Kelley Potter's remarks at 2023 Remembrance Day Ceremony a heartfelt tribute ....
Today, I wanted to talk to you about Vimy Ridge. By 1917, after three years of fruitless slaughter, the First World War had become a struggle of attrition. The opposing Allied and German armies were stuck in a stalemate on the Western Front — a vast line of trench works stretching from the North Sea through Belgium and France to the Swiss border. Millions of soldiers on both sides had been killed and wounded in battles that brought the war no closer to an end....keep reading

The Canadians, fighting as part of the larger British effort in what became known as the Battle of Arras, were ordered to seize the high strategic strong point of Vimy Ridge, on the northern flank of the British attack. Capturing this high ground would give the Allies an important geographic vantage point, with sweeping views over enemy positions to the east. As one Canadian observer noted at the time, “more of the war could be seen (atop Vimy Ridge) than from any other place in France.”
The bulk of Canada’s army on the Western Front — the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps, with its various British and Canadian support units — had moved into the Vimy area after the fighting at the Somme ended in the autumn of 1916. At Vimy Ridge, the Corps inherited a battlefield badly scarred by years of previous fighting. Trenches were half-destroyed or in poor shape, and the landscape was already pulverized by shell craters and mine explosions.
The Canadian staging area of the ridge was a busy, militarized, industrial zone, with thousands of infantry soldiers rehearsing their assault on the ridge, and tens of thousands more troops, plus mules and horses, engaged in building roads, tram tracks, tunnels and trenches, or hauling thousands of tonnes of food, guns, munitions and other supplies up to the front lines. Much of this work was carried out only after dark, to avoid the watchful eyes of the Germans.
Perhaps the most important work leading up the battle was the secret construction of 11 tunnels or subways — totalling nearly 6 km in length — designed to bring many in the first wave of assaulting troops safely out in front of the German lines, without having to cross, under fire, a wide area of open ground or “no man’s land” at the opening of the battle.
The assault plan called for the four divisions of the Canadian Corps to attack up the slopes of the ridge in side-by-side formation.
In the pre-dawn darkness of 9 April, Easter Monday, 15,000 Canadians, the first wave of the assault, gathered at their assembly points. At 4 a.m., the air was cold and the mud had hardened overnight. Wind-driven snow and sleet swept across the ridge, making conditions miserable, but helping to obscure the Canadians from the enemy. At 5:30 am, the Canadians began their assault, keeping as close as safely possible behind the roaring artillery barrage sweeping over the German front trenches. Steady fire from 150 supporting machine guns, raking the battlefield ahead of the Canadians, gave further protection to the attacking infantry.
The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions fought on through the day, advancing steadily through German defences, in some cases having to overcome determined enemy resistance, in others watching Germans flee to the east in the face of the assault. Death and horror were everywhere
By late afternoon on 9 April, three of four divisions had captured all their objectives on schedule, and most of Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands. At the deepest point of the advance, the Canadians had pushed the German army back almost 5 km — the greatest single Allied advance on the Western Front, to that point in the war.
Things did not go as well for the soldiers of the 4th Division. The 4th was assigned the toughest objectives — Hill 145 (the highest point on the ridge, and the location today of the Vimy Memorial), and another high point called the Pimple. Each was heavily defended, ringed by well-fortified trenches, and with a clear view of the slopes up which Canadians would attack. Vimy Ridge could not be held by the Canadians, unless these two high points were captured.
The following afternoon, amid renewed artillery and infantry attacks, Hill 145 fell into Canadian hands. Two days later, on 12 April, the Pimple was also captured after an hour of fierce combat in driving snow.
The four-day battle was over, and Vimy Ridge was finally in Allied hands — a stunning, but costly victory that left 3,598 Canadians dead and another 7,000 wounded. There were an estimated 20,000 casualties on the German side. Another 4,000 Germans were taken prisoner.
The victory at Vimy Ridge was greeted with enthusiasm in Canada, and after the war the battle became a symbol of an awakening Canadian nationalism. One of the prime reasons is that soldiers from every region of Canada — fighting together for the first time as a single assaulting force in the Canadian Corps — had taken the ridge together. As Brigadier-General Alexander Ross would famously say: “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
And while Vimy Ridge was the site of much death and horror, somehow in the midst of all of the carnage, one man was able to find both beauty and hope. Lieutenant Leslie Miller of Scarborough Ontario serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, gathered up a handful of acorns from a partially buried English oak tree on the Ridge. He sent the acorns home to his family with instructions to plant them. In 1919 when Lieutenant Miller returned home and was given 25 acres on his family farm, the acorns had sprouted.
Upon returning to Canada, for health reasons, Lieutenant Miller was unable to resume his teaching career. In his time away, the saplings from the acorns had taken hold. He replanted the oaks as part of his woodlot that also included sugar maples, black walnut and other hardwoods. Lt. Miller named his land “The Vimy Oaks”. And while working his fruit and vegetable farm he used his skill in other languages to reach out to new Canadians, giving them garden plots and teaching them to grow their own produce. He also mentored many young people whom he employed part time on his farm, passing on his values and his love of nature and the humanities.
Ten of those original oaks soar into the sky today, thriving in the same but smaller woodlot which is now under the care of the Scarborough Chinese Baptist church that purchased the farm property in 2002.
In January 2014 a group of volunteers now known as the Vimy Oaks Legacy Corporation decided to send the offspring of these oaks back to Vimy Ridge. World War One had wiped out all but one native oak known to survive in that area today. The foresight of Lieutenant Miller allowed the possibility to return young “Vimy Oak” saplings to their original territory of Vimy Ridge one hundred years later. Descendants of these great symbolic trees were repatriated to Vimy Ridge in November 2018 to create living memorials to honour those who fought in the Great War, connecting modern Canada and modern France and reaffirming our comradeship with France and her people. Today, Leslie Miller’s Vimy Oaks are growing on Vimy Ridge.
And so to bring this story, full circle, in 2017 one of the men who was part of the Laurel Hill Cemetery Board, (and this is Laurel Hill that we are currently in folks) Murray Stewart, heard about this program on the radio. He and others including Cy Wallace, had been part of the Board that had upgraded our Cenotaph and made sure that it was being cleaned and restored over the years. When Murray heard about this program, he followed up to find out what needed to be done in order to be a recipient of one of the Vimy Oak Saplings. He got all of the details, including how much they cost, filled out the required paperwork and in 2018, our very own Vimy Ridge Oak was planted right here in Laurel Hill. Murray and his late wife Marian donated the tree to our community.
Today, you can see this tree, just behind us. The acorn, the fruit of the oak tree, symbolizes potential, growth, and prosperity.
I think that for all of us here today, it represents hope.
This story is now yours to keep and hand down for generations to come as our oak tree continues to thrive here with the memories of all of those we lost along the way.
Today we want to thank and acknowledge the men and women that continue to be a part of our Armed Forces, some of whom are here today, some of whom are deployed on peace keeping missions and working for the greater good in areas where the people cannot fend for themselves. Today we want to let these people and their families know, how much they mean to us, that we acknowledge all that they give up in order to grant us peace and freedom and most of all, to say thank you.