Have you ever seen this photograph? When we think of the soaring monument that now towers above Vimy Ridge, we rarely if ever recall that Adolph Hitler once toured the site.
The fall out from the battle of Arras and the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadians had a number of important consequences.
First of all, although the Canadians had not been expected or even particularly wanted to meet their objectives, the Allies had not had a victory for quite some time and the media, the public and the British generals needed a win to brag about. The news of the victory circled the world, written on a scroll of purple, with a pen of gold.
The skilled and efficient action of the Canadian troops had seriously impressed the British generals. The training that had been provided had been an experiment in warfare, with ordinary soldiers having the battle plan explained to them, being taught what they were doing and why. Military strategy was no longer the exclusive property of the military elite, and the results had been impressive. The performance had drawn the gaze of Field Marshal Douglas Haig. For an army that had proven it could do the impossible, he had another assignment in mind — the capture of a little village in Belgium that had been lost to the Allies in 1915 — called Passchendaele.
For the Allies, three thousand five hundred ninety eight men were killed at Vimy Ridge. Seven thousand and four were wounded. The toll for the Germans is estimated to be even worse although the numbers of those who were wounded, killed and missing is unknown. Four thousand were captured.
This is easy to forget as a Canadian, heady with victory and history. The Germans had fought in horrible conditions too — and they fought well. The German troops stationed at Vimy were specialized fighting forces and they had shown the world why. As deadly as World War One was for the Allies, with thousands wounded, killed or simply missing, the casualties for the Germans were even worse. When the Treaty of Versailles was eventually signed, it was a harsh, punitive and humiliating document that hurt both German pride and their economy. Although World War Two is often the conflict we point to when we want to justify war, it is the direct descendant of World War One, which just might be the most pointless, inexplicable conflict in history.
When we think of the instantly recognizable iconic monument at Vimy, what many don’t know is that Hitler — a decorated veteran of World War One who was wounded on multiple occasions — once toured the site. The image of the person who symbolizes the heart of darkness superimposed on one of our most recognizable and respected national symbols is sobering.
I’d like to introduce you to two southern Alberta veterans who served at Vimy Ridge and we’ll do that in the next few days.