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Vimy: when Canada said, 'Can do'

Globe and Mail Update

Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age:

April 9-12, 1917

By Ted Barris

Thomas Allen, 300 pages, $34.95

As epochal moments of history go, the month of April, 1917, must be ranked as a doozy, right up there with July, 1789, and October, 1492. Fatefully, through the war-torn plains of central Europe during that month, a specially chartered train car brought Vladimir Lenin out of exile and back to Petrograd. The Romanovs had fallen, and the Bolshevik seizure of power was about to begin.

Across the sea, on Friday, April 6, 1917, the Congress of the United States voted to go to war with Germany. The American Bigfoot had at last been uncaged, goaded by unrestricted submarine warfare and poised to roam the world in the 90 years thereafter in search of enemies real and imagined. And, at the juncture of Picardy and Champagne, the scene of so much carnage since 1914, tens of thousands of beleaguered soldiers on the Chemin des Dames battlefield threw down their weapons and refused to be ordered like lambs to the slaughter.

However noble a moment in the history of the human spirit, the French mutinies of April, 1917, marked the end of la grande nation as a great Continental military power. It has been said that if Napoleon had come back to life in 1916, he would have recognized the players arrayed on both sides of the trenches; a year later, after the midwifery of that epochal April, he would have been totally stumped. A new century, with new actors, had been born.

Another event of April, 1917, would have furrowed even further the Napoleonic brow. It happened in Artois, a province of slag heaps, beet fields and chalk ridges 200 kilometres north of Paris. There, a debutante took to the international stage and caused widespread stupefaction, especially among the imperial powers of France, Britain and Germany. As prolific military author Ted Barris recounts in Victory at Vimy, in the snowy days around Easter Monday, 1917, 100,000 Canadian soldiers stormed the artesian escarpment of Vimy and inflicted an unprecedented defeat on what was thought to be an impregnable German-held height.

Vimy Ridge had been the graveyard of nearly 300,000 men in 1914, 1915 and 1916, as French and British troops threw away their lives in futile attempts to gain the high ground. Yet here in this extraordinary month of grand strategic novelty was a tactical novelty that surprised just as profoundly: a colonial whippersnapper had done what the greatest military powers of the day could not. Canada punched a gaping hole in the Western Front.

Vimy has long been familiar ground for Canadians. As Barris notes in his dutiful retelling of the battle, the country's largest war monument -- aside from the Peace Tower in Ottawa -- sits atop Vimy, erected with spare-no-expense panache in the depths of the Depression. Indeed, during the interwar period, Vimy became synonymous with an inchoate Canadian identity, the V-word a rhetorical device to designate a Canada emerging from under the shadow of the British Empire.

Although this has become a subject of debate -- even the late Pierre Berton, in his Vimy (1986), questioned this notion of Vimy as national crucible -- Barris accepts the old interpretation of the battle uncritically, for his goal is neither to place the struggle in the larger context of the 20th century nor to question the battle's legacy. Barris sets himself to the task of micro-history, homing in on an event through the words and writings of those who were actually there, in much the same way as British historians Martin Middlebrook and Lyn MacDonald have done in their oral-based collages of other First World War carnage.

And, it must be said, as did Berton in Vimy. More than a few of Barris's anecdotes are retreads from Berton's book of 20 years ago, although there is new material from the research of both men as well (Barris had access to Berton's unpublished material). The result is a story even more familiar than usual, though to Barris's credit we are taken quite smartly, through first-hand accounts, past the reasons for the Canadian success. There was the meticulous planning, the rehearsing behind the lines, the sharing of the battle plan with even the lowliest of infantryman, the digging of tunnels far into no man's land, the use of machine-guns as artillery, the careful siting of the big guns and counter batteries, and the artful -- and horrific -- use of a tremendous creeping barrage.

The Canadians won at Vimy -- smashed most of the German lines in a matter of hours -- because they had learned the lessons of trench warfare and, most important, because they were led by pragmatists with little sense of hierarchy or pecking order. Good ideas were solicited from all quarters, disseminated to all parties, and used devastatingly at Zero Hour. It was the ultimate can-do operation. For all his obvious affection for the ghosts speaking from the pages of his book, Barris does them a slight disservice through his scrupulousness. For the war buff enamoured of brigade and battalion numbers, Victory at Vimy does not disappoint; for the rest of us, too much detail sometimes steps in the way of the narrative.

Curiously, it is only when we leave the war theatre to learn of the soldiers' civilian occupations that this book of military history really stands out. In recounting the recruitment stories of the small-town bank manager, the lumberjack, the Albertan rail-splitter, the Montreal doctor and, especially, the men from Barris's adopted home of Uxbridge, Ont., the author brings back a world from beyond the horizon of living memory. We are reminded how much Canada, and the world, has changed in only 90 years -- even in the direct quotations from these vanished veterans, we hear echoes of a diction now extinct. Barris wants us to remember Vimy, yet he has also assembled a valedictory. That great, earthshaking month of April, 1917, is now impossibly far away.

Stephen O'Shea's first book was Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War One (1996), an account of his hike down no man's land. He is of the opinion that Canadian and American memorials on the Great War battlefields are the most effective, and the German are the most moving.

Related Reading

Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment, edited by Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci and Mike Bechthold, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 353 pages, $38.95

A new generation of Canadian scholars offers fresh perspectives and details of the men who fought and died at Vimy Ridge.

Mothers of Heroes, Mothers of Martyrs: World War I and the Politics of Grief, by Suzanne Evans, McGill-Queen's University Press, 224 pages, $29.95

A powerful exploration of the role of the mourning mother in war, including an examination of the politics of maternal grief.

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