Why Vimy matters: Peter Mansbridge on a battle that defined us

The monument at Vimy can take your breath away, but we should never forget its true meaning — to remember 11,285 Canadians who died in France during the First World War but whose bodies were never found.

Vimy Ridge is part of who we are, regardless of where we stand on the 'birth of a nation' debate

Why the Battle of Vimy Ridge matters

6 years ago
Duration 14:41
As Canadians mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, it's worth asking: Why does Canada keep commemorating that moment in history?

Harry Frederick Mansbridge emigrated from Britain to Canada with his parents in 1912 hoping for a new life — but within two years the teenager was heading back on a troopship to defend King and country in what they called the Great War.

Like tens of thousands of others from Canada, he volunteered to fight in a war that was supposed to last just a few months. Instead, it dragged on for more than four years. It was a brutal, horrific, bloody war that cost Canada 66,000 lives.

The monument can take your breath away (and it should), but we should never forget its true meaning.

Harry was my grandfather. He enlisted as a private, but had reached the rank of sergeant by the time he got to Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

His war ended at Vimy — he was shot in the leg and evacuated to a Canadian Army hospital in Folkestone, England.  He was one of more than 7,000 Canadians wounded in the battle.

He fell in love with his nurse, Alice. They got married, she became pregnant and by mid-1918, my father was born. That's my connection to Vimy Ridge. I like to think that if it wasn't for a German sniper I wouldn't even be here.

A celebrated victory

You won't hear historians talking about Harry and Alice during the extensive coverage the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge this weekend, but you will hear the long-standing debate about whether the battle really did signal "the birth of a nation."

It's a worthwhile discussion, and you'll hear good arguments on both sides about the meaning of Canada's first venture into battle as a unified force. It was a victory celebrated at home and abroad, but Vimy didn't break the bigger stalemate and the war dragged on another year and a half.

Harry Frederick Mansbridge, grandfather of Peter Mansbridge, was wounded in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (CBC)

This weekend there will be grand speeches by dignitaries, moving musical performances and a trumpet piercing the spring air with the Last Post.

Tens of thousands will be standing on the ground once soaked in Canadian blood. It will all seem so glorious under the shadow of the spectacular Vimy monument and its sculptures of mourning and sacrifice.

No glory here

The monument can take your breath away (and it should), but we should never forget its true meaning. There was nothing glorious about the battle of Vimy Ridge, just like there was nothing glorious about the war itself.

Canadian students commemorate Vimy anniversary

6 years ago
Duration 3:26
More than 10,000 students from across Canada are going France in the coming days to experience the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in person.

Men on both sides were mowed down by the thousands, sent "over the top" by commanders who believed that gaining a few feet of territory was worth that kind of loss.

Men who never had a chance to fire a rifle were blown to bits by artillery shells. Many who survived the shelling by diving into shell craters ended up drowning in the mud and snow and sleet and rain that poured onto them.

Thousands of bodies were never found. That's why the monument was built, to remember 11,285 Canadians who died in France during the war but were never found. When you look at the Vimy monument, remember that's why it was built — to remember those who were never found.

Think of that — no glory there.

They were all men such as Harry Frederick Mansbridge, who decided that serving their country and making the ultimate sacrifice was what they should do. The least we can do is remember them, and remember Vimy is part of who we are, regardless of where we stand on the "birth of a nation" debate.


Peter Mansbridge

Former Chief Correspondent CBC News

Peter Mansbridge is the former chief correspondent of CBC News and Distinguished Fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.