported missing. 

Their children, husbands, and fathers went over the top - they advanced. It wasn’t a charge. It was a trained, systematic, advance. They marched behind hell unleashing its worst. Some strayed too close to the barrage and didn’t feel the shrapnel pierce their skulls and eviscerate them. Others took bullets to their stomachs, and stayed there in agony for days, unrecoverable, thinking god-knows what, before a stray shell finally snuffed them in the middle of the night. Dozens more, wounded, fell into the huge craters left by the mines - screaming, dying, surrounded by corpses, drowning. 

Others, seeing the carnage, disgusted to see their countrymen die so horribly, thought “fuck it”, and charged the enemy machine guns, killed the boys killing them, and saved lives by taking them before they had to sacrifice their own. They won medals, sure, but they didn’t do it for the medals. They did it for the people who were dying around them. 

Vimy may be the story of a nation, but it’s mainly the story of the people who fought there. It’s the story of the Canadians who, with home far behind them, built up the courage to cross a corpse-strewn field with the full knowledge that they might never be seen again, that their story would remain unknown for all time. 

Vimy is a story of pain. It’s the story of a boy who grew into a man and drowned in a shellhole, surrounded by the screaming and twisted bodies of others like him. It’s the story of a soldier who fought against all odds and knocked out the machine gun that killed all his section before being stabbed to death. It’s the story of children who never knew that their father was blown asunder trying to pull out his friend who was shot. It’s the story of a young man who had to shove a steel blade in the gut of someone who he would have been good friends with in better times. It’s the story of a mother who never had the chance to bury her son, because the shells buried him. It’s the story of a veteran who was protected by some divine force in the devil’s courtyard and came out physically unscathed but with the scars and pictures imprinted in his mind of the screaming wounded and the dead. It’s the story of people who killed, died, bled, cried, screamed, and suffered more in a day than anyone should in a lifetime. 

We can never forget that.

The ancient Greeks believed that to give’s one life for one’s country was the ultimate sacrifice that one could make - many of these men gave more. These Canadians gave their identities. Their names. Their stories. Time erased them. The myth of the victorious Canadian Corps took the place of the true story - a kid thinking of the girl he was going to marry before his plans were cut short by an explosive shell. A child who grew up without a father before dying over twenty years later in Normandy. A mother who loved, nurtured, and raised a son who she last saw smiling, waving goodbye to her her from a rail platform in Winnipeg. 

There’s more pride in the truth than in the myth. Every time you think of the myth, remember the truth, remember why we commemorate that battle. It’s not because of what it means to our nation. We commemorate it because of what happened to those who fought there. We commemorate those we lost, and those who lost someone. Vimy was the birth of our nation not because Canadians from all walks of life fought together. It’s because every corner of our nation was united in the agony, in the void left by those who left, those who died, those we buried and those we never found in battlefields all over Europe.

We owe it to them. We owe it to them to remember their stories not because they lived to tell them, but because we know the truth of what happened to those men on that cold ridge in that snowy April morning. We know the truth, and it’s our duty as Canadians to share it. 

Lest we forget.

A studio portrait of Ryochi Kobayashi in military uniform; Vancouver, BC in 1916.

During the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a three-day ordeal that began on April 9, 1917, more than 7,000 Canadians died and 3,598 Canadians were wounded including Kobayashi, who was shot in the left arm.

Kobayashi was sent to Ramsgate Hospital in England where he was wounded again during an air raid attack before being being sent back to Canada and honourably discharged on May 17, 1918.

During The Second World War Kobayashi, his wife Masako and his children were sent to the Tashme internment camp where they had 2 more Children. When the War ended, they were given a choice — move east of the Rockies or be ‘repatriated’ to Japan.

Kobayashi chose Japan.

In May 1946, they and their seven Canadian-born children were among the first of the 3,964 “repatriates” to leave Canada. They went to Ryoichi’s birthplace, Hiroshima, which only a few months earlier had been devastated by a nuclear bomb.

At the start of the Korean War, Ryoichi and his four sons applied to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. Ryoichi was rejected because of his age, but his sons were among the nearly 40 repatriated Japanese-Canadians who were accepted. By 1955, their son Yukata had been posted to Western command in Edmonton and two years later, the rest of the family returned to Canada.

Ryoichi applied for citizenship and was rejected by the presiding judge because of his poor English. Yukata, who had accompanied his father, challenged the decision. Pointing to the insignia pinned on his father’s lapel, Yukata explained that his father was a Canadian veteran of the First World War.

