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Vimy Ridge: The making of a myth

The victory at Vimy has become inseparable from the Canadian identity. But how it got that status is a murkier matter, and a more interesting one

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

On this Easter Monday, Canadians and their Queen will commemorate the 90th anniversary of one of the country's most enduring pieces of mythology — a minor battle for a French hill, transformed by alchemy into Canada's defining moment of nationhood.

Canadians, and only Canadians, call it the Battle of Vimy Ridge, begun on another Easter Monday, a grey, frigid April 9, 1917, at 5:30 a.m., and lasting four days.

In everyone else's historical lexicons, it was a limited tactical victory in the First World War's horrendous Battle of Arras, which the British and their allies lost.

It had a negligible effect on the war's outcome. The Canadians had equal casualties and more strategic successes in other battles, such as Amiens and Passchendaele. If French or British rather than Canadian troops had driven the German enemy off Vimy Ridge, history probably would have forgotten about it.

As it is, over the years, Canadian propaganda — and there is no other word for it — has airbrushed out the participation of British officers, tacticians and artillery and even supporting British infantry. Indeed, by some accounts, most of those who fought as Canadians at Vimy were recent British immigrants.

Celebrated as an event that forged a nation, it led directly to an event that almost fractured the nation — conscription, and its cleaving of English- and French-speaking Canadians.

It is today the site not of a victory monument but of a haunting memorial to grief, woven through with Christian resurrection symbolism. A memorial that both Canada's senior general of the war and the architectural jury that selected its design initially wanted to locate elsewhere.

Yet so powerful was the myth of Vimy that 23 years later — after France fell to the German military in the Second World War in 1940 — Canadians were whipped into visceral fury and hatred by British reports that the memorial had been destroyed by German bombers. Adolf Hitler's advisers thought it necessary for the Nazi leader to hurry to Vimy and be photographed at the monument, to demonstrate that it was still intact.

It is fascinating how mythology can so easily trump history, and even culture.

“Mythology is a funny thing. We don't need to know what happened, we simply need to know what the myth tells us is significant,” says historian Geoffrey Hayes, associate director of the Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and co-editor of a remarkable new book of essays on the battle, Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment. “Everywhere we look, we can see that Vimy Ridge has become so closely associated with Canada as a nation that in some ways it almost doesn't matter what happened there.”

Mythology simplifies. Mythology clarifies. Mythology is the delivery of idea and emotional image at the same time, a message sent both to the mind and to what analytical psychologist Carl Jung called “the mind below the mind,” or what others call the soul. Mythology reveals the deep patterns of meaning and coherence in a culture.

Over this Easter weekend, thousands of Canadians, including 5,000 schoolchildren, will travel to Vimy to mark the battle's anniversary and the just-completed, four-year restoration of the monument.

The Queen, the Prime Minister and representatives of the opposition parties will be there on Easter Monday for the monument's rededication. So will former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, in her new role as honorary colonel of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, one of the regiments that fought at Vimy.

Beginning at sunset on Easter Sunday, a night-long public vigil — the idea of actor R.H. Thomson — will be held at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, with surrounding street and building lights turned off and the names of the 3,598 soldiers who died in the battle projected onto the memorial's sides.

There will be ceremonies at provincial cenotaphs across the country. A documentary film has been produced, Vimy Ridge: Heaven to Hell — both Buckingham Palace and the Prime Minister's Office immediately requested copies. The War Amps of Canada have re-released their film, A Vimy Veteran Remembers. A children's book has been published, At Vimy Ridge: Canada's Greatest World War I Victory by Hugh Brewster.

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