The Canadian War Museum is always worth a visit and in 2017 there’s a special exhibit marking the centennial of the First World War battle at Vimy Ridge in 1917, a “battle” which has assumed enormous symbolic value for Canadians. Among ordinary Canadians, Vimy Ridge, more an “engagement” than a battle, is arguably Canada’s most well-known military event.
The Museum itself, a hulking modernist concrete bunker situated next to Chaudiere Falls, is a 20-minute walk west of Parliament. Opened in 2005, the Museum is the Capital’s newest museum. The structure thrusts up from the earth, its highest point a large copper-covered fin on the east side facing towards Parliament.
This purpose-built structure offers plenty of space to display the Museum’s impressive inventory of military hardware, (a far cry from the War Museum’s previous cramped home in the former Dominion Archives building next to the National Gallery on Sussex Drive. That three-story Tudor Gothic style stone structure built in the early 1900’s is now home to the Global Centre for Pluralism).
I should declare my personal biases before going on. So here they are, I remember hearing my grandfather speak bitterly about his time in the trenches of the First World War. Since then, I have seen families including my own bear the wounds of both world wars. The impact of war can curse a generation. Perhaps this helps explain why I am reflexively distrustful, almost scared, of speeches praising the bravery and sacrifice of “our” troops.
With that declared, I am a bit surprised to say I find the Vimy exhibit and the permanent galleries at the War Museum to be very balanced and fair. The Museum has pretty successfully navigated the minefield of how to make sense of Vimy and the terrible conflict we call the First World War.
Canadians at Vimy Ridge
“There may be no place on Earth that makes us feel more Canadian,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking in 2007 at the Canadian Vimy Memorial in France, during the 90th anniversary of the Vimy Ridge battle.
“I just can’t figure out why our boys had to go through that,” Charlotte Susan Wood, speaking to King Edward VIII at the commemoration of the Vimy Memorial in 1936. Wood was Canada’s first Silver Cross mother. Working class from Winnipeg, Wood lost two of her five sons in the First World War. The youngest, Percy, was 17 years old when he was killed at Vimy Ridge.
“My father enlisted in the 85th Highlanders, Nova Scotia, and was at Vimy, where his younger brother still lies somewhere in the mud. Dad was in the midst of about eight other battles and it must have destroyed him. He put on a kilt, and took up arms because the English propaganda machine convinced him it was the right thing to do. The government offered him nothing and he asked for nothing; he seemed to think that was the proud thing to do. He rose from a plowboy to a lieutenant in a few years, but when I knew him he just let life happen. His family said that his body came back but his mind never did.” A newspaper reader in April 2017 adds a personal comment to a Globe and Mail feature about the Vimy centennial.
The “Battle” of Vimy Ridge itself was a four-day offensive during the First World War, fought from April 9-12, 1917, notable for the fact that the four Canadian divisions fighting in the British Imperial Army fought together for the first time at Vimy.
Vimy did come at an opportune time. By April 1917, the Great War was mired in its third year of fighting, and any apparent “win” was eagerly promoted to a home audience disheartened by the constant grim news of more casualties. Vimy also got a lot of press in the United States which had just declared war on Germany and the other Central Powers a few days before the Vimy battle. American newspapers lauded the Canadian triumph, encouraging volunteers to enlist now that their Canadian cousins had shown the British and French how to fight.
But Vimy didn’t result in any great victory. In fact, the Germans portrayed their withdrawal from Vimy Ridge as a “victory” because they had prevented a breakthrough of the German lines.
Certainly, the attention paid to Vimy at the time in 1917 quickly passed. Vimy was soon viewed as little more than a blip in the four-month long British-led Arras offensive which had gotten bogged down. Nor was the Vimy engagement seen by the Canadian public as that important then or in the years just after the war.
Visitors from other countries are probably wondering why Vimy is now accorded the importance of a founding myth for Canada, especially since Vimy was not about repulsing an invading force, and was fought far from Canada, on another continent.
This makes Canada different from how other countries remember the First World War. Most other countries recognize the bravery and sacrifice of their war dead, but generally see the First World War as a senseless tragedy. So why does Canada officially elevate Vimy Ridge to something else, and laud it in government publications as a “distinctly Canadian triumph” that “raised our international stature”?
