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Vimy Ridge: The making of a myth

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The mint has produced a commemorative $30 sterling silver coin. The medals of Field Marshal Sir Julian Byng, the British officer who commanded the Canadians at Vimy — and who later became Canada's governor-general — have been put on display at the Canadian War Museum. Parliament has declared April 9 to be Vimy Day.

And so a 90-year-old battle, fought by soldiers of a barely post-colonial, rural society unrecognizable to today's Canada, remains a profound commemorative occasion to a multicultural, 21st-century post-national society. How does this happen? It is because of a complex skein of events and emotions. Plus Toronto sculptor Walter Allward's astonishing monument.

The reality of Vimy is not without myth-making qualities. The battle was at the time the first Allied victory in nearly two years, in a war of unbelievable slaughter that had been expected to last only a few months. It was at Vimy Ridge that all four of Canada's army divisions fought together for the first time. And Canadians succeeded in capturing an objective where French and British units had failed.

The Canadians succeeded using superb battle tactics. That the tactics were devised by British military strategists, the Canadians commanded by British officers, supported by British supply lines and British artillery — those details became lost to opportune amnesia.

It can be argued that what initially invested Vimy Ridge with mythology was the confluence of grief and nascent English-Canadian nationalism. There was intense grief at so many deaths of young men, most barely out of boyhood — 66,655 before the war ended in 1919, from a country of just over seven million people — a grief that seized on Vimy as a sunbeam of hope for the war's end. And there was a genuine restlessness about colonial status, for which victory at Vimy became a shorthand symbol.

Vimy was recognized as a Canadian victory in places that mattered to Canadians then, as now — the American and British press.

Canadian prime minister Robert Borden, in London at the time, wrote in his diary: “All newspapers ringing with praise of Canadians.” The New York Times declared that the battle “would be in Canada's history . . . a day of glory to furnish inspiration to her sons for generations.” (Quite prescient, actually.) The New York Tribune declared in an editorial: “Well done, Canada. No praise of the Canadian achievement can be excessive.”

Yet after that first burst of publicity, the battle was forgotten — everywhere but in Canada. The authoritative account of the war by British military historian Basil Liddell Hart gives it only a paragraph.

Ah, but in Canada. . . . The stone masons rebuilding Parliament's Centre Block after the 1916 fire asked permission from the architect to mark the battle with a commemorative inscription on the outside west wall. It was granted.

And according to historian Jonathan Vance, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture at the University of Western Ontario, the victory was celebrated across English-speaking Canada with a phenomenal, even bizarre, outpouring of poetry. Most of it was doggerel and much of it pointedly weaved together the sacrifice of Canadian young men — 3,598 were killed at Vimy and 7,104 others wounded — with the Easter crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

But what really cemented the battle into Canadian mythology happened after the war.

Jacqueline Hucker, the architectural historian on the Vimy monument restoration team, points out that the First World War, with nearly a million dead from Britain and the Dominions, introduced several important ideas.

There was the introduction of war memorials as opposed to victory monuments. Registration of the dead became a serious business. The Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was created to provide a permanent memorial for every casualty and to bury the dead equally — officers and enlisted men alike — on the battlegrounds where they died, breaking the tradition of the British upper classes who previously had brought the bodies of their officer sons and husbands home to be buried in family plots.

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