Monday April 10, 2017

Does Vimy Ridge battle really mark the birth of a nation? Historian debunks 'Vimyism'

RCMP officers stand at the entrance to the National Vimy Memorial in France before ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle on Sunday.

RCMP officers stand at the entrance to the National Vimy Memorial in France before ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle on Sunday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

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On its centennial, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was called "a turning point in the First World War and for Canada," "Canada's coming-of-age, and "the battle that defined us."

But Jamie Swift, co-author of The Vimy Trap or, How We Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, says we didn't always see it that way.

"The further you go from the battle, from the war, the more it appeals to this nationalistic, patriotic bit of mythology fantasyland, as far as I'm concerned," Swift, a journalist and lecturer at Queen's University, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

He calls the phenomenon "Vimyism."

The 1917 battle marked the first time Canadians of different stripes fought together as a single corps.

They were successful in their mission to secure the high ground from German forces in northern France, but at great cost. At least 3,598 Canadians were killed and 7,100 more were wounded. Many were just teenagers. 

The battle's significance in the Allied victory is a matter of intense debate among historians. While it is often hailed as a moment of national unity for Canada, or "the birth of a nation," Swift casts doubts on that claim.

"I visited the memorial a couple years ago. ... I looked at the names of the missing alphabetically. I looked at the Ts. There were over 40 Taylors and there was one single Tremblay," he said, referring to the wildly common Quebecois surname. "So then you have to ask yourself, well, whose nation?

Justin Trudeau Prince William Prince Harry Vimy Ridge ceremony

From left to right, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Prince William and Prince Harry stand during the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Vimy, France, on Sunday. (Philippe Huguen/Associated Press)

"We heard so many comments over the weekend, interviews with high school students saying if those soldiers hadn't been there we wouldn't be here, and we owe our freedom to this battle ... that it was about peace, and that's just historically not true," Swift said.

Swift stresses the importance of honouring the thousands who died on both sides of the battle, but says popular narrative glosses over the war's devastating effects on this country.

"This story gets told again and again and again, and as with many stories, if you tell if often enough, people might in fact believe it, but I don't think it's true at all," he said.

"And more importantly, I think the message of peace gets lost there and the message of the futility of war."

'World War I nearly ripped Canada apart'

By the war's end, more than 60,000 Canadian soldiers had died, while untold more returned home with life-alerting physical and psychological injuries.

"It's widely recognized that World War I nearly ripped Canada apart. Vimy itself gave rise to the conscription crisis of 1917, one of the great national traumas of Canadian history, of Canadian existence, so when you talk about the battle just in terms of patriotism and nation building, you're really ignoring a lot of important factors that characterized the battle," Swift said. 

​When sculptor Walter Allward unveiled the memorial at Vimy Ridge in 1936, he called it "a sermon against the futility of war."

Canadians at Vimy

Canadian soldiers celebrate in the wake of their successful attack on Vimy Ridge. (Courtesy of the Royal Montreal Regiment)

During those ceremonies, Winnipeg settler Charlotte Susan Wood, who losE all five of her sons to war, and her youngest to Vimy, laid a wreath at London's Westminster Abbey. In that moment, she reportedly asked King Edward VIII: "Why did so many have to die?"

"Please God, Mrs. Wood, it shall never happen again," he responded. 

Those kindS of stories have been "noticeably absent in the past few days around the Vimy centenary," Swift said. 

"That questioning, that why, that I think Walter Allward shared and so many others shared, seems to have been airbrushed from the commemoration," Swift said.