1,000 attend London gala dinner commemorating Vimy Ridge centennial

Hundreds turned out to the London Convention Centre on April 1, 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Peter Fragiskatos/Twitter

Around 1,000 people packed into the London Convention Centre on Saturday for a special gala dinner commemorating the upcoming 100th anniversary of Canada’s victory in the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War.

Next Sunday will mark 100 years since the time when four Canadian divisions began their assault in an attempt to capture the ridge, a key German defensive position. British and French forces had tried to capture the ridge previously, but were unsuccessful.

In the moments leading up to the battle, Pvt. George William Shaw, a bugler with the 3rd Battallion (Toronto Regiment), then about 18 years old, played his Hawkes and Son brass bugle to rally the troops.

Shaw died in 1976, but his bugle lives on as an artifact from the Great War. The historic horn is now in the possession of Shaw’s grandson, David Cunningham, 64, of London, who played it at Saturday’s gala.

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Talking about the war, music and sound is very symbolic, Cunningham says.

“Every march, there’s someone there that that was their march — they were in that regiment and they stand up,” he said. “The Air Force guys always stand up and march around the room. There’s something that they really bonded to each other and to the music. It’s just kind of the glue that puts the whole thing together.

“We’re even more remote from the people who sacrificed for World War I,” Cunningham said. “It’s a long time since we’ve been engaged in a conflict where people were making decisions based on, ‘I need to do this because we’re facing an absolute evil.'”

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According to Royal Canadian Legion Vimy Branch 145, which hosted Saturday’s event, Shaw’s bugle will be escorted to France by a Canadian Armed Forces Bandsman and will be played during the official 100th anniversary ceremony.

“To manifest being a Canadian in that particular moment can certainly inform the kind of decisions and the kind of people we are today,” Cunningham said of the Vimy Ridge victory and its impact on Canadian identity.

More than 50 students from seven programs at Fanshawe College were involved in setting up Saturday’s event, creating, among others, 110 display monuments, three bell tents, 300 burlap “sandbags” for a replica trench, 115 poppy centrepieces, and a 30-minute commemorative video.

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“A lot of people consider the Battle of Vimy Ridge the birth of a nation — it’s really when we became a Canadian nation,” said Rob Carver, chair of Fanshawe’s School of Contemporary Media.

Events like Saturday’s gala, Carver says, can help people connect to the past.

“One of the young women who worked on the tent project spoke directly about her great-grandfather [who] had been in World War I, and this gave her a real direct connection to the past. I think making the past real is a big part of it,” he said.

Canada’s victory in the battle earned its soldiers recognition as an elite force, but it came at a cost. Of the 100,000 Canadians involved in the battle, nearly 3,600 died and just over 7,000 were wounded.

“It was a war of positions. It was trenches,” said Lieut.-Col. Roger Vandomme, deputy defence attaché with the French embassy. “Your soldiers had been living in trenches with… lack of comfort — mud, humidity… It’s important to put into perspective and remember the very, very difficult conditions they were living in.”

Freedom, Vandomme said, shouldn’t be taken for granted in a privileged time of many hard-won liberties.

“We have to be very, very careful,” he said. “It is fragile. We have to preserve it. Part of that is to remember.”

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– Carl Garnich contributed reporting. With files from The Canadian Press.

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