Did Canada become a nation at the Battle for Vimy Ridge during World War I? The Vimy Trap answers this straight up while exploring the political underpinnings of ‘Vimyism’ a century later.
The Vimy Trap is a well written and easily digestible account of Canada’s involvement in World War I in general, the Battle for Vimy Ridge, in particular, and, perhaps more importantly, how memory of these events has been systematically revised to influence and guide the political discourse in Canada over the last century. Its authors, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, provide a veritable treasure trove of information which promises to stimulate discussion among military historians and political junkies alike. Unabashedly critical of war in general and the Great War in particular, the book nevertheless shines a respectful eye on those soldiers, writers and artists who were there and for whatever reason took the time to record the passing scene. It then contrasts these with the voices of others who followed later trying to explain and provide meaning for a war that most agreed did not make much sense. Ultimately, these latter revise the story for an audience far removed from events at that time. In this way the authors expose the political underpinnings for the myth that Canada became a nation first and foremost because of its military accomplishments in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918, the essence of the Vimy myth.
The seeds of the myth were nowhere to be seen immediately following the cessation of conflict in 1918. Rather, The Great War, the war to end all wars, left victors and vanquished alike totally numb and largely disillusioned with the idea that noble battle could resolve differences. The Treaty of Versailles which pinned onerous terms on Germany as the perpetrator of the conflict set the stage for yet another conflagration 20 some years later. In Canada there was wide spread repudiation of the war. Those soldiers who returned faced a much less rosy future than had been promised when the war began. Many were physically injured or psychologically maimed. Veteran benefits were paltry, unemployment rampant. There was virtually no talk about nation building through the crucible of war. The Battle for Vimy Ridge itself was but a footnote to a much larger campaign conducted by the British Expeditionary Force under whose banner Canada and other nations and colonies of the British Empire fought. McKay and Swift sift through many sources in great detail to paint a picture of a country yearning for peace, more inclined to mourn the dead and damaged than to celebrate any great and noble victory. Soldiers’ correspondence, media articles, politicians’ speeches and even public statements by many of the officers who had led the troops pointed to an overwhelming conclusion shared by many that the war was a disaster on many fronts. Never again became the mantra even among returning soldiers. And, some of these sentiments are reflected in the Vimy Monument, itself, which was commissioned by the Canadian Government to commemorate the sacrifice of Canadians who fell, not to celebrate a great national victory.
As distance from the war grew, particularly after World War II and as the Cold War took hold, attitudes toward the meaning of the Great War, now World War I, began to change. Again, the authors meticulously document these from their very first emanations to the full blown doctrine of Vimyism which is alive and well in certain quarters today. Spurred on by popular story tellers such as Pierre Berton, who infused his prose with images of rugged, independent minded, resourceful and heroic Canadians succeeding when others had failed, the tale of Vimy Ridge began to take on epic proportions far beyond those which are supported by the factual accounts of the day. Further, this more romantic version of events began to be used by some to justify the shift away from thoughts of peace and peacekeeping as core Canadian values to a more militaristic stance. Thanks to the authors, the reader can follow this progression from the eve of the Korean War in 1950, our third major war in the 20th century to the present day.
The danger inherent in the myth of Vimy, the trap, according to McKay and Swift is that it not only ignores what actually happened so many years ago but it conveniently obscures real divisions in the Canadian fabric. Tensions with French Canadians who railed against conscription at the outset of the war are conveniently glossed over when mythology evokes a vision of a unified Canadian force acting together to take Vimy Ridge. War as an exercise in nation building papers over the class divisions between the soldiers themselves struggling as they most certainly were in the muck of the trenches, cold, hungry and ravaged by pestilence compared to the officer class stationed in chateaux eating well and swigging wine far from the Front. Likewise, treatment of blacks, aboriginals, women, all get buried in the blur of an emerging nationalism created and stoked by those idly commenting on the sidelines.
Perhaps more worrisome is that the mythical version of the Great War has become imbedded in present day culture. Many school text books, and even the Canadian War Museum, albeit more subtly, continue to perpetuate the Vimy Myth as the story of Canada coming of age. In so doing they not only render a disservice to generations to come but provide the opportunity for ‘childish irrationalism’ to take hold. Recent attempts to install a huge replica of Mother Canada in a National Park bear witness to just how far from the original ideas embodied in the Vimy Memorial those infected with ‘Vimyism ‘are prepared to go.
On the whole, this book provides extensive reference material for historians interested in the Great War as well as a careful and respectful analysis of same. Even when they disagree with a particular conclusion that another author may have come to, McKay and Swift are generous in giving credit where credit is due. For all these reasons, The Vimy Trap is a thoughtful, provocative and timely publication, one which is entirely fitting to mark the 100th anniversary of the Canadian battle at Vimy Ridge.