Vimy at 100: Myth vs. Reality

It's been a century since Canada's bloody victory at Vimy Ridge during World War One. Since then, Vimy has become synonymous with the birth of Canada as a nation. But historian Tim Cook, author of Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, peels back the layers of myth-making around Vimy to reveal its complex -- at times contradictory -- history.
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      It's been a century since Canada's bloody victory at Vimy Ridge during World War One. Since then, Vimy has become synonymous with the birth of Canada as a nation. But historian Tim Cook, author of Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, peels back the layers of myth-making around Vimy to reveal its complex -- at times contradictory -- history: how the celebrated victory was of little military significance, how it's barely mentioned in Quebec textbooks, and how it took fifty years before the myth-making really gathered momentum. In a public talk delivered at the Canadian War Museum, he speaks about the enduring strength of Vimy as a national symbol.


      It's a book I wrote on my own time. It wasn't a part of the Museum. And it was written during a difficult time in my life... I've been battling cancer for many years. And when I wrote this, I was frankly losing. Cancer takes a lot away from you. But I refuse to let it take away my identity as a historian and as a writer. As more than one person said to me, you have redefined the term "publish or perish."

      The Germans and the French had fought over the ridge since October 1914. They'd lost about 400,000 soldiers fighting for this hunk of terrain. The Canadian soldiers had faced a nearly impregnable fortress. And they had prevailed during that four-day battle from the night on the 12th of April 1917.

      I've read the letters and the diaries of hundreds, probably thousands, of Great War soldiers. They're powerful eyewitness accounts -- they tell us what it was like to be there. I read them at our archives here at the War Museum. I read them at the National Archives. I read them across the country. I read them around the world when I can find them. To me, that is the stuff of history.

      The 9th of April [1917], where most of the fighting occurred -- and the capture of most of the ridge -- is the single bloodiest day in Canadian military history. Today's equivalent -- we're country about five times as large -- would be about 52,000 killed or wounded in a four-day battle. It's hard to get our head around that. How could you deal, as a country, with that level of grief? That level of loss? And why did Canadians take the bloodiest day in Canadian military history -- and I suspect the bloodiest day in our entire history -- and how did we raise that into a nation-building event?

      We need to keep in mind that the [Great War] almost tore the country apart. It led to tremendous division on the home front. The Conscription Crisis was the most visible sign of this disunity. Organized labour was smashed by the authorities. Farmers were accused of gouging city folk when food prices rose through wartime inflation leading to much anger and angst. And new Canadians were hounded, abused and even imprisoned for their supposed disloyalty. All of this and more left deep scars across our country.

      We name buildings and streets and mountains and lakes after soldiers and battles and generals. We issue official medals and death notices. Communities erect stained glass windows. There are plaques in businesses and shops and schools. There are commemorative histories. There are family memorials. There are photographs and shrines and archival letters. And many are still with us today, hiding in plain sight. I love to visit a new city and to look where the monument is because it is always there.

      [It] is those local memorials, I think, that are the most powerful. And they were certainly the most powerful at the time. They were the way for a community to mark sacrifice: 60,000 dead was ghastly, a horrendous loss. But to lose fourteen boys from your small community -- you knew each of them. You knew their names. You knew their parents. You knew their children. You knew their wives.

      These 11, 285 [names] are here... I have always found the names very powerful. This idea of soldiers lost on the battlefield, soldiers who are blown out of existence. Soldiers whose bodies have been destroyed, or have sunk into the mud who are lost to their families, who are lost to their country and having been reclaimed, and put on the monument. And the names there: when you run your hands over those names, I think is among the most powerful acts.

      It's not a universally accepted symbol. It is not does not resonate in Quebec… the First World War in French Canada is very much a story of oppression by English Canada. But Vimy matters in many other parts of the country. We are a big and diverse country. Not all symbols are accepted by all Canadians. And yet Vimy has had an enduring longevity: there are about a dozen kids who are named "Vimy" in the 1921 census. I wonder if any of them are still alive. Vimy is on the $20 bill. It's in our passports. There's strength to the very idea. It has not disappeared. It is our symbol.

      It would be wrong to claim that Vimy gave birth to our country. It would be right to say that Canadians gave birth to Vimy, and all that it has meant to us, as a people over a hundred years. And that is why Vimy matters.

      Further Reading: 

      • The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquart, published by McLelland & Stewart, 2001.
      • Vimy by Pierre Berton, published by Doubleday Canada, 1986.
      • The Wars by Timothy Findley, Penguin Canada, 1977.

      Related websites:

      Historian, Tim Cook. (John Williams)

      Tim Cook is a military historian at the Canadian War Museum, as well as an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His books have won numerous awards, including the 2008 J.W. Dafoe Prize for At the Sharp End and the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for Shock Troops. In 2013, he received the Pierre Berton Award for popularizing Canadian history and was recently inducted into the Order of Canada. 

      **This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.


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