This year, Canada will celebrate its 150th anniversary of becoming a single Dominion within the British Empire on July 1, 1867.
While this was the beginning of Canada as we know it, another event which marks its anniversary this year was a defining moment in Canadian history, signalling to the international community that we were more than another territory ruled by Britain.
This anniversary is the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
From April 9 to 12, 1917, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps, faced insurmountable odds against three division of the German Sixth Army and did what France and Britain could not do.
The Canadians took the high ground.
To mark this momentous occasion, the Military Museums of Calgary (TMM) are pulling out all the stops with their project War Stories 1917, running from April 9 to Aug. 25.
War Stories 1917, a series of programs meant to commemorate the centennial of Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, and Passchendaele, will first and foremost concentrate on individual stories, says Rory Cory, senior curator and director of collections at TMM.
“A lot of the stories we wanted to choose focus on the common soldier, not just the high-ranking officers,” Cory said.
“Although people like (General David) Watson will be in there, we wanted to get the full range of stories.”
About 30 personalities will take part, including representatives from the air force, navy, four regiments, artillery, and nursing.
“We are hoping to tell the story of the battle through their eyes with their artifacts,” said Cory.
This more personal approach came as a result of visitor interest.
“When we did visitor surveys one of the big things that came out of all that was that visitors wanted more personal stories.
“They don’t just want to see a leine rifle, they want to see the leine used by a soldier who won a Victoria Cross, and bring all of it together in one display.”
Of the items to be displayed during the Vimy Ridge portion of the Military Museum’s War Stories 1917, are pieces of shrapnel donated to the museum by volunteer David Holmes.
Holmes, whose relative died at the Battle of Courcelette in 1916, decided to tour the battlefields of France with his brother in September, 2016.
It was while visiting the Canadian cemetery Givenchy-en-Gohelle on the western flank of Vimy Ridge that he and his brother found the fragment of a bullet and pieces of the nose cone of an artillery shell.
“We were visiting the cemetery and just beyond it were farmers fields where my brother ended up finding the shrapnel,” said Holmes.
“You have to step back and imagine what Vimy Ridge would have looked like, because it’s all overgrown.
“If you took a metal detector, and walked a patch of field, it would be full by the time you did a small stretch,” Holmes said.
Once his brother gave him pieces to take home, he decided to donate them to TMM.
“I knew his pieces were probably collecting dust too, so I asked him to send them to me, and donated them to the museum.”
Currently on display until March 24, as a preview of War Stories 1917, is the travelling pop-up exhibition The Business of War: Canadian Businesses and the First World War.
Caitlin Bailey, executive director and curator of the Canadian Centre for the Great War in Montreal, hopes that the visitors to TMM will take away some of the social history involved in the conflict.
“We want people to understand how life in Canada was during this period, both in the country and out.”
Among the artifacts featured in the pop-up exhibit are pamphlets from Canadian Pacific and the Thomas Cook Company, offered during the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1936.
“The Royal Canadian Legion funded and organized a contingent of about 6,000 veterans or their family members to visit Vimy in 1936 for the ceremony.
“It was a huge organization. They had the ceremony, and then they had the opportunity to do a bunch of battlefield tours.
“For many of these people, they went over during the war, they came back to Canada, and this was the first time that they went back over again.
“Sea travel was very expensive, but it was organized by the Thomas Cook Company, which still exists, with transport provided by Canadian Steamship Lines, a part of CP Rail, and the Cunard-White Star Line.”
As all of the exhibits featured for the centennial are about establishing community connections, Cory and TMM are looking for public contributions.
You have to step back and imagine what Vimy Ridge would have looked like because it’s all overgrown. – David Holmes
“If you had a grandfather, great uncle, great grandfather, who fought at the battle and you have anything, whether it be letters, diaries, photographs, we’d like those stories posted on the community blog portion of our website,” said Cory.
“Even if the stories are particularly interesting, let’s say grandpa had a pocket watch in his breast pocket, and it stopped a bullet at Vimy, we want people to post those stories too.”
Those interested can visit themilitarymuseums.ca for the link to contribute.