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April 08, 2017

VIMY, France (AP) — An ocean away from home, spilling their blood on a remote ridge in the muddied battlefields of northern France a century ago, many would argue that Canadians earned nationhood. Vimy Ridge has become much more than speck on a French map, even much more than a famous World War I battle. In a fledgling nation looking for a sense of self, trying to set it apart from British rule, the battle provided everything it needed — the vision of an underdog beating the odds, a show of courage, resolve and unity.

“It made the Canadian Corps think it could do anything. It made the soldiers believe that they were really good soldiers, better than anybody else. They had done something that the British and French were not able to do,” said Professor Jack Granatstein, a Canadian military historian.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to visit the fertile countryside, where any hill with a view was fought over with a blind determination costing thousands of lives. British and French forces had tried for a long time but failed to take Vimy Ridge. The Canadians succeeded on April 9, 1917, battling through snow and sleet to push out the Germans who had long held the strategic post.

The Canadians came, succeeded, at the price of 3,600 dead and over 7,000 injured. In the grand scheme of the war, it amounted to little. “It did not win the war. It did not change the course of the war. It moved the Germans back several kilometers but that was it,” Granatstein said.

For the nation though, it meant everything. “In one day — in fact in one morning — these civilian volunteers from a small country with no military tradition were expected to do what the British and French had failed to do in two years,” Pierre Berton wrote in his popular 1985 book, “Vimy.”

It would take more than a year to finally budge the front line and start pushing the Germans back. The Canadians, ever more emboldened after Vimy, played their part and even were among the signatories to the Versailles Treaty.

Among the string of monuments reaching from the North Sea to Switzerland, Vimy stands out as perhaps the finest. With its surging pale columns reaching skyward, it stirs the soul. Yet statues of the Weeping Woman and two mourners, and the list of 11,285 soldiers posted “missing, presumed dead” makes it a solemn pilgrimage site.

The Vimy memorial, a revered national symbol, is on the back of Canada’s $20 bill to this day.

Rob Gillies wrote from Toronto. Dave Rising contributed from Berlin

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