Reflecting on 1917, Part I

As we move through the centenary of the First World War, it is important to reflect back on the events of 1917. 100 years ago, the Great War shook the world physically and figuratively. This conflict brought irreversible changes to our world. For Canada, the Great War still has lasting legacies, and the major events of 1917 helped to shape the Canada of today.

One of several plaques made by our museum for St. Albert’s First World War participants. This plaque honours John Hugh Kennedy who was killed in action at Vimy Ridge.

Canada played an important role in the battles of 1917, especially at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, and Passchendaele. At Vimy Ridge, for the first time, all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together as a unified army. This newly unified force achieved what other Allied forces could not: the capture of Vimy Ridge. Canada emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. While loyal to the British Empire, it was at Vimy that Canada stepped from the shadow of Britain. Was it fate that the Battle of Vimy Ridge occurred just two months shy of Canada’s 50th birthday?

Map showing the area of operations of the First Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade in March 1918. Towns covered by action of the 1st C.M.M.G. bde are underlined. Commanded by Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel, this brigade was also heavily involved at Vimy and Passchendaele. (Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel fonds, Musée Héritage Museum, 2014.22.103.)

Vimy Ridge was a very hard-won victory, but Passchendaele was worse! Relieving battle-weary ANZACs and other Commonwealth troops, the Canadians came to Flanders high on the elation of their recent victory. Elation turned to anguish as the Canadians dug in, battling the Germans tooth and nail. For Canadians, the Passchendaele Campaign began with Battle of Hill 70. The Canadians launched attacks near Lens, forcing a large part of the German Army away from beleaguered British Empire troops struggling to take Passchendaele. The Hill 70 victory cost the Canadians 9,000 casualties.

They then moved north to join the fighting at Passchendaele. To picture the most horrific scenes of trench warfare, one need look no further than the muddy, bloody quagmire of Passchendaele. Victory was achieved, but only after horrendous losses (16,000 Canadian casualties alone). Prime Minister Borden vowed to the British that not another soldier would ship from Canada if the war continued as such. The Passchendaele Campaign, perhaps even more than Vimy Ridge, helped to forge a Canadian identity separate from Britain.

An armoured vehicle from the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, [1914-1919], Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel fonds, Musée Héritage Museum, 2014.22.09.

We must remember all of the servicemen and women who served and those who died for Canada during the war. It was their grit, gallantry, and sacrifice that helped to forge the Canadian nation that we know and love today.