On April 9, 1917, four Canadian divisions comprising the Canadian Corps massed for an assault on the Prussian Guards in the northwestern edge of the Western Front.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, which saw the disparate elements of the Canadian army fight together as a single unit, is widely credited with being something akin to the birth of a nation, a time when Canadians from across the country joined together in a monumental display of national will.
On April 9, 2017, Canadian dignitaries, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will be on hand at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in northern France to commemorate the centennial of the battle. Other remembrance services will be held at the National War Memorial in Ottawa and across the country.
This long after the battle, there are no World War I veterans who can be honoured for their sacrifice, but veterans of World War II have been asked to stand in their place.
One of them is Norman Cash, who at 97 is likely one of the oldest surviving Canadian military veterans. Cash, who was born in Romania but has lived in Toronto since he was one year old, served in the 12th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery.
Cash considers himself privileged to be among those chosen to represent veterans at the 100th commemoration of Vimy.
“I’m so honoured,” he said in his north Toronto apartment. “I was very surprised when they called me to tell me I was a delegate. It was something I didn’t think they would do. I was just an ordinary soldier. There are so many veterans around.”
In his day, Cash was one of many Canadian Jews to enlist in the armed forces, but he kept it secret from his mother until after he was assigned to Europe. His father, Frank, who served in World War I, took him to visit a rabbi near Baldwin and Nassau streets, Cash recalled. The rabbi blessed him and assured him he’d come home. He also gave him a nickel and told him to keep it with him all the time. Cash poked a hole in it and wore it with his dog tags throughout the war.
He recalls going to the recruiting station with his best friend, Leonard Katz, and being assured that if they enlisted together, they would serve together. They started together in the Royal Canadian Dragoons, where Katz’s brother served, but after two weeks, Cash was assigned to an artillery unit, while Katz became a tanker.
“The recruiter gave us a bubbe mayse [grandmother’s tale],” Cash said.
They didn’t meet again until two years later at the Beaver Club in London, a spot for Canadian soldiers on leave.
When Cash arrived in Normandy a few days after the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings, bodies still littered the beach and German artillery occasionally pounded the area. He soon took part in the battle of Falaise, where the Allies tried to encircle and capture German units. His unit then headed north to liberate Belgium and Holland from the Nazis.
Along the way, he saw battlefields littered with corpses. The stench was so strong, it stayed with you for days, he said. By the end of the war, his unit had advanced through Belgium to Holland and helped liberate a Belgian concentration camp.
Like other returning veterans, Cash didn’t talk much about the war, but he did join General Wingate Branch 256 of the Royal Canadian Legion, a group for Jewish vets.
And like many of his generation, he’s modest about his accomplishments, but in recent years, he’s been recognized by the government of France, which bestowed the Legion of Honour upon him. Two years ago, he appeared in a Bell Canada Remembrance Day TV commercial, playing himself, a veteran handing out poppies.
By April 1917, Allied armies had been hurling themselves, largely to no effect, against German entrenchments at Vimy Ridge for years. More than 100,000 French troops had been killed.
Canadian units had been under British command and fought well in trench warfare on the Western Front. But now, four divisions gathered together, with soldiers from across Canada, to act as a single armed force in the attack at Vimy. Well trained and acting with the benefit of a massive artillery barrage, the Canadians broke through German lines and advanced 4,500 yards – some three miles – before stopping.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, they “achieved the greatest single Allied advance on the Western Front to that point in the war.” The cost was high, however. More than 10,500 soldiers were killed or wounded in the four-day assault.