Arthur Currie, the officer who led Canadian troops during the final 18 months of the war, from June 1917 onwards, argued years later against commemorating Vimy because he didn’t regard it as important compared to the other battles where Canadians fought.
Currie may have preferred celebrating what happened four months after Vimy, in late August 1917, just to the north, where Canadian troops were victorious in the Battle for Hill 70. Currie had been promoted to commander of the Canadian forces in June 2017 and the Hill 70 battle was the Canadian troops’ first major engagement under his command.
Hill 70 was a hard fight, six Victoria Crosses were awarded to individual Canadians for their bravery with a toll of 9 thousand Canadian casualties against an estimated 25 thousand casualties on the German side. Afterward, Currie crowed, “It was altogether the hardest battle in which the [Canadian] Corps has participated. It was a great and wonderful victory. GHQ [General Headquarters] regard it as one of the finest performances of the war.”
It’s doubtful that Currie was thinking of what happened later, in the fall of 1917, at the hellhole of mud and blood known as the Battle of Passchendaele when Canadian troops persevered and “won” their objective at the cost of 16 thousand Canadian casualties. Anyone who is tempted to rhapsodize about the heroism of Canadian troops may want to first imagine what that experience at Passchendale was like.
Or perhaps Currie had in mind the string of battles fought the next year, in 1918, in the final three months of the Great War, by which time the Canadians and Australians had become the shock troops relied on by the British General Staff, to the extent that the Germans had learned that the arrival of Canadian troops in any sector presaged an offensive.
Later celebrated as the Hundred Days, this three-month offensive began with the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, where the Allied troops made their greatest advances in a war notable for measuring gains and losses in mere feet. This was quickly followed up by advances in Arras in September, the breaking of the Hindenburg Line and the pursuit to Mons, by which time German morale was collapsing and the end of the war was in sight.
This last part of the Hundred Days did generate some controversy. The pursuit to Mons was criticized in some Canadian newspapers as a needless sacrifice, done to end the fighting at the same place where British troops had first engaged the Germans in 1914. Although Currie sued for libel and won a settlement, the Hundred Days did exact a high price, twenty percent of all Canadian casualties during the entire four years of First World War occurred during the “celebrated” Hundred Days.
Until then, the most well-known battle among the Canadian public was 1915’s Second Battle of Ypres, where six thousand Canadian casualties, including about 2 thousand deaths, marked the first mass use of poison gas on the Western Front and established the Canadian troops’ reputation as tenacious fighters.
The innovations in war technology that mark the First World War, especially the widespread use of artillery, meant that by the time the Vimy battle took place in 1917, the spectre of slaughter hung high and wide above the Western Front. Although only a small area, roughly 6 km wide and 1.5 km deep, the Vimy battlefield had already claimed 300 thousand British and French casualties, even before the four Canadian divisions were mustered at Vimy in the early months of 1917.
So what makes Vimy different among all these battles? Well, besides it being the first time in the First World War when the Canadian troops fought together, there was an unusually high casualty count at Vimy Ridge, even by the standards of the First World War. The first day of the assault, 9 April 2017, remains the single bloodiest day in Canada’s wartime history, 2414 dead.
Compared to what Canadians were historically used to, this was an obscene toll. (In the entire Boer War, Canada had lost 267 men. The Fenian Raids of the 1860s and 1870s only counted altogether a few dozen Canadian casualties, and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham a century before saw less than 200 soldiers killed on both sides.)
And it was not just the four days of the Vimy assault that counted casualties. In the two months before the assault, there were constant trench raids by Canadian troops into German territory, to probe their defenses, and that resulted in several thousand Candian dead and wounded in total. There was even a use of gas by the Canadians during one of these trench raids that went horribly wrong when the gas ended up killing Canadian troops, something that is rarely talked about.
Here is how one report describes it “In about 5 minutes we lost 190 men and two company commanders. It total, there were 687 casualties. Only 5 men actually reached the German trenches. Those that somehow managed to stay alive in No Man’s Land, were captured and spent around 21-months in a German prison camp.”
