Four rows of modern-day combat boots seemed to stretch forever across the idyllic green expanse of Vimy Ridge in France this past April 9, lovingly placed there by the hands of French and Canadian students. Each row represented one of the four divisions of the Canadian Corps that fought at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. A pair of those boots is now on display at Perth Legion’s Hall of Remembrance museum, on loan from Veterans Affairs Canada.
The rows of combat boots were placed as a symbol of remembrance during a ceremony that marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge held at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. The memorial is situated on land granted to Canada forever by France atop a rise named Hill 145.
A few sentences about the battle are justified, in order to show the meaning of the boots within the context of this particular battle. It was a pivotal event in Canadian history, and many articles and books are available on the subject.
Vimy Ridge is located in northern France, and is a long, high hill that dominates the surrounding landscape. Germany had control of Vimy Ridge early in the war and maintained it as a strong defensive position, with tunnels and trenches defended by soldiers with machine guns and artillery. Previous Allied assaults on the position in 1914 and 1915 had resulted in many thousands of casualties, but the ridge remained in German hands.
There was nothing simple about the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and several attempts had been made by other allied forces before the Canadians were finally selected to do the job, based in part on their already hard-won reputation as fearsome fighters.
The battle began at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, when the first wave of 15,000 to 20,000 Canadian soldiers went over the top into a driving storm of machine gun fire. Many were immediately cut to ribbons, and fell not far from where they started.
This was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together as one formation; together mostly because of the insistence of General Sir Arthur Currie, a Canadian. Although at the time it was commanded by Sir Julian Byng, General Currie would be named to head the Corps after the success of the Vimy battle.
Success came at a heavy price, and of the approximately 100,000 Canadians who served, there were more than 10,600 casualties, nearly 3,600 of which were fatal. The legacy of those who fought lives on, and many Canadians feel that our country came of age during those terrible April days in 1917.
The Town of Perth lost one of its own brave men at Vimy, when Lieutenant William John McLean was wounded during the battle, and died soon after. The last letter home to his father David McLean was published in the May 18, 1917 edition of the Perth Courier: “My Dear Dad: I haven’t much time to write, Dad, but must write a line anyway. I will come to the point. Tomorrow morning I go over the top with my men. I am quite confident that all will be well, but should anything happen, I just want to tell you that I am going with the first, which, by the way, isn’t the worst place by any means. This is something worth while (sic) and worthy of our greatest effort, for it will surely have a bearing on the outcome, and our country is at stake. I will cable you should all be well. In any case you will know before this reaches you. With love to all, William.”
McLean is thought to have been attached to the 130th (Lanark and Renfrew) Battalion, which was a unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, based in Perth. He was born on Febr. 25, 1890, and graduated from the Department of Dentistry at McGill University in 1914.
This article was first published in the August issue of Hometown News. For more articles from our August issue, pick up a print copy at a local retailer or read our digital version.