Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will lead the commemorations on Sunday for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France, considered a founding moment in his nation’s history.
Trudeau will be joined at the ceremony by French President Francois Hollande and Britain’s Prince Charles and his sons Princes William and Harry.
Around 20,000 Canadians have also made the journey to northern France to commemorate the battle which was one of the defining moments of World War I. A total of 3,600 Canadian troops were killed and 7,000 wounded in three days of fighting against German forces.
“The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a turning point in the First World War and for Canada, when Canadians acted – and fought – as one,” Trudeau said last month. “At Vimy Ridge, we will mark this great victory, and pay tribute to every Canadian who answered the call to serve.”
The battle began early on April 9, 1917 and was part of a larger British-led offensive that included Australian soldiers, known as the Battle of Arras, which was a diversionary tactic to help a major French attack further south. It was the first time that four military divisions from Canada fought together as the Canadian Corps.
Crucial to the offensive was a vast warren of tunnels dug by New Zealand forces which allowed the Canadians to take the German troops by surprise. Many Canadians consider the victory at Vimy a significant step toward Canada’s colonial emancipation from Britain, but some Canadian historians have debunked the state’s official view of its significance.
Michael Boire of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, said it was “pure mythology”. It was neither decisive for the war’s outcome “nor the most fundamental” of the battles fought by Canadians during the conflict, Boire said.
Canada would gain political quasi-autonomy only in 1931.
“The importance given to the Battle of Vimy is a post-war mythological construction,” he said, an “invention” dating back only to 1967, the year of Canada’s centennial and the battle’s 50th anniversary.
Tim Cook, of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, said however its importance could not be underestimated. “Many historians and writers consider the Canadian victory at Vimy a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness,” he said.
French historian Yves Le Maner said the speed of the victory was remarkable in a war otherwise characterised by long battles of attrition. “Achieving their aim in three days was exceptional and that is why it was immediately seen as a (national) victory,” he told AFP.
Trudeau, Hollande and Prince Charles will each give speeches and lay wreaths at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
William and Harry – who have each served in the armed forces – will lay a pair of boots, among thousands that will be placed at the site by Canadian and French youths to represent the Canadians killed in the battle.