For Vimy's 90th Anniversary the award winning Canadian playwrite Vern Thiessen composed a startling play looking back at this crucial event in Canadian history. Set within the confines of a military hospital the piece relates how each member of a small group of wounded soldiers has been affected by the attack.
Vimy is part of the mythology of Canada United. The four divisions fighting together for the first time, the stunning success, the place at the negotiating tables in the aftermath of the war. All of this is true but Vern Thiessen wanted to take a closer look. Not at the organisational level but at the individual.
Canada is vast, encompassing a landmass large enough to contain all of the European battlefields. At the turn of the century it could take a letter three weeks to travel from one side of the country to the other. It was a time when farmers and fishermen never dreamt of leaving their town or village. Then, war comes and men and women from all over Canada find themselves heading to Europe - the old countries.
There, these Canadians find that whilst the British almost speak Canadian and the French almost québécois, there is a gulf between them. They find that they have more in common with Canadians from the other territories and provinces who understand the outdoor life, the physical labour, the same beer !
A war in France has brought together Canadians from various ethnic backgrounds and locations and made them realise that they form a unity.
A unity that has a place on the world stage. Not as some colonial power but in her own right.
For three years Vern Thiessen immersed himself in the worlds of Canada and Artois of 1917. He spent a number of days out on the ridge, often in the pouring rain, and visited numerous locales in and around the area, including graves of Canadian soldiers Shot at Dawn.
Whilst the hospital setting for the play is within the grounds of a ruined college in Boulogne-sur-mer it was important to ensure that the actors could visualise the ground they were supposed to have fought over and that meant the writer tramping the ground, taking photographs and then conjuring the words which would describe the battlefield to actor and audience alike.
The play was in part inspired by the writings of a young nurse who spent a great part of the war working at Canadian General Hospital No 3 (McGill). Her journal makes interesting reading as she recounts not only the horrors of what she has seen but also the day to day life: that went on.
The characters of the soldiers themselves, have all been created by drawing on the experiences of veterans and portray the ethnic diversity of a country that was still trying to find a common ground between its peoples.
The First Nation soldiers were fighting for a King they had never seen; whilst the European settlers had very divided attitudes.
Many of the anglophone residents of Canada were first generation immigrants and still had strong ties to the motherland. To them: Britain in peril, was a rallying call to arms. Friends and family back home were in danger, there was no question of sitting it out like the Americans.
For the francophone Canadians it is possible to see a very different picture.
The word Canada is a derivative of an Indian word meaning village and was first used by the Frenchman Jacques Cartier in the 16th Century. The area around the village in question would become Québec in 1608 when the French founded the first town intended as a settlement (as opposed to a trading post) to the north of New England.
Even that rock of trade: The Hudson Bay Company was founded by Frenchmen who found that dealing with the English King was more lucrative than with the French Court. Then in 1759 outside the walls of Québec it all changed. General Wolfe defeated the French defenders under General Montcalme and Nouvelle France suddenly became part of the British Americas.
Submerged by the weight of English speakers and feeling deserted by a France that no-longer had an interest the francophone population were forced to go it alone in trying to maintain their identity.
When France went to war, the French speaking population did not feel the same tugs at the heart as their English neighbours. Their motto may well have been Je me souviens (I remember) but what was going on in France was not going to stop the domination by the English back home, and for them that meant: Canada.
With tension in the air between the various soldiers it is up to the nurse to bring them back to health and to make sense of the battle.
For her part she is guarding her own secret and needs to know what happened up on the ridge. Each of her wounded soldiers comes from one of the four different Canadian Divisions and through this mechanism the story of Vimy unfolds.
Whilst trying to portray an historical incident requires as much authenticity as possible the writer stresses that this is a play.
The research has been done to a painstaking degree: was it possible to buy that beer in 1917, would somebody from Ontario have understood what an Albertan meant by that, are those the right buttons, whereabouts in fact was the hospital situated, will the audience understand what was meant by that phrase.
No doubt the complaints will come in, but Vern Thiessen hopes that people will realise that at the heart of his play is Canada. Not as an individual person, not as some pedantic wee point of military uniform or custom, but as a young nation in the throws of creating something that bound the population together by common experience.
The thousands of individual memories of what went on that Easter Monday in 1917 have, over time, transformed themselves into a powerful myth whose edifice continues to impose itself on the landscape for all to see.
The play received its world premiere at the Citadel Theatre, Edmonton on 20 October 2007 to general acclaim.
"A powerful and moving piece of theatre...." Edmonton Sun
"First -Rate... In a country where nationalist fervour and even basic historical knowledge have always been in short supply, it will be an eye opener." Edmonton Journal
"Playwright finds more than blood in Vimy story..." Globe and Mail