Vimy Ridge: Victory or Vortex?

On 9 April 2007, after a $20 million, two-year restoration project, the Vimy Monument, the centerpiece of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, was reopened to the public. In an elaborate ceremony also marking the 90th anniversary of the assault on Vimy Ridge, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a crowd of over 20,000:

We Canadians here today are a long way from home, but there may be no place on Earth that makes us feel more Canadian, because we sense all around us the presence of our ancestors.

Not only was the Prime Minister bold enough to speak for all Canadians, he claimed to hear “the dead speak to the living” and “say softly” the same stirring message:

I love my family, I love my comrades, I love my country, and I will defend their freedom to the end.

Canadian National Vimy Memorial. (Photo by Lisamaywhite, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Prime Minister then succinctly presented the official narrative of a battle now enshrined as the literal and figurative high point of Canada’s Great War. “Every nation,” he declared, “has a creation story to tell” and the “First World War and the battle of Vimy Ridge are central to the story of our country.” And while the “names of all the great battles are well known to Canadians and Newfoundlanders…we know the name of Vimy best of all.”

Why?

Because it was here for the first time that our entire army fought together on the battlefield and the result was a spectacular victory, a stunning breakthrough that helped turn the war in the allies’ favor.

Often the importance of historical events is only understood with hindsight, but at Vimy, everybody immediately realized the enormity of the achievement. Brigadier-General Alexander Ross famously said that when he looked out across the battlefield he saw ‘Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade,’ and that he felt he was witnessing the birth of a nation.

 

European militarism

Almost exactly a century earlier, on 27 March 1907, the House of Commons debated the issues set to dominate an Imperial Conference of the British ‘White Dominions’ (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa) in London. The backdrop to the gathering was a naval arms race between Britain and Germany, a series of tense colonial stand-offs, particularly in Africa and the faltering Ottoman Empire, and a growing sense that the first general European war since the Napoleonic era was growing ever closer.

Sir Wilfred Laurier, Sir Robert Borden (Source: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier told MPs he stood by his opinion “that for no consideration whatever” should “Canada be induced to be drawn into the vortex of European militarism.” “The conditions which prevail today in Europe,” Laurier lamented, “are deplorable to a degree,” namely “an armed peace, almost as intolerable as war itself.”

“This cannot last for ever,” he argued: it “seems to me the date is not far distant when these nations…will recognize the folly that has been carried on for centuries” and will instead adopt the “more humane system” of peaceful resolution of disputes and differences. But by the time of his death in February 1919, Laurier had witnessed, instead of an abatement of militarism, its unprecedentedly violent explosion into mechanized carnage, a global ‘vortex’ dragging hundreds of thousands of Canadians into the depths of a dehumanizing struggle celebrated as ennobling by his successor 100 years later.

 

Into the Vortex

Laurier’s immediate successor, in 1911, was the militaristic, jingoistic Conservative leader Sir Robert Borden, who in a Commons debate on May 12, 1902, had inspired Laurier’s original use of the ‘vortex’ analogy. “There is,” Laurier said, not naming but glaring at Borden, “a school” of thought “in England and in Canada,” one “perhaps represented on the floor of this parliament, which wants to bring Canada into the vortex of militarism which is now the curse and the blight of Europe. I am not prepared to endorse any such policy.”

Sir Sam Hughes patented -- in his personal secretary’s name -- a shovel with a hole that a shooter could theoretically use as a shield. Caution kept it from being used on the Front, but thousands of these tools were purchased by the Department of Militia and Defence (Source: Library and Archives Canada)

Sir Sam Hughes patented — in his personal secretary’s name — a shovel with a hole that a shooter could theoretically use as a shield. Caution kept it from being used on the Front, but thousands of these tools were purchased by the Department of Militia and Defence (Source: Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 1902 debate was dominated by the Boer War in South Africa, then entering its final month. The brutal conflict – featuring a fateful British innovation, the concentration camp – split Canada, and Laurier’s own cabinet, along largely ethic and regional lines, with Quebec generally opposed to any involvement and other provinces generally keen to send volunteers. Among the greatest boosters of the War were Borden and the Sir Sam Hughes, later to attain notoriety as Borden’s corrupt and incompetent Minister of Munitions in the Great War.

For the Borden-Hughes wing of the Canadian political establishment, the Boer War was a foretaste of Canadian glory in the looming European conflict they regarded, rather than a disaster to be prevented, as a ‘consummation devoutly to be wish’d,’ the key to transforming the Dominion’s power, stature and influence. Any such grand gamble, however, would require for vindication a defining moment of glory, an epitome and emblem of success: and today every Canadian knows where and what that moment was – the ‘spectacular victory,’ in Harper’s words, at Vimy. And, indeed, the set of grandly interlocking claims made for the battle do constitute a triumph of sorts: a propaganda, coup, the successful assault of fantasy on fact.

