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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.

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.

“So you get permanence and you get equality and the sense that the ordinary soldier is as important as the most important officer,” Ms. Hucker says, “and they get buried — and that was a big fight — on the Western Front equally with their comrades. All this was utterly new.”

Canada pushed hard for this approach. “It was a practical problem for Canada,” Ms. Hucker says. “It could not bring all those dead bodies back.”

The governments of Britain and the Dominions decided to erect public memorials rather than leave it to various regiments to put up monuments to their endeavours, as had been the custom. Each government set about bagging battlefield sites. Canada was given eight — three in Belgium and five in France. (Newfoundland, a separate country at the time, had one site in Belgium and four in France.)

The war graves commission hired architects to create battlefield memorials for the British, Australian, New Zealand and South African dead. But Canada did something different: It held an architectural competition, received 160 submissions, and in 1921 selected, unanimously and enthusiastically, Walter Allward's outstanding design for a national memorial at one of its eight sites.

The question was: Which one?

The competition jury wanted it erected on Hill 62 in Belgium, three kilometres east of Ypres.

General Arthur Currie, the senior Canadian officer in the war, opposed the idea of singling out any one site for a national memorial. He did, however, show partiality to Passchendaele in Belgium and was never more than lukewarm about Vimy. “I would not want to have the impression left that Vimy was our greatest battlefield,” he said.

But Vimy was the clear choice of the department of militia and defence, among others, and everybody loved Allward's design.

It was radical, it was beautiful, it was pure mythology — classical Greek married to Christian symbolism — and it was a world apart from the conventional structures of remembrance being built elsewhere: the perfect symbol for a young country yearning for an identity beyond its shores. As war veteran Will Bird wrote in Maclean's: “Europe, when viewing the finished work, will change her impressions of the Canadians as a people.”

Its base is built like a Vauban fort. In front of it sits an empty tomb, making the ground sacred, sanctified by Canadian blood. The tomb is watched over by the figure of Canada Bereft, mourning her dead. Behind her is the figure of Sacrifice, looking like a crucified Christ.

On either side, two pylons soar 40 metres into the French air, suggesting a cathedral's columns through which sunlight passes, offering the metaphysical promise of eternal life. At their top is what Mr. Allward called the Chorus, the idealized figures of Justice, Faith, Hope, Peace, Honour and Charity.

Mackenzie King, who had become prime minister after the war, liked the imagery of sacred ground. The ridge itself he saw as the altar of sacrifice. And then, as one's eyes are raised above death and sacrifice, there are Mr. Allward's redemptive ideals for new life. Heady stuff.

The monument took 10 years to build. When it was opened in 1936 by King Edward VIII, in one of his rare public acts before he abdicated, several thousand Canadians crossed the Atlantic for what officially was deemed a pilgrimage.

Perhaps, as Prof. Hayes says, the details of what transpired on Vimy Ridge are not important. Perhaps a memory, an image, a heroic dimension to life — set exquisitely in stone by Walter Allward — was sufficient in itself to shape a young country's dreams about its identity and its ideals. That it should arise, phoenix-like, from a catastrophic horror is not surprising.

Arthur Lower, Canada's leading social historian in the first half of the past century, recalled a talk with a friend in June, 1914, just before the great conflict broke out.

“We agreed,” he said, “that a nice little war would be just what the country needed to cap its development and give it a sense of corporate unity.”

Michael Valpy is a senior writer with The Globe and Mail

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