“On March 3 an extraordinary event took place. No Man’s Land had been eerily silent after the attack, but out of the mist a “German officer carrying a Red Cross flag walked out into No Man’s Land in front of Hill 145. He called for and was met by a Canadian officer to discuss a two-hour truce –from 10:00 am until 12:00 noon — during which time Canadian stretcher bearers and medical staff could carry back casualties and remains. What seemed even more remarkable [was]…the Germans said they would assist by bringing Canadian casualties halfway.”
“My father fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge even though he was just a teenager. Dad was 16 and, as he was tall for his age and looked older, he lied in order to be accepted into the army. He did not talk much about his experiences. He did mention though, that while he hunkered in the trenches, there were rats the size of small dogs crawling all over him. He also told the story of a life and death situation when he came upon a young German soldier – perhaps his age. In a “kill or be killed” scenario, he killed the German. Years later, he could not help thinking that in another time, another place, he and this young German could perhaps have been friends – but this was war and this episode haunted him.” – A reader from Toronto commenting on the Globe and Mail’s feature on the Vimy centennial.
“My grandfather never spoke about the war except for one time he told my uncle Charles about Passchendaele. He spoke of the Germans using poison gas and that in the end, he could have walked for over a mile and never touched the ground by walking on dead bodies. It was such a profound moment in his life that when my uncle Gerald wanted to join up and head overseas at the end of the Second World War, there was a big chair-throwing fight in the kitchen between Grampy Henry and Gerald because Grampy was certain that Gerald would be killed.” – a New Brunswick reader comments on the Globe and Mail feature on the Vimy centennial.
The First World War was a terrible and terrifying war on a whole different scale than what was known before, and it touched Canadians very personally. By 1917, when the fighting was into its third year of carnage, a familiar daily ritual in towns and villages across Canada was to gather at the local Post Office and wait for the day’s casualty list to be posted for everyone to read. People would anxiously scan the list to see if their son, cousin, brother, father or uncle was named, or which of their neighbours had been felled. Making the Vimy list in April 1917 would mark another soul-wrenching day for many families.
The Vimy Memorial
“I’ve been to the memorial outside of Arras France. I’ve been down in the tunnels where Canadian troops waited packed shoulder to shoulder for 18 hours in the dank foul humidity for the whistle to blow signaling them to go over the top. I can’t fathom what that must have been like. I’ve walked in the trenches, I’ve read the names carved into the base of Alward’s soaring pylons steeped in the symbolism of peace and not war. Thousands of names. I’ve stared with tear-filled eyes at Mother Canada keeping a crestfallen watch over the tomb of the unknown soldier so that her son would never be alone.” – A comment from Vancouver on the Globe and Mail’s feature on the Vimy centennial.
Probably the chief reason why Vimy is important to Canadians is that it was the site chosen several years after the war ended to be the site for the Canadian memorial to all of Canada’s unknown war dead from the First World War, those whose bodies were never recovered and buried, about 14 thousand of the total 66 thousand war dead.
France gave 100 hectares (250 acres) of the Vimy battlefield to Canada, and the Canadian government eventually decided that the memorial would serve as the country’s primary overseas monument to World War I. The construction was delayed by several years so the site could be cleared of dead bodies and unexploded munitions. When it was completed, the memorial unveiling in 1936 was attended by 6 thousand Canadian “pilgrims”.
By all accounts, such as the comment quoted above from the Globe and Mail, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, is achingly beautiful. Its two soaring pylons tower above a tableaux of 20 sculpted figures. One of the memorial’s maquettes (small-scale models) is a prominent and arresting part of the War Museum exhibit.
The Vimy memorial is an ode to peace. It took Toronto sculptor Walter Allward 11 years to complete what Allward described as “a sermon against the futility of war.” This power of Vimy was compounded by the fact that Vimy battle took place at Easter so ceremonies about Vimy were easily linked to the Easter theme of death and resurrection, which had a lot of resonance a generation ago when Canada was unapologetically a Christian nation.
But immediately following the war, the sacrifice exacted on Vimy and other battlefields was much more visceral: a generation of women in mourning veils, parades of amputees and men who went to Europe as youths full of exuberance and came home scarred in body and spirit.