 

Bloodbath

The most grandiose delusion of all, of course, was that the French bloodbath was Canada’s ‘birthplace.’ As Jean Martin, a senior francophone historian at the Department of National Defence, wrote in 2011 (“Vimy, April 1917: The Birth of Which Nation?“), Brigadier-General Ross did coin the phrase ‘birth of a nation,’ but only (aged 84) during Canada Centennial Year of 1967. By now, Martin laments:

Each time General Ross’s words are repeated, we become a bit more convinced that they actually reflect the general state of mind on the day of the battle. The legend has become a myth, and it has become more and more difficult to question the battle itself.

It is true, Martin concedes, that the “first reference to the birth of a new nation” was actually made by Cabinet Minister Ernest Lapointe in 1936, the year the Vimy Memorial was opened. Lapointe, however, did not state that the Canadian nation was born at Vimy. Rather, he suggested that a new nation had already been formed from the marriage of the English and French peoples and that Vimy represented the zenith of its achievements. Such achievements presupposed that Canada had passed through the birth stage long ago.” As Laurier argued, Canada in the early 20th century was not an ‘embryo’ entity but a new state with deep and complex roots, a body politic menaced by the imperial gamesmanship and martial myopia of the European Powers.

Vimy wounded. April 1917. (Source: Library and Archives Canada)

Vimy wounded. April 1917. (Source: Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain, CC by 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Does any more credibility, though, attach to the subsidiary contentions of ‘Vimyism,’ the term adopted by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift in their major new study (recently nominated for the Sir John A. MacDonald Prize) The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Great War? Was the assault, for example, “a stunning victory that helped turn the war in the allies’ favor”? In 2007, the year Harper made that claim, a landmark collection of essays – Vimy: A Canadian Reassessment (published, appropriately, by Wilfrid Laurier University Press) – flatly refuted it.

The attack, as many contributors stress, was one element in the far-broader battle of Arras, an ineffectual campaign itself conceived as a diversion to draw German troops from a yet-vaster (and utterly botched) French offensive. And both Vimy and Arras, the book’s editors – Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci and Mike Bechthold – write, “reinforced what British and Dominion troops had already experienced for two years. With careful preparation it was possible to make gains against the enemy’s forward lines, but as German reserves moved into the area, the law of diminishing returns quickly took effect.” What did ‘turn the tide,’ of course, was something else that happened in April 1917: American entry into the conflict.

 

Fake news

Harper also refers to Vimy as the united debut of all four Divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Command, though, was still British, with large numbers of British troops (and guns) involved. And the price the CEF paid in death (3,600) and injury (over 7,000) was far higher than expected, forcing Prime Minister Borden to risk national unity (and spark widespread riots in Quebec) with the introduction of conscription.

Anti-conscription parade at Victoria Square May 1917, 20th century (Soure: McCord Museum, CC by NC.ND 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.5/ca/)

Anti-conscription parade at Victoria Square, Montreal,
May 1917 (Soure: McCord Museum, CC by NC.ND 2.5 )

Vimy, in sum, was just part of the ‘vortex’ of 1914-18; more a mass-grave than a cradle, it stands in a series of tragic Canadian engagements culminating (under ostensible CEF command) in the atrocious fiasco of Passchendaele, the Dominion’s ‘reward’ for its ‘spectacular victory!’

These, then, are the outlines of the true story that turned over time to the ‘fake news’ now fed to Canadians. Contributing a ‘British perspective’ to Vimy: A Canadian Reassessment, renowned military historian Gary Sheffield is driven to conclude that “one particular action during the Arras campaign, the attack on Vimy Ridge, has achieved and retained popular fame largely through the nationality of the troops selected to capture it; the proximity of Vimy to England; and the building of a visitor-(especially pupil)-friendly memorial, complete with artificially preserved trenches. Canadian nationalism has led to an exaggerated sense of the importance of the capture of Vimy Ridge and the British elements of the force that fought in the battle have been airbrushed out of memory.”

The Vimy centenary should be a time to at least begin restoring the full picture of what happened that day, and in the weeks and months that followed; to confront what, in all historical honesty, it really meant. What the country may well instead be subjected to is a flag-waving salute to the boys who delivered ‘birth of a nation,’ burying the truth under yet another layer of so-called ‘remembrance.’

 

Featured image: Painting by Mary Riter Hamilton, (cropped), “Isolated Grave and Camouflage, Vimy Ridge,” May 20, 1919 (Source: Library and Archives Canada, CC by 2.0 )

Sean Howard

 

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.

 

 

 

 

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