The judge relented.

En contrepoint du vacarme de la mer

roulant ses algues et ses sables

j’entends le cri de l’alouette

dans son espace bleu

Tout comme le poète de la petite Jeanne de France

sous le fracas de Vimy

au beau milieu de la mitraille

s’arrêtait pour l’écouter chanter

moi aussi je m’arrête

et je n’entends plus qu’elle

en son chant cristallin

Sur la plage de la Roche Sèche.                                                                                                              Photo:  Le ciel au-dessus de Port Bara (Quiberon)  (Photo, Pentecôte 2014) 

Today marks the 98th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Canadian Corps - supported by the great minds of generals Byng and Currie, and pushed forward by the dogged unending determination that by then had already become a staple of the volunteer Canadian infantry - won the first great Allied victory of the war, capturing a fortified strategic position in three days that French and British troops could not retake in three years. Canadian troops from every corner of the country spilled their blood on that ridge. Four thousand lay dead by the end of the operation. Another six thousand were wounded, many of them maimed for life.

It was our first great victory of the war.

It was a veritable hell on earth for the men of the Canadian Corps. 

The birth of the Canadian nation was brought on by their sacrifice.  

A mari usque ad mare. Lest we forget.

If you go to the Vancouver Aquarium at Stanley Park, you’ll find a war monument for Japanese Canadians who fought for Canada in the first world war. Yes, you read that right; Japanese men who fought for Canada in ww1.

  196 Japanese men volunteered for service in the first world war. Of the 196 volunteers, 54 were killed, 93 were wounded, and 49 returned home to Canada safely.

 At Vimy Ridge, fought over four days in April, 1917, one of them, Sergeant Masumi Mitsui of Port Coquitlam, led his troop into battle with such distinction that he was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery.

 That remarkable Japanese-Canadian contribution was honored by the construction in 1920 in Stanley Park of a striking monument, surrounded by cherry trees, with an electric flame that was to burn forever. But the flame was switched off shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. It would stay off for more than 40 years. 

 Like so many others, Masumi Mitsui and his family had been forced from their home during the Second World War and scattered in internment camps across the country. Their farm, their house and all its contents were confiscated. He was so enraged he threw his medals down, onto the desk of the confiscating officer.

 But time healed this wound: on August 2, 1985—Sgt. Mitsui, then 98 and one of two surviving Japanese-Canadian soldiers who had served Canada so bravely, was brought in to turn the light on again. 

 Mr. Mitsui died in 1987, five months short of his 100th birthday.

Happy Canada Day!

Taking today to celebrate North America’s officially bilingual constitutional democracy—that became autonomous from its imperial forebears without war* or insurrection; the same tenacious nation that was at war with Hitler years before the US committed, seized Vimy Ridge after her allies failed miserably, and has sent its brave into bloody, foreign lands with the western nations in two World Wars as well as in subsequent satellite wars in Korea, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo; that sovereign state that saved American hostages from certain death in Iran, and has been helping the world with aid, innovation, and force, in countless humanitarian and peacekeeping missions throughout the twentieth century; a nation that has arms in space, its fists and firsts in professional sports, and its people protected by a phenomenally nuanced and effective constitution, rule of law, and healthcare system; a country that refuses to boil to tasteless its immigrants, and invests, instead, in diversity… 

Happy to call it home. And thank you all for making this little Tumblr nook homely for this Canadian.

*War against France or Britain. Of course these two nations fought bitterly against one another.

Maybe as a nod to his time in university, maybe as an attempt to get him to fucking talk, a couple reporters start asking Zimmermann if he’s read any good books lately.  He always answers seriously and thoughtfully and a small contingent of hockey fans will try plunging into 20th-century history after him, but groups like the “Zimmermann Reading Club” eventually devolve into Zimmermann Reading Club Support Clubs full of non-historian hockey fans asking themselves WHY they’re doing this to themselves.

Coast to Coast edited by John Chi-Kit Wong,” he’ll say.  “People should like that. It’s a reread, I used it a lot for my senior thesis. It’s got a great chapter on the Ontario Ladies’ Hockey Association in the twenties and thirties I never got too into before.”   

Vimy by Pierre Burton, classic for a reason.” 

The Donut: A Canadian History by Steve Penfold.  It’s really fascinating. When suburbs came in in the 50s it really changed the coffee shop industry, eh?”

“Jack,” George says, putting a hand on his arm.  “Can you just say you read the Hamilton biography?”