Remembering those Canadians who made a difference at Vimy Ridge
by Donna Douglas (feat. Hugh Segal)
The Barrie Examiner
April 13, 2016
Last Saturday, April 9 at 7:30 a.m., it was below freezing and hundreds of people stood at the replica open trenches at Base Borden, shivering.
I stood in my winter coat, my hands jammed in my pockets and looked up at the tall pines, dancing gently in the breeze. My overwhelming thought was for the soldiers of the First World War, fighting in those trenches, taking inch-by-inch, the holy grail that would move the Allied forces towards victory.
And peace. I thought about their wool uniforms and socks, which would not measure up to today's miracle fibres. I thought about how miserably cold they would have been, day after day. I listened to the padre read John McRae's famous poem.
And I thought about 22-year-old Priv. Leonard Webster, of Penetang, who signed up to fight and who fell, dying on the fields of Vimy in France on April 9, 1915. Two days later, his brother died on the same field. I thought about their mother.
The numbers are chilling. Approximately 100,000 Canadian boys signed up to fight at Vimy. Exactly 3,598 were killed, 7,000 were injured. In 1916, Barrie's entire population was 7,088. Think of this loss. As the blood of Canadian soldiers soaked into the soil at Vimy Ridge, our country transformed itself from being a colony of Great Britain to being a country capable of a sophisticated armed attack.
And that very soil, containing DNA of Canadian soldiers, will be returned to CFB Borden and entombed eternally in a memorial being designed by sculptor Marlene Hilton Moore. In eight weeks, on June 4, Base Borden will literally explode with festivities, honouring the 100 years of service which has changed the course of war.
In a moving ceremony last year, held at Vimy Ridge in France, dozens of Barrie citizens, plus military personnel, were on hand to respectfully gather soil from Vimy to bring back to CFB Borden. This event marked the beginning of plans for a centennial recognition of those who signed up, those who fought, those who died and were injured at Vimy.
On June 4, accompanied by an air show and a re-enactment, the centennial monument will be unveiled and the DNA of our solders will come home. Following Saturday morning's cold ceremony, I took a walk past the trenches, built in 1914 to train soldiers during the First World War. They are quiet now.
Back at the Officers Mess, over 400 community members enjoyed a hot breakfast and listened to Hugh Segal, former senator, former chief of staff, and now master at Massey College, as he talked about what made the Canadians so incredible at Vimy.
He talked about the remarkable preparedness of the Canadian soldiers at Vimy. A potable water system, designed by R. Fraser Armstrong, had been taken to Vimy so soldiers were healthy.
“Rail tracks were laid down to transport supplies. 100,000 Canadian soldiers, 99 years ago today, threw the enemy off course, 175 kilometres north of Paris, a pivotal win in the Great War. They were fighting for the first time under the Canadian flag using a uniquely planned Canadian attack and that battle was incredible affirmation of Canada and what we can do,” said Segal. “It was symbolic of a heroic war effort well beyond the size of our country. Canadians signed the Treaty of Versailles; we had earned our place in history.” Segal was succinct about the century of service of this important base, so close to the city of Barrie. “It's not about making war,” he said. “It's about preserving peace.”
He lauded Canada's peacekeeping efforts in Suez, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Congo, Indonesia, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Sinai, Namibia, Western Sahara, Cambodia, Somalia, Croatia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Sudan, Darfur, Sarajevo - places where our personnel have made a compelling difference." Borden remains Canada's largest military base, graduating 20,000 people each year. You can find out more about June's ceremonial celebrations at www.100yearsoffreedom.ca.
When the memorial is unveiled June 4, there will be another special welcome. Also coming home are the war medals of Private Leonard Webster. His medals were found on eBay and it was quick action by Base Borden Hon. Col. Jamie Massie, who purchased the medals to be part of the June 4 ceremony. 'Through these gates the sons and daughters of a grateful nation passed.'
Thank you, 'Camp' Borden.