National Treasure #120: Battle of Vimy Ridge

Dates: April 9 to 12, 1917

Canadians killed: 3,598

Canadians injured: 7,004

The battle became symbolic of Canada’s contributions and sacrifices in the war — more than 60,000 dead — and gave Prime Minister Robert Borden the postwar impetus to push for autonomous recognition for Canada from Britain. It led to Canada’s change of status from colony to dominion and Commonwealth member. – Canadian Encyclopedia

Nothing is quite as simple as it seems at first glance. Was the Battle of Vimy Ridge an event that helped define Canada? Was it the birth of our nation? Yes, I think, and no, respectively.

Among Canada’s defining events, the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War ranks high. It was a triumph — a major victory for the Allied side after a long, bloody stalemate — and a tragedy. In the four-day battle, 3,598 Canadians died and another 7,004 were wounded. In the near-century since it ended, on 12 April 1917, it has become something else: an event bordering on myth. “In those few minutes,” said Canadian Brigadier-General A.E. Ross of the victory, “I witnessed the birth of a nation.” – Canadian Encyclopedia

The myth that Vimy represents the birth of a nation is a relatively recent invention. Despite the battle’s importance, the choice of the site for the great Canadian memorial after the war was far from obvious. The myth sprang from the erection of that monument and the attraction it exerted later. – Department of National Defence publication

For me, it’s enough that The Battle of Vimy Ridge – the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought as one unit – be remembered, as accurately as possible.

“They attacked at 5:30 a.m. on 9 April, Easter Monday, amid bitter-cold wind, sleet and snow. The first wave of more than 15,000 Canadians struck hard, successfully capturing the front line. Three days later, they ran the Germans right off the ridge, having captured its main heights — “Hill 145″ and “the Pimple.” The log of the 2nd Division’s 6th Brigade described the battle’s first day: “Wounded men sprawled everywhere in the slime, in the shell holes, in the mine craters, some screaming to the skies, some lying silently, some begging for help, some struggling to keep from drowning in craters.” Yet the Canadians did what no other army could — winning the Allies a pivotal victory that shifted the course of the war towards their final victory the following year.

The victory featured new tactics, but most of all, blood and courage. Four Canadians won the Victoria Cross.” – Canadian Encyclopedia

For historians whose roots in this land go deep, Vimy is a little more problematic.

“Symbols can both unite and divide a nation. It is just as important to recognize their value as to avoid distorting their meaning. The true intention behind the Vimy memorial was to honour the soldiers who fell defending their country. To perpetuate that memory is a duty, but to try to turn it into a symbol of the birth of a nation is an affront to everyone who believes that the building of that nation had begun long before the First World War. Vimy is one of the rare important military monuments that does not exult in victory; it is there only to honour the memory of the victims of a conflict in which the death toll had been appallingly high and which it was hoped at the time would be the war to end all wars.” – Department of National Defence publication

The Battle of Vimy Ridge gives us a focus for thinking about our country, our history, and our myths.

The author of the cited publication from the Department of National Defence is Jean Martin, described as follows:

Jean Martin is a historian with the Directorate of History and Heritage at National Defence Headquarters and is responsible for the official history of Canada’s participation in the first United Nations Emergency Force (1956″“1967) in Egypt. He also has an interest in military geography and the defence of Canada’s territory during World War II.

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2 Responses to National Treasure #120: Battle of Vimy Ridge

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Oh dear… The last week’s worth of eulogizing the Battle of Vimy Ridge makes me, a pacifist and coward who has never even been in a fist-fight since I was ten, feel nausea rising in my throat. I believe that wars are things no one wins, and everyone loses. I wonder how the survivors of Vimy would feel about all this glorification of their achievement. I suspect it would be more about mud, and stupidity, and senseless loss. But maybe I’m looking at WWI, and indeed all wars, with the benefit of hindsight.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – I’d agree that there’s a line we don’t want to cross, into glorifying/romanticizing war. As I understand it, those who have served are the least likely to do this. But neither do I believe that all war can/should be avoided at all costs.

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