Vimy Oaks Speech by Geoffrey Moyer, courtesy of Great War Centenary Association
Vimy Ridge Speech – Gunners Club November 11, 2017
Honourable Dave Levac, Mayor Ron Eddy, City Councillors, Cadets, Veterans, Ladies and Gentlemen – it is my great honour to speak to you today on behalf of the Great War Centenary Association of Brantford, Brant County and Six Nations for the Dedication of the Five Vimy Oaks here at the Brant Artillery Gunner’s Club, Unit 21.
This past April we commemorated the 100th anniversary of an iconic battle in Canadian history – the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and citizens across Canada were rightly moved by the commemoration of this important victory.
Many of us watched it from home whilst over 25,000 of our fellow country men and women made the sacred pilgrimage to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Northern France to pay their respects to those who were killed. Many of those Vimy pilgrims are here with us today.
One whom I would like to point out directly is Sergeant Grant Philpott of the 56th Field Artillery Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, who went over with several of his comrades to commemorate those who were killed during the First World War. But for Sergeant Philpott, it was more of a personal journey, as two of his great uncles were killed during the Great War –
Private William Philpott who was killed in 1915 and Private Arthur Philpott who was killed at Vimy Ridge on the first day of that battle.
For Canada, The Battle of Vimy Ridge – a part of the larger Arras offensive, marked a defining moment in our young nation’s history.
Where our Allies, the French and British, struggled and failed in the early days of the war to capture the ridge, the Canadians overcame great odds and seized this impregnable position on the Western Front in 1917.
What makes our victory at Vimy Ridge all the more important, is that it was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together – shoulder to shoulder.
Not as a subordinate unit in the British army, but as a composite formation under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Julian Byng and First Canadian Division Commander Arthur Currie.
On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917 at 5.30 a.m., over 1,000 guns opened fire on strongly fortified German positions.
On that day, an estimated 15,000 Canadians rose from the trenches and advanced in the face of snow, sleet, artillery and machine-gun fire towards the ridge in the first wave, with thousands more behind them. By that afternoon they were in command of the crest of the ridge and the whole ridge within four days.
Historians today attribute Canada’s victory at Vimy Ridge to a mixture of technical and tactical innovation – namely the ‘creeping barrage’ and ‘sound ranging’, careful planning, powerful artillery preparation and thorough training.
But for those who were there, like Brantford resident Sergeant William O’Heron who served with the 1st Canadian Battalion – the victory was attributed to the courage of the men when he stated:
Our boys deserve all the credit that is due them. The position was a remarkably strong one and Fritz made several efforts to regain it, but nothing doing, he could not move that Wall of Canadian Bone and Muscle.
Another Brantford man who was in this ‘Wall of Canadian bone and muscle’ was 24 year-old Lieutenant John Simmons of the 87th Battalion, a recent Forestry graduate from the University of Toronto.
Simmons wrote to his parents at 114 Clarence Street from his hospital bed in England after being wounded at Vimy:
“I imagine you have read all about Vimy Ridge from the start of the big offensive. I sure was in it tooth and nail, but I did not last long. My company was in the first great wave to go over. One long line of men, five yards apart and 13 miles long, followed by another and another and so on, 20 yards between each wave. It had only been going one hour … when a machine gun bullet hit my arm … gyrating me like a top and I fell and lay in a shell hole for an hour or so, then I walked back holding my left arm with my right. …. The bone was smashed and broken which at present is keeping me in bed, and I will be here for some weeks. Don’t worry; cheer up. Perfectly sound in health otherwise”
The Canadian Victory at Vimy was a turning point for the Allies in the First World War and a key moment in the formation of Canada’s growing military reputation.
The victory ultimately became a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice – and has been hailed by many as our ‘birth of a nation.’
But, our price of nationhood came at a tremendous cost – the battle killed more than 3,600 Canadians and wounded and maimed thousands more.
Reflecting on the loss of men at Vimy, Private William Murray of the 1st Canadian Battalion wrote in a letter home that:
Quite a few Brantford fellows have done their share in the big push and a few I regret to say have paid the supreme sacrifice. Brantford has a few more heroes to remember and honor who have helped to keep up the glorious reputation that Brantford now holds. May she never forget them.
By that time, Brantford, the County of Brant, and Six Nations had already lost 242 men to the war, and Vimy added another 25 men to this list.
