My father was one of some 10,000 Canadian soldiers who were either killed or wounded in the taking of Vimy Ridge, a battle said by historians to be a defining moment for Canada.
I remember Vimy for reasons other than Canada’s coming of age; and like countless Canadians of my generation, I have my own war memories and a few war stories. As we mark the Great War’s anniversary I’m reminded, for example, that I wouldn’t be here today if the Vimy Ridge battle hadn’t taken place. My father was shot at Vimy. My mother to be was a volunteer at the field station where he was treated. As they say, romance blossomed and she became a war bride. This is why the First World War and the battle of Vimy Ridge are of significance to me.
Like many veterans of the Great War and of World War 11, my father was reluctant to talk about what happened over there. But sometimes a few cups of cider on a Saturday afternoon loosened his tongue. Then he would tell us about the souvenirs he brought home, about German snipers and a blood-stained German knapsack, why he treasured a broken cavalry regiment sabre, what it was like to participate in a cavalry charge in the face of machine guns.
As I said, everyone of my generation has a war story, a war memory; mostly because everyone of my generation – today’s seniors – had fathers and grandfathers who served in the first world war; and brothers, sisters, uncles, friends and neighbours who served in the second world war. Most of us grew up hearing firsthand about trench warfare in the First World War, about the deprivation, the rats in the trenches, the ever prevalent diseases. As teenagers we witnessed firsthand how the Second World War tore communities apart and disrupted family life.
The current marking of the 100th anniversary of the Great War rekindles many of those memories. The souvenirs my father brought back from the war are still here to remind of us what took place then. Among them are the stirrups, spurs and bit from the last horse he rode with the Lord Strathcona’s and the remains of the sabre he carried on a cavalry charge.
Why he kept a broken sabre is another story. Ordered to clear a strip of woods, his regiment charged with sabres out. Half way into the charge a German soldier stepped out from behind a tree and levelled a handgun at my father. “He had me,” my father said but his gun misfired. “My sabre snapped off near the hilt when it caught him in the chest. That’s why I kept it.”