One hundred years ago
Vimy Ridge – April 9-April 12, 1917
The new Dominion of Canada showed their courage and strength during this defining battle of “The Great War.” There were over 10,000 casualties.
My father was born in Canada and proud to be Canadian. His mother’s family had arrived from Italy in the early years of the 20th Century and in short time established themselves as well- to- do real estate owners in Vancouver, BC. My great grandfather had owned the landmark Sylvia Hotel, in the west end. His oldest child was a son named Fio. He had been born in Naples, Italy but adapted easily to his new country. There is a record of him in his teenage years working at the Pacific Bottling Company of Vancouver. Fio was 21 when he joined the Irish Fusiliers in 1915. He then transferred to the 7th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, British Columbia Regiment before embarking on the great adventure. He is now a name among countless others, inscribed in the Book of Remembrance. He fell in the first great push toward the German held Vimy Ridge, near Arras, on April 9, 1917. He was one of countless young men so far from home, struck down in the hail of machine gun fire from the German held positions. He was carried dying, to a nearby field hospital where he succumbed to his wounds.
My father had yet to be born and of course never met his uncle, but my grandmother kept the letters Fio had sent from the front and I inherited them. I now have a duty to share the story of a life cut short, in one more tragic chapter of human history. Fio never had a chance to fall in love and marry, to have children of his own, to experience all the potential that life has to offer in fullness. All that is left of him, is slowly fading on fragile onion paper where he writes of his enthusiasm for the “picture shows” and asks his mother to please send a new safety razor. He describes the aerial combat with Fritz as “angry buzzing bees overhead.” He tells her that when they march they are all decked out like Christmas trees, clanking with their gear. The letters are light, humourous and high spirited. To his little sister he says, “please don’t worry, I think I am one of the lucky ones and most of the boys think we will be home before the end of the year.” That letter was dated April 4, 1917. He was 23 years old.
Many years ago when my dad decided to search for Fio’s grave there was no internet to assist him. He wrote many letters and waited weeks for replies. He was finally successful and he set out like a pilgrim to reach a hallowed monument at Aubigny-en- Artois near Arras in France. Within a few weeks he at last stood at the resting place of one of the Canadian heroes of the “war to end all war,” and paid homage to his mother’s beloved brother. He has been the only family member to visit that faraway piece of Canadian ground so well cared for by the French people. The hundreds of rows of shining white stones commemorating those long forgotten names stand as a tribute to sacrifice, honour and courage but also to the tragic loss, finality, and sorrow of war.
“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. Canadian troops also earned a reputation as formidable, effective troops because of the stunning success. But it was a victory at a terrible cost, with more than 10,000 killed or wounded. The Canadians had demonstrated they were one of the outstanding formations on the Western Front and masters of offensive warfare.”
Fare thee well, love