Nonfiction / RSGC Life

The Flames of History

Canadian and French flags at the Vimy Memorial, Vimy Ridge, France. Photo by Carcharoth. CC BY-SA 3.0

By Ryan Hamilton

As many of you may know, April 9th to the 12th was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. For those of you who don’t know, Vimy Ridge was a battle in WWI that is viewed as one of the turning points of Canadian history. Canadian forces, fighting as one for the first time, took a ridge that other Allied nations had failed to take.

In April, we saw a lot of commemoration of Vimy Ridge, and this year we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of Confederation. When we see these commemorations, it leads to a question: why is commemorating history important? Why is history important? That seems like a simple question and that someone like me, who loves history, should be able to answer simply. But I don’t have a simple answer. It’s impossible to articulate why history is important.

And that’s the answer.

History is complex. History is everyone’s story, and the more we learn, the more we read, the more stories we learn.

Returning to Vimy Ridge, we hear a lot about the Canadians who fought there, but that’s not the full story. How much do we hear about the Germans at Vimy Ridge? The brave young men who fought and died for what they knew was a good cause. I’m not talking about the Kaiser and Hindenburg, I’m talking about Karl Gruber. What is his story? That’s what history is and that why it’s important.  It’s an understanding. All sides of a story need to be told. That’s why it’s a problem that it took me weeks to find the names of German soldiers who died at Vimy Ridge. I found Karl Gruber’s name, and I know he died on the first day of the battle, April 9th, 1917. I don’t know where he died. He might have died at Vimy Ridge, or anywhere else in World War I. I don’t know, because his story is not being told. But in order to tell the full story of World War I, we must tell that story.

History is also understanding Harry Moore, Ambrose Goodman, and Edwin Walter Dorey. They are three Canadians who fought in World War I. They seem distant to us, but Harry Moore is Fr. David’s grandfather, while Ambrose Goodman went to church in what is now our chapel. One of you might be sitting where he sat when you go to Evensong. He never came back. And Edwin Dorey, who was shell-shocked at Vimy Ridge, returned to the front and died at Passchendaele in October of 1917. He’s also my great-great-uncle. History is never far away from any of us. Those particular stories are close to people who we know, but history is full of stories of people who wouldn’t be familiar to us otherwise.

History is like fire. Some stories become eternal flames that live beyond the lives of the people who set them. Most flames burn themselves out and are lost forever. Every citizen of the world has a duty to pass on our collective torch. We perform that duty by learning history.

By learning history, we save all the flames and we learn all the stories. We learn to understand them. Commemorating gives us all a chance to learn, a chance to connect across the oceans and years, and a chance to understand. That understanding transcends the classrooms and the museums and the battlefields. It’s an understanding of others that can be applied to all those who we wouldn’t normally encounter and all those whose stories wouldn’t automatically seem familiar to us. That’s why we need history: to learn the stories of others and to apply that understanding to both the people we know and the people we only know of.

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