(One of the legacies of the Great War was the founding of the Canadian Mental Health Association in 1918 to help deal with the care of soldiers suffering from what was then called shell shock and today is known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
To get the flavour of what the First World War was like for Canadian soldiers, I recommend two books. The first is a memoir, “And We Go On”, written by fellow Nova Scotian Will R. Bird. Published in 1930, this harrowing book about Bird’s two years in the trenches made a big impact among Canadian veterans when it was published. The Royal Canadian Legion sponsored a cross-country tour by Bird, and he received thousands of letters from veterans who desperately wanted to talk about what their war was like but hadn’t had a decent chance.
The second book is a novel, “Generals Die in Bed”, by Charles Yale Harrison, an American who was working at a newspaper in Montreal when he enlisted. Harrison’s spare Hemmingway-like prose is a harrowing look at the butchery of war.
The aftermath of the Great War
Canada’s participation in the First World War did gain Canada international recognition. It earned Canada a separate seat at the Paris Peace Conference after the war. When the U.S. tried to veto Canada’s separate participation at the Versailles conference, they were bluntly reminded by the British Prime Minister that Canada had lost more men in the war than the United States.
Before the First World War, the idea of a Canadian “identity” was generally seen as problematic. The rush by Britain and other European powers beginning in the 1880s for new territories in Africa and Asia had sparked a wave of imperial feeling in English Canada. Stephen Leacock, a Canadian humorist and economics professor at McGill University, wrote in 1906 that independence for the Dominion of Canada “has now receded into the background,” and that with the expansion of Britain’s Empire, “the smaller destiny of isolated independence is set aside in favour of participating in the plenitude of power possible in union.” Leacock cited the Boer War as having enhanced a yearning for “imperial federalism.”
It’s hard to know what to make of Leacock’s observations, coming from a university professor living in Montreal, except to marvel at how an anglophone living in Quebec in the early years of the last century could be apparently clueless about how detached French Quebecers were from any affection for “imperial federalism”.
For better or worse, the First World War ended these imperial fantasies, for both Britain and Canada. After immediately committing Canada to Britain’s war effort in 1914 without consulting his cabinet, Canadian Prime Minister, Robert Borden, did use every opportunity during the war to assert Canada’s right to participate as an equal in imperial affairs and insist that Canadian troops should be led by Canadian officers.
While Borden’s campaign for more recognition for Canada bore fruit, it is also true that the war exposed some dramatic linguistic and racial divisions in Canada. The initial Canadian troops were all volunteers but by 1917 more manpower was needed. Borden’s government imposed conscription and resentment in Quebec mounted. The resulting conscription crisis of 1917 was the first major fissure and real threat to Canada’s unity since the country had been created 50 years earlier.
The explosion came in spring 1918 in Quebec City. There was a riot following the arrest of a young Quebecer for failing to produce his conscription papers. A newspaper office was broken into, and federal troops were called out. Gunfire was exchanged, four people died and 65 were arrested. The effect on French-English relations and the fortunes of the federal Conservative Party in Quebec would last for the next four decades.
Things were also not going well elsewhere in Canada in 1918. The mounting casualty count had more and more conscripts seeking an exemption as conscientious objectors, or gaming the system to insist that staying in their job was necessary for the war effort, a favourite argument made by farmers. In many towns and villages, who was going off to war and who was fighting to avoid it was the subject of much argument.
The fact that it was Canadians of mainly British origin that enlisted and fought in Europe was not lost on the returning troops and their families. There was burning resentment of shirkers and supposed war profiteers. In August 1918, a few months after the Easter riot in Quebec City, mobs of returning veterans rampaged for three days through the City of Toronto on the basis of a drunk veteran being ejected from a Greek-owned restaurant. They targeted restaurants and businesses owned by Greeks, and it ended with martial law being imposed and downtown Toronto left a shambles of glass and looted stores.
