April 9, 2017 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a monumental battle fought in the First World War and considered one of the most important military milestones of Canada’s national identify. About 25,000 people are expected to attend the commemorative ceremony in France, including travelers on our tour, Vimy Ridge Centennial: World War History in Europe.
One of those travelers is Major Brian B. Tracey, MMM, CD of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, who retired two years ago after 44 years in the army reserves. Brian is bringing a group of 21 veterans and spouses (including his wife, who is a veteran herself). On this Vimy Ridge military heritage tour, Brian and his group will set off from Amsterdam across former battlefields where brave soldiers gave their lives during the First and Second World Wars in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, locations which hold significant meaning to Brian’s regiment.
My regiment fought during the First World War at the battle of Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Grenadier Guards is the oldest military establishment in Canada. We trace our roots all the way back to 1764, and we have a deep military history. Our regiment fought during the Second World War as well, in Holland, Luxemburg, Brussels, and France. This trip basically follows the path of our former soldiers that fought during the First World War, and in fact during the Second World War as well—so we have a very, very big connection to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the central point of this tour.
Vimy Ridge is the point when most countries who were fighting the occupation felt that Canada become of age as a country. Before that, we were always considered part of the British commonwealth, a colony. On the morning of April 9, 1917, the Canadian soldiers came out of their trenches, suffered huge casualties, and did something that no other country had been able to do at Vimy: They came out victorious. It was a very important event. For people who are involved in the military, it’s hard to put into words—but this particular trip is very meaningful to us all.
There were original memorials placed on the ridge a few days after the battle was fought. They were more modest than the later monument; this marker commemorates the sacrifice of the 87th Battalion of the Canadian Grenadier Guards. When the Canadian government put up the huge memorial at Vimy that you see today, the town of Vimy asked our Regiment if we’d want the original monument. Now it’s here in Montreal, and travelers can come see it when they visit the great city of Montreal. The soldiers had built it out of the wood that was in the trenches. All the names that are scribed on it were taken off of ammo boxes and are tacked into this memorial; it memorializes all the people who died on that day.
There are no Canadian veterans of WWI still alive, but there are living veterans who knew the soldiers who served in WWI. I’ve been around the army long enough that I knew a lot of the WWII vets that came back. All their lives, they had this burden: they came back and their buddies didn’t. They never talked about that. These types of events like the Vimy Ridge Centennial bring out powerful emotions, sometimes that have been kept in for a long time.
The ceremony is taking place on April 9 and is being televised live in Canada, where there will ceremonies across the country. The Go Ahead team is providing us with passes for the event, so we’ll actually be there for the ceremony, participating in it—not looking on from afar. I think this will be the most emotional part of the trip: Watching the ceremony, visiting the trenches where the soldiers fought, and going to the nearby cemeteries to see where many of them have been buried, some of whom have never been identified. We have the chance to actually be there for this moment of history. It’ll never repeat itself again.
There’s a personal connection for us here—soldiers from our regiment actually fought and gave their lives at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
On top of all that, there’s going to be thousands of people present there, so you have the vibrations and the emotions of all those people as well. We’re lucky to live in a free world. We’re lucky to be able go. It’s a truly historic event, and we’re all going to be part of it. You hold memories like that forever.
Have you ever been emotionally touched by visiting a military memorial? Tell us in the comments below.