GG to take part in 95th anniversary of Vimy Ridge events
Published Friday, April 6, 2012 10:29AM EDT
OTTAWA - When Gov. Gen. David Johnston talks about history, his eyes light up and his face becomes animated as the teacher within him comes to the fore.
He's a history buff and on Monday, he'll be in France to take part in ceremonies marking the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a formative moment in Canada's military history.
He'll tour other battlefields, including Beaumont Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment was all but destroyed in 1916, and Ypres, the medieval Belgian city that was a keystone of the Allied lines in the First World War.
He says he is especially looking forward to meeting some of the 5,000 young Canadians who are expected to be at the Vimy ceremonies.
There has been increasing debate of late about the significance of the battle at Vimy. Johnston is among those who see it as a seminal moment in Canada's transformation from colony to independent nation.
"Vimy to me is remarkable," he said while sitting down for an interview at Rideau Hall. "One could say it was the birth of a nation."
It brought together four Canadian divisions fighting as a single corps under a Canadian commander, Gen. Sir Arthur Currie. His chief was British Gen. Sir Julian Byng, who later became Lord Byng of Vimy and served as governor general of Canada 1921-26.
Johnston is clearly aware that Byng might well have sat in the same room, looking out the same windows.
"Byng had a great respect for Canadians."
Johnston said the Canadians brought new ideas to the fight at Vimy, where the German army had stood off repeated attacks by the French and British, who lost 100,000 killed trying to storm the position.
Currie and his men did things differently. They honed new ways of using artillery, they trained incessantly. And, Johnston pointed out, they entrusted the ordinary soldiers with the battle plan, explaining to every private and corporal what he was to do.
"Each soldier had ownership," he said. "Each soldier was able to react to changes in the battlefield."
The fight was brief and brutal. Most of the ridge was captured in the cold and sleet of an Easter Monday. It cost 3,500 Canadian lives and gave the Canadian Corps an enviable reputation as heavy hitters.
"I suppose from that came a sense of, we can do it, . . . and a sense of pride in what Canadians can do when they put their mind to it," Johnston said.
One poignant note about Monday's ceremony is that it will be the first major Vimy anniversary without a single living Canadian veteran of the First World War. The last died in 2010.
Johnston said that makes the commemoration even more important.
"It should be an even more vivid part of our history, because it is history if there's no witness standing," he said.
The Governor General acknowledges that Canada tends to downplay its history.
"It's part of the modesty of the Canadian character that we don't embellish," he said.
He chuckled that the country may need a dose of the poetic overstatement of his Irish ancestors to offset the taciturn outlook of his Scottish forebears.
"We need a little more embroidery."
Johnston spent his career as a law professor and university administrator and remains a teacher at heart in a country which, it's been said, has too much geography and not enough history.
"The teaching of history can be quite wonderful, we have many wonderful stories that make up this nation all across that vast geography."
As the country approaches a series of anniversaries -- the bicentennial of the war of 1812, the centennial of the start of the First World War in 2014 and the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017 -- Johnston says he's seen Canadians become more interested in their history, including military history.
He's a man who lives in a mansion that was home to soldiers such as Byng, Field Marshal Viscount Alexander of Tunis and Maj.-Gen. Georges Vanier. History is important.
"I love history," he said. "I read a lot of history."
"I read history for new ideas which seems strange. Isn't history full of old ideas? I think it gives you a perspective on where you are today and as you look at the choices you have to make in the future how you can make them as informed choices."
There's more, though:
"As we see the challenges of a changing world . . . Canada has a unique and very special place in the way it fits into that changing world.
"I think from that comes a sense of greater pride in the country, but also a sense of the greater challenges ahead which will be exhilarating and sometimes formidable. But we have a lot to take from our past, which assures us we can be pretty competitive and pretty energetic in the future."