In the early morning hours of Easter Monday, 1917, the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force huddled low in the trenches, waiting for zero hour. For the first time, the four divisions of the CEF had been brought together into a single unit, the Canadian Corps. For months they had trained for this day. The seconds ticked by slowly until, suddenly, with a thundering crash, their guns roared into life. The ground before them exploded high into the air, screening them from the view of the Germans. They rose from their trenches and began their advance, just as they had been training for months to do. The attack on Vimy ridge had begun.
The Canadians were not the first to attack the ridge. The French and British had repeatedly tried to take the ridge from the Germans earlier in the war. Together they suffered 150,000 casualties in their failed attempts. Now the Canadians would try and take the Ridge.
The men of the Canadian Corps had come from across Canada. French and English, Native and White, Catholic and Protestant had volunteered. Men who would have had nothing to do with each other back home served side by side, fought together, relaxed together, and even died together. The old divisions were gone. They had no place in this brotherhood.
The attack on Vimy had been carefully planned down to the minute. The commanders of the British army had thought the Corps commanders were insane, but did not interfere with the plans. They never expected the attack to work in the first place. It is not commonly known, but Vimy was a diversion. The main attack was to be in the south, where French Field Marshall Nivelle had come up with a plan that was supposed to end the war in a matter of weeks.
The Canadians marched forward on schedule. Into heavy fire they advanced, each unit taking their objectives, mopping up, holding position while another unit leapfrogged over them, and continued the advance. By the end of the day, nearly all objectives had been secured, and the Canadians had made the largest single day advance since the beginning of trench warfare. The diversion was a success. The rest of Nivelle's offensive failed miserably. Parts of the French army mutinied against the waste of their lives by incompetent commanders.
The Canadians took great pride in their success. They had captured an objective no other army could take. For the rest of the war the Canadians became the preferred shock troops of the British Army. According to legend, the Germans even came up with a new word to describe the Canadians: Stormtroopers.
The reputation came at a heavy cost. Of the 450,000 men who served overseas, one in seven, over 60,00 men, died. Another 170,000 were wounded. Over half the Canadian Corps became casualties. According to modern psychology, when a unit suffers more than 20% casualties, the survivors suffer irreparable psychological damage. The next generation of Canadians would largely be raised by men who, by modern standards, were not wholly sane.
The impact of the war can be seen in many of the older churches of Toronto. Many of them have plaques outside, or just inside the doors, dedicated to the men of the parish who died for King and Country in the Great War. Many of them have very long lists of names. Every member of the tightly knit church community would have known someone who had died.
The question of why the Roman Catholics- still predominantly Irish- signed up can only be speculated. War fever gripped English Canada in ways it never did French Canada. The Catholics may not have been immune. By now they often worked jobs with Protestants, developed friendships- perhaps that bond drew them into the conflagration. Whatever the cause, in numbers they answered the call and served Canada well and with honour in what was arguably the greatest crisis this country ever faced.
Ironically, their service was in the name of a cause decried by the leader of their faith, Pope Benedict XV, who called the war “the suicide of Europe” and who was said to be so distraught over the war that his grief shortened his life. In 1918, archbishop Neil McNeil saw fit to issue a pamphlet entitled "The Pope and the War." Benedict repeatedly sought to broker peace deals between the sides, only to be repeatedly rebuffed, to the point that the French and British jointly declared him to be irrelevant, and agreed not to answer any further telegrams from him. Meanwhile, men were dying like never before.
To make sense of disasters and massacres, people often turn to faith and to myths. The Protestant myths are well documented. To Protestant societies that promoted the Empire, such as the Orange Lodge, the First World War was a glorious sacrifice, a reaffirmation of the covenant between the colonies and the Empire written in blood. The Catholics of Toronto had no recourse to that myth, so it is possible they bought into the nationalist myth: that Canada was born on the slopes of Vimy, and at Lens and Hill 70, through the bloody slaughter of Passchendaele, and on through Amiens, Drocourt-Queant, Canal du Nord, Cambrais and all the battles where the Canadian troops fought and won, and distinguished themselves as an unparalleled fighting force on the fields of France and Belgium.
Perhaps the Catholics of Toronto availed themselves of the myth. Perhaps they thanked God for their survival and tried to get on with the life they had left behind. But the trenches had changed them in many ways. They had been of a brotherhood, united despite religion or ethnicity. Perhaps for the first time in the history of the Diocese of Toronto the Catholic identity, forged through the trials of prejudice and the struggles started by Charbonnel to remain separate had been set aside for a new identity, that of “Canadian”. Canada's tragedy and glory of the war may have resulted in a subtle undermining of Tridentine Catholic identity in the diocese of Toronto.
Prior to the war, the Catholic identity was a kind of default position. They were not allowed to have any other identity. But the war changed that. They now had another option. Catholics came home Canadians. They were now part of society. The tightly knit communities, shut out as much as they were shut in, were now part of a larger community. At first, the difference was probably not noticeable. But a little chip had been knocked away, or perhaps, not so little a chip. More chips were to come that would erode away, bit by bit, at the Catholic identity of the Toronto faithful.