With the end of the war nowhere in sight our Roll of Honour continued to grow throughout 1917.
However, as we stand here today, we must be reminded that the Canadian Corps fought in many larger and more successful operations throughout 1917. 2017 also marks the Centenary of Hill 70 and Passchendaele.
While Canadians know the story of Vimy Ridge and the horrors of Passchendaele – few know of Canada’s most forgotten battle of the First World War – Hill 70 – a battle which is significant in this community’s history. And it is this battle which also commands our community’s attention.
By August 1917, the Canadian Corps was called upon once again. Arthur Currie, newly-appointed commander of the entire Canadian Corps, suggested a diversionary attack to wear down the German-held high ground north of Lens.
Not only did it continue the legacy of Vimy Ridge, in which the Canadian Corps would fight as one fighting force, but for Brantford and the County of Brant, it put us shoulder to shoulder in the front lines with our neighbour and closest Ally, our brothers from Six Nations. For Six Nations, Hill 70 would mark one of the highest casualties in a single operation and their sacrifice must also be recognized.
And so today, on the 99th anniversary of the armistice and during this centenary year of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to the men who fell from Brantford, the County of Brant and the Six Nations during the First World War than the dedication of these 5 living memorials – the Vimy Oaks.
For many here, you may not know the story of how these trees came to Canada.
After the battle, Canadian soldiers scoured the battlefield, looking for German helmets, bayonets and other wartime souvenirs as a reminder of Canada’s triumph over the ridge.
However, Lieutenant Leslie Miller from Scarborough, Ontario recognized that this victory had come at a horrendous cost and sought out something of a more permanent and constant reminder of what Canada truly had lost over those four days.
Scavenging around the once heavily-forested ridge, now devoid of trees, Miller found a half-buried oak tree and gathered up a handful of acorns and sent them home to Canada to be planted at his family farm in Scarborough – which he would later call, Vimy Oaks Farm.
Today, 10 Vimy Oak trees survive on Miller’s old farm. Yet, in France, 100 years later there are no original oaks left on the Vimy Ridge battle site.
In 2015 the Vimy Oaks Legacy Corporation, a not-for-profit organization set out to repatriate some of the offspring of these descendant oaks back to France to be planted in the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park next to the Canadian National Memorial site.
Additionally, they have been distributing Vimy Oak saplings to groups willing to plant them at commemorative sites across Canada.
Today, we must thank both City Councilor Richard Carpenter and Brant Gunner’s Club President Peter Sheere for bringing us these five Vimy Oaks.
As you will see, four of these saplings have been designated a colored ribbon representing all Four Divisions of the Canadian Corps that continuously fought together since Vimy until the Armistice.
Red for the First Canadian Battalion, Blue for the Second, French-Grey for the Third and Green for the Fourth.
Additionally, the Fifth tree is for the Six Nations men and women who have continually been our strongest Ally and their ribbon is purple.
The 5 trees we see today stand as a testament to Miller’s foresight to help future generations remember the legacy of Vimy Ridge.
And it is my hope that these trees will grow and serve our 3 communities as a reminder of the service and sacrifice of the men and women from Brantford, Brant County and Six Nations for years to come.
In Closing, I would like to invite to the podium:
Petty Officer 1st Class Haig-Hamilton – R.C.S.C.C. Admiral Nelles
Bombardier Atkinson – 2659 R.C.A.C.
Flight Sergeant Bowerman – 104 Starfighter R.C.A.C.S.
TO BE READ BY SEA CADET – First
Those Killed at Vimy Ridge:
Peter Alexander Balfour
Joseph Richmond Barr
Alfred Bert Benton
Thomas William Brown
James William Chapman
Richard Edward Cromwell
Richard Beattie Draper
Oscar James Fearman
TO BE READ BY ARMY CADET – Second
Frederick James Heath
Lawrence Wilmot Livingston
Ralph Drake Newbrook
Arthur Edward Philpott
Roy James Sewell
TO BE READ BY AIR CADET – Third
Stanley Thomas Stokes
Gordon Kenneth Wilkinson
William Henry Wilson
Albert Victor Wyatt
Men from the Six Nations who were Killed at Hill 70
Lloyd Clifford Curley
Percy Roy Lickers
Welby Howard Lottridge
Lest We Forget