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Commentary

Heroic story told in letters

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

It seemed as if it might have been picked only yesterday.

Not 90 years ago.

Willa Rivett had been going through old boxes following the death of an elderly aunt. She thought a small brown cardboard container held jam jars, for some reason, but when she opened it dozens of letters spilled out and, instantly, she recognized her father's handwriting.

They were his letters home from the Great War, the first one, written while at sea, telling his family not to worry; the later ones, from the front, caused them to worry even more because he avoided all talk of the war and its progress.

In one letter, Percy James reminded his mother that she had asked him if he had seen any heather growing, and inside the letter he sent back he had included a small purple flower pressed between waxed paper. He offered no other details. Nothing about France. Nothing about the upcoming battle for Vimy Ridge.

"Good heavens," Willa remembers thinking as she unfolded the paper from around the present her father had picked for his mother. "How could this survive?"

How could anything have survived might be more to the point.

Today, Willa Rivett will travel from her home in Goderich, Ont., to Ottawa where, this evening, she will join a select group to watch the first screening of Vimy Ridge: Heaven to Hell, a Canadian-British co-production that will be shown March 26 on the History Channel.

April 9, Easter Monday in 1917 as well as 2007, will mark the 90th anniversary of the battle that made Canada.

Percy James, Willa's father, was one of three young men from the small town of Goderich to fight in that pivotal battle. He was 23 and on the ground. Jack Carter, also 23, was in the air, having already been shot down once only weeks earlier. Dudley Holmes, 22, was deep underground, waiting in specially dug caves to come up through the trenches and join the battle.

They were all from the same town, their families had once lived on the same street, and all, like the carefully pressed heather, somehow survived.

Nearly 3,600 other Canadians did not. In the three years of fighting around Vimy that preceded the Canadian attack, it is estimated some 200,000 died trying to take the German-held ridge that was considered "invincible," any attack on it a "glorified suicide mission."

The Canadians took the first line in 30 minutes, the second line in an hour. They took Hill 145, the high point, a day later.

In four days, the battle was over and the Canadians were completely victorious.

It was the first great Allied victory in 1½ years. It was the beginning of the end for Germany. Canada had entered the war as nothing more than part of the British Empire. Largely because of Vimy, she left the war a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles and, historians such as Pierre Berton have argued, now her own country.

The film -- directed by Matt Gallagher, written and narrated by Michael Allcock -- is a powerful account of a time Canadians should all be remembering this Easter. It uses historians, archeologists, engineers, soldiers, pilots and animated recreation to show how, in so many ways, the birth of modern warfare took place on this ridge. The Canadians essentially reinvented the taking of strongly held positions, and they did so while heading into snow and sleet, machine guns, heavy artillery and even gas. That they managed what they did in four days is simply breathtaking.

The losses hit home as the archeologists find a blasted foot and other "pieces of people" as they dig.

In telling the story of the three young men from Goderich, the filmmakers are able to tell the tale of the Canadian forces in the First World War -- tough soldiers who led all other soldiers in beer drinking, partying and, the film says, venereal disease. But they also performed magnificently heroic acts. Four Victoria Crosses went to Canadians at Vimy alone.

Percy James came home to marry his high-school sweetheart and run a small retail business. Jack Carter came home to build pipe organs. Dudley Holmes became a lawyer and then a judge.

Percy James never talked about it, ever. He likely never knew his sister had held on to all those letters. His daughter's first inclination had been to keep them private, but she thought it might help the filmmakers and, indeed, the letters tell a story beyond the power of film.

Percy James died in 1973 and, on Easter Monday, Willa Rivett will pay a quiet visit to his grave.

She will remember a man who never talked about his war. An old man who, once he had retired, would come down to the family store and wait for Willa's daughter, Lynne, to get out of school so he could treat her at the restaurant.

A young man who sent a carefully pressed purple heather home so his mother could see what it was like where he was.

Only it wasn't that way at all.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

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