Vimy Ridge: blood-drenched warning, not patriotic call to arms

Illustration of the Vimy Memorial

Books | by Gregory Beatty

Canada’s sesquicentennial isn’t the only notable anniversary being celebrated in 2017. This year also marks the centennial of a World War I battle that, at the time, was regarded as an inconsequential skirmish in the endless slog of blood and mud.

Yes, during the four-day offensive on April 9–12 some valuable ground was gained (at the cost of 3,598 Canadian soldiers killed and 7,004 wounded). But in the larger scope of the war, Vimy Ridge barely registered on the public consciousness. Yet in the decades that followed, the battle grew to become a symbol of Canada’s emergence on the world stage as an independent nation.

“Blood baptism” is how one historian put it.

How Vimy Ridge reached legendary status in Canada is the subject of a new book by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift titled The Vimy Trap or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War.

“In 2008, Ian and I were talking about the Harper government’s approach to war commemoration,” says Swift. “This was at the time of Canada’s war in Afghanistan. We worked on a book that came out in 2012 called Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in the Age of Anxiety that was a broad look at Canada’s relationship to war.

“That same year, the Harper government was making a patriotic hullabaloo about the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which they styled as the ‘War for Canada’. We thought, ‘Well, if they were going to create a big deal out of a war that happened well before Canada existed, what was in store for the various anniversaries of World War One?’

“What our book attempts to do is show the ways WWI in general, and Vimy Ridge in particular, were remembered in the immediate aftermath and how that changed through subsequent generations,” says Swift.

Mists Of Time

Vimy Ridge — part of the Battle of Arras that lasted from April 9 to May 16 — saw Canadian forces seize a ridge in northern France. The victory was lauded tactically for its creeping artillery barrage that enabled troops to advance under cover. On top of that, previous failures by British and French forces to take the ridge magnified the achievement and fed the fires of Canadian nationalism — at least short-term.

Because the Allies failed to press their advantage after the initial seizure, the battle ended up being of little military significance.

McKay and Swift drew on a range of sources to revisit those troubled times — from media reports and government records to movies, art, literature and personal memoirs.

“We wouldn’t claim there was never any über-patriotic memory of World War One in the immediate aftermath,” says Swift. “The dominant memory in the 1920s through 1940s when the survivors of the ‘Great War’ were still alive, though, was one of sorrow and ‘Never Again’.”

That spirit was reflected in the Walter Allward monument that the Canadian government unveiled in France in 1936 to commemorate the battle. In 2012, the Harper government put a depiction of it on the $20 bill.

“But if you look at it, it’s a peace monument — and the principal figure is a woman called ‘Canada Bereft’, who is clearly grieving,” says Swift.

Far from unifying Canada, Swift adds, Vimy Ridge presented a major test for the country.

“Our position is it threatened Canada in a way the country had never been threatened before, in dividing Quebec and English Canada. There’s a direct relationship between the very high casualties in April and the Borden government’s decision [in August] to impose conscription, which the prime minister had previously said he would never do.”

Myth Takes Hold

While World War One was greeted with wild enthusiasm by citizens of combatant nations, World War Two was met with dismay and resignation because people knew what lay ahead. That anti-war sentiment continued through the counter-culture 1960s.

But as those with first-hand experience of the two world wars started to pass away, attitudes shifted.

One hallmark in the development of the Vimy myth McKay and Swift highlight is Pierre Berton’s 1986 book, Vimy.

“When I was growing up, he was probably Canada’s most widely read historian — at least in English Canada,” says Swift. “His books on the railway, The Last Spike and The National Dream, are very much tales of nation-building, where Canada goes from being a colony to a country. That’s how he tells the story of Vimy.

“In a way, though, Vimy is an ambivalent book. At the end, the question is asked, ‘Was it worth it?’ The answer is, ‘No’. But at the same time the story is told of Canada as a nation of swashbuckling individualists, men of the frontier who charged up this hill in France and prevailed where other armies had failed.”

The Harper government, enthralled with the military values of hierarchy, duty, obedience and sacrifice, gave official sanction to that interpretation in its Citizenship Guide published in 2008.

With xenophobic nationalism on the rise in the United States and Europe now, The Vimy Trap offers a timely reminder of what’s at stake if saner heads don’t prevail.

“I don’t have any idea how the government and media will commemorate Vimy Ridge on April 9,” says Swift. “But the story drives home the dangers of extreme nationalism.

“If the patriotic view of war ‘trumps’, as it were, the sober-minded and grief-stricken way of remembering war, then we’re in trouble.” ❧

Jamie Swift will be at McNally Robinson on March 29 at 7 p.m.

World War Hell

Sidebar by Gregory Beatty

Thanks to colonial ties, nations around the world got dragged into the First World War. But the main combatants were Britain, France and Russia versus Germany and the Hapsburg (Austria-Hungary) and Ottoman (Turkish) Empires.

Seeking to do an end-run around French defences when war was declared in August 1914, the German army invaded Belgium to the north, intending to sweep down on Paris. The advance stalled at the Battle of the Marne in early September, however, and opposing armies settled into trench warfare.

A horrific toll was exacted over the next four years.

Coming at the cusp of the modern era, says Swift, World War One was the first industrial war.

“In Kingston, there’s a commemorative room with stained glass windows that illustrate different WWI battles,” says Swift. “One shows a mounted cavalryman with a lance. It’s a medieval image, in a war where the principal weapons were artillery that could fire shells over many kilometres and machine guns that could fire 400 to 500 rounds a minute.”

Time and time again, soldiers were ordered by their superiors to “go over the top” and attack enemy positions. Compounding the tragedy of this futile strategy (which many soldiers equated to suicide) was the rampant profiteering and corruption in government and business circles back home and the sordid origins of the war itself.

“One of the hallmarks of Vimyism is that whenever Canadian soldiers have gone to war it’s been to promote freedom and democratic values,” says Swift. “Well, World War One was a lot of things. But it was ultimately an imperial contest between empires.”

The ultimate prize for these empires were the colonies that could be plundered for resources and used as markets for manufactured goods. The slaughter didn’t stop with World War One, either. The terms imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles led, in no small part, to the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1930s — and, ultimately, World War Two.

Ultimately, romanticizing war is just a bad, bad idea.

“The idea of wars being fought in defence of freedom is not only historically nonsensical, it performs ideological work,” says Swift. “If you subscribe to the notion all our wars have been fought for the noblest intentions, how are you going to react to the next military engagement we’re unfortunate enough to be plunged into?”