Fog of war and time cloud Vimy’s original message

Canadian soldiers in the trenches at Vimy Ridge in 1917 during the First World War. On a blustery Easter Monday morning 100 years ago, thousands of young Canadians poured out of trenches and underground bunkers and tunnels and swarmed up a gently sloping hillside in northern France, a place called Vimy Ridge. The ridge was a German fortress, studded with concrete machine-gun nests, draped in kilometres of barbed wire and zeroed in by hundreds of guns and mortars. (CANADIAN PRESS)

We found out earlier this month that Jamie Swift and Ian KcKay’s book The Vimy Trap is a finalist for the 2016 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Here is the Jury Citation:

In recent years, the idea that “Canada became a nation” at the April 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge has practically become an official doctrine of the Canadian state. The Vimy Trap is for those who have nagging instinctive doubts about this. It is an authoritative, sometimes indignant debunking of “Vimyism” that inquires into the truth of the battle, documents its mythologization, and reflects on the legacy of the First World War. McKay and Swift’s book is almost too contrarian and hard-hitting to be Canadian, and almost too well-written for its dual byline to seem possible.

Here is article by Jamie published in the Toronto Star last week:

Fog of war and time cloud Vimy’s original message: Opinion

The battle on a countryside hill in France has been distorted and mythologized. 

Toronto sculptor Walter Allward’s magnificent Vimy Memorial is an ode to peace, reflecting the predominant Canadian sentiment in the decades after the First World War. The disastrous war killed some 60,000 Canadians, scarring countless others in body and spirit.

Allward originally planned that one of the Rodin-inspired figures adorning his mournful masterpiece would show a “Defender” stomping on a pickelhaube, a definitively German military helmet. Then he changed his mind. The suggestion was too militaristic.

The Defender is breaking his sword. The biblical reference is clear. “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares.” Allward described his monument as “a sermon against the futility of war.”

When the memorial was finally completed, thousands of Canadian “pilgrims” (religious symbolism abounds) attended the 1936 unveiling ceremony. They listened to “The Peace Hymn.” They heard “Guns,” a poem by Geoffrey O’Hara — “Crush out the hated curse of war.”

Canada’s first Silver Cross mother was an important participant at the ceremony. And Charlotte Susan Wood said something that mirrored the spirit of those years. “I just can’t figure out why our boys had to go through that,” she told King Edward VIII.

A working class mother from Winnipeg, Wood lost five sons to Britain’s imperial wars. The youngest, Percy, was killed at Vimy Ridge. He was 17 years old.

Why is it, then, that peace and questioning war have been largely airbrushed from commemorations surrounding Canada’s Vimy 100 commemorations?

They’ve been replaced by two themes that have mythologized Vimy beyond the tactical victory in the inconclusive Battle of Arras.

One is traditional militarist-patriotic understanding. Death-so-noble. Bravery. Heroism. The drum-and-bugle tone is clear. “We honour their valour,” offers a Canada Post ad featuring the Vimy memorial. “We salute the brave Canadians …”

Such narratives are common enough in war commemoration, always contested terrain. Just as Canadians struggled with loss and grief in the years after the Great War, some embraced militarist remembrance. A 1921 Armistice ball in Calgary featured an arch fashioned from bayonets and machine guns.

Another Great War interpretation emerged to dominate the Vimy story in the latter part of the last century. Pierre Berton’s 1986 ripping yarn, Vimy, helped set the stage. Ever the Anglo-Canadian nationalist, Berton had it that most of the soldiers were rugged sons of the Canadian frontier. But at least half were British-born.

The Legion sells ball caps emblazoned with “Vimy: Birth of a Nation.” The Vimy Foundation is going a step further with pricey, full page newspaper ads declaring April 9, 1917 “The day CANADA became a nation.” It was, we’re told, “Canada’s coming-of-age on the world stage.”

Historian Ian McKay and I have coined a term for such fanciful claims. “Vimyism” asserts that soldiers from across Canada, unified by ideals of self-sacrifice, worked together to take the ridge. And, in their unity, these men of long ago today provide Canada with memories of a long-lasting source of national inspiration.

Except that when I visited the Vimy Memorial I counted the name Tayor carved more than 40 times into the limestone, among the thousands of Canadian missing. But there was only a single Tremblay, one of Quebec’s most common names. The simplistic Vimyist narrative ignores the way that the war ripped Canada apart, dividing French and English. The birth of which nation?

Quebecers may well remember what Vimyist mythology ignores. The battle was not primarily a Canadian, but a British victory, under British leadership, using largely British tactics, with a British-born army.

“Public rememberings of the Battle of Vimy Ridge need to be stripped of their nationalistic parochialism,” suggests Canadian War Museum historian Nic Clarke, suggesting a wider understanding of the war and Canadian identity.

Yet Vimyism has become the Official Story, promoted by government and martial nationalists in English Canada. From Don Cherry’s crude home-team boosterism to Gov. Gen. David Johnston’s dotty claim that Vimy constituted the birth of the nation because the Canadians were not subordinate to the British on that sleet-swept hill.

Other views persist. Montreal playwright David Fennario’s working class Verdun community was decimated by the war. Introducing his 2014 iconoclastic drama “Motherhouse,” he offers a distinctly anti-Vimyist interpretation. Let’s keep it in mind as the terrible battle’s centenary approaches.

“More and more as we observe the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, we come across films, novels, and plays that condole or celebrate that war as something honourable, rather than critique and condemn it as one of the worst crimes ever committed against humanity.”

Lest we forget.

King Edward unveils the Canada Bereft by letting the Union Jack covering the statue fall at the 1936 Vimy ceremony.  (NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA)


Kingston writer Jamie Swift is the author of numerous books, most recently The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (with Ian McKay, Wilson Chair in Canadian History, McMaster University). He’ll be speaking about Vimyism at the Toronto Reference Library, April 18, at 7 p.m.