Canadians mark 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge

VIMY RIDGE, France - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the Canadians who died at Vimy Ridge 100 years ago today helped shape Canada into a nation committed to peace.

The prime minister delivered the address at the commemorative ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

French President Francois Hollande, members of the Royal Family and Gov. Gen. David Johnston were among the dignitaries at the ceremony in northern France.

Vimy was the most successful part of the Battle of Arras in April 1917, as the Canadians pushed up and captured the strategically important ridge from the Germans.

As many as 25,000 people have come to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, where hundreds of empty black combat boots have been laid in rows on top of and all around the monument, representing those who died.

Many people in the crowd used umbrellas to guard against the hot sun, different from 100 years ago when soldiers here faced rain and sleet in battle.

Canadian War Museum

The ferociously bloody battle for the Vimy high ground has become the stuff of legend for many Canadians.

In the wee hours of April 9, 1917 -- Easter Monday -- more than 20,000 Canadians who'd spent the night crouching in the mud and rainy cold finally left their trenches to advance on the ridge known as Vimy.

The battle -- and the weeks of preparations leading up to it -- were marked by firsts.

Some were new military innovations that would change the course of the war, and also the way future wars would be fought.

There was the introduction of the creeping barrage, a wall of moving artillery fire the Canadians would follow as it literally crept across the battlefield, protecting their advance by forcing the Germans on the ridge to keep their heads down.

Most importantly, for the first time in the so called "Great War," all four Canadian divisions would fight together.

Farmers from Weyburn, miners from Cape Breton, lawyers from Toronto, lumberjacks from Kelowna, doctors from Montreal and cowboys from Red Deer all advancing together through murderous machine gun fire.

Men from all backgrounds and places, but all of them proudly wearing the "Canada" shoulder badge that separated them from the millions of other soldiers on the Western Front.

Few believed they would succeed -- indeed, the odds seemed stacked against them.

But the Canadians did, after four days of intense warfare, capture the ridge that both the French and British had previously failed to do.

Canadian War Museum

There had been bloodier battles for the Canadians -- 24,000 were killed or wounded at the Somme as compared to 11,000 at Vimy.

And there would be strategically more important battles, such as at Amiens, which many feel marked the beginning of the end of the "War to End All Wars."

Vimy, however, was seen -- or at least came to be seen over the passing decades -- as the moment in time when Canada emerged from the shadow of its British colony status to earn its place on the world stage as a strong, independent nation.

Canadian War Museum