The aftermath of the First World War was a lousy economy with inflation, unemployment, strikes and riots. Again, after what they had endured in the trenches during the war, the veterans had little sympathy for strikers in Canada. In May 1919 there was the Winnipeg General Strike, which ended with federal troops patrolling the streets of Winnipeg. The threat of what they called Bolshevism then led to police raids on labour temples, the seizure of printing presses and the swift deportation of suspected anarchist and communist sympathizers.
The years immediately after the Great War were a fraught time everywhere. The Great War had resulted in some 10 million deaths, societies devastated and countries torn apart. Canada, by comparison, survived intact but it was not untouched. 1918 to 1920 were not happy years in Canada, not at all.
I think the trauma of the war was too daunting. The awful, unspeakable waste and loss of life left its mark, families and communities had suffered and lost a generation of young men, quite literally lost their future and purpose. The reason for the war was dubious and, if anything, it showed that the elites running governments and nations were criminally incompetent.
The Vimy myth
It wasn’t until 50 years after Vimy that the birth-of-a-nation narrative began to gain traction. Historians generally point to Prime Minister Lester Pearson using the birth-of-a-nation metaphor when speaking at the Vimy Memorial in 1967.
As memoirs and historical accounts proliferated, so did fabrications that boosted the importance of the engagement, or Canada’s role in it. Vimy was sometimes characterized as “the turning point of World War I” when it was nothing of the sort, at most Vimy was a tactical victory in an inconclusive battle that stretched over many weeks.
Two myths were being created – the first was that Vimy was a bigger deal than it actually was, and the second was that Vimy signified something bigger, the creation of Canada. For a battle in France to become part of a Canadian creation story, one historian talks about how “it was not battalions and brigades that fought their way up Vimy Ridge, but the nation itself.” The Battle of Vimy Ridge became an imaginative space, in which the whole of Canada could gain a new and continually renewable sense of nationhood through the action of a few.
Was this because Canadians were fixated on the example of the United States, spawned during a revolutionary struggle against Great Britain? And any “real” country could only earn its spurs on the battlefield?
Vimy really vaunted into popular Canadian consciousness 30 years ago when Pierre Berton, a well-known popular historian published his best-selling book, Vimy. Berton made the tale of Vimy a ripping yarn, as the rustic farmboys from Canada showed the class-bound British how to do it.
At the academic level, historians have argued for and against the Vimy myth. On one side, some say the Vimy story is the founding national myth because we crave to give meaning to what otherwise would be a really senseless slaughter and sacrifice.
While Robert Borden in 1917 could argue that the First World War and Vimy were necessary to maintain the integrity and honour of the British Empire, modern Canadians three generations later would find that too subservient and no longer good enough.
The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in power from 2006 to 2015, was especially accused of promoting the Vimy myth, part of a campaign to focus on giving military exploits a more central role in Canada’s national identity. The addition of the most recent statue on Parliament Hill, a tableau of idealized figures celebrating the War of 1812, is viewed suspiciously by critics as another part of the Harper government’s campaign to promote the narrative of Canada as a “warrior nation”.
This ends up with celebrity hockey commentator Don Cherry in 2012 calling the Canadian troops at Vimy “the first Team Canada.”
It is fair to say there is no consensus in Canada about this debate.
From the perspective of my generation who came of age during the Vietnam War, the scariest thing about the First World War and how we can make sense of it, is that it was such a terrible waste. Was it worth it? Fighting for the glory of your empire might seem like a good idea until you see the many families you’ll rob of their spirit. Why did they do this? Why could the elites running society send young men to their death with such abandon?
There is a careless cruelty about the First World War, whatever the cause was, so it seems almost pointless today. Dying for King and Empire was actually thought to be justifiable back then. But since we don’t see things that way anymore, why are Cnadians making such a big deal about Vimy? Vimy was such a suicidal gesture, no rational person would have said it was worth it, and is that why we look for some larger significance?
Montreal playwright David Fennario’s working class Verdun community was decimated by the war. In 2014, Fennario wrote a play, Motherhouse, about the impact of the war on his Montreal neighbourhood. His introductory remarks are a suitable ending to this blog post on the centennial of Vimy Ridge.
“More and more as we observe the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, we come across films, novels, and plays that condone or celebrate that war as something honourable, rather than critique and condemn it as one of the worst crimes ever committed against humanity.”