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Webmatters : Vimy, the mythology of the Birth of a Nation
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Vimy : The myth

Canada was not born on the Vimy Ridge

Vimy from the air

Could the monument have been positioned elsewhere ?

Cards on the table. I am not Canadian. I have, however, worked with Canadians and have been involved since 2010 in helping raise regimental memorials commemorating Canadian feats of arms in all of the CEF’s zones of combat.

Some of those memorials help commemorate actions far more important than the wresting of this ridge from the Germans in 1917 : the gas attack of 1915, the canal du Nord in 1918, Amiens 1918.

“Birth of a Nation” was inscribed on many of the caps worn during the hundredth anniversary week in Arras and on the 9th April it was hard to believe that anybody else had taken part in the Battle of Arras a hundred years ago that morning.

48th Highlanders Vimy Cross

The 15th Battalion’s Vimy Cross
The battalion was sponsored by the 48th Highlanders of Canada

And yet, on the 10th April 2017, I was present for pretty much the entire day, in the newly opened centre at Vimy, as I stood next to the 48th Highlanders of Canada’s Vimy Cross and explained its background. Some people even recognised me from the CBC broadcast that had been aired over the weekend.

One thing struck me above all else. I only needed to speak in French once all day and that was to a Frenchman. No caps with motos in French — all in English.

On that subject, many Canadians still believe that Arthur Currie (as he was then) led the Canadian Corps to its finest hour — no he didn’t. Sir Julian Byng an Englishman did.

It is also not true to say that here at Vimy was the first time that the Canadians fought together. It was merely the first time that all four Canadian Divisions fought together.

Vimy was a small section of a far greater offensive : the Battle of Arras, which was fought on the insistence of Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister and against Field Marshal Haig’s own wishes. The results were far from being a turning point in the war, a claim often put forward by the press. That would only come in 1918 with the Germans’ last ditch spring offensive.

Did the assault on Vimy really see all of Canada advancing as a single body ?
Well, not really, but does it matter ?

Standing in front of Allward’s creation is enough to make anybody proud to be Canadian (Fair enough that line might have to be drawn at Australians !).

 

Canadian volunteers

On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary in 1967, Brigadier General Alexander Ross, who had fought at Vimy, reflected on the battle :

It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.

Interesting words from the Scot who had helped recruit the 28th Battalion, the composition of which was almost entirely British. Perhaps all of Canada was on parade but they only represented 45% of the men who actually fought on the ridge. The rest were all British born. Almost none were French born and very few were French Canadians.

We are used to hearing the accusation that the number of French speaking volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was far less than their Anglophone compatriots. What’s the truth ?

As part of her Empire, Canada’s foreign affairs were dictated by the Westminster government. When London declared war on Germany, Ottawa found itself at war as well. Reflecting the atmosphere in much of Europe there was an initial rush of enthusiasm across Canada but that enthusiasm was by no means equally shared.

Two thirds of Canada’s first contingent for overseas service were British born. Their parents were in danger. That sentiment for the old country was less remarked amongst the Canadian born, and in particular amongst the French Canadians who provided only 1,245 men out of the initial 36,267 volunteers of the first contingent.

At the beginning of the war 90% of the population were Canadian born but, even by its close, only 50% of them had seen service, despite the imposition of conscription in 1917.

Canada was pretty much rural and to head off to war would mean being away from the home for a long period putting the family in financial difficulty. If all the men left, who would tend to the fields ?

A mini census

A rough census of those Canadians buried in the three cemeteries within walking distance of the memorial is interesting. The three are :

  • Canadian Cemetery No 2
  • Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery
  • Givenchy en Gohelle Canadian Cemetery

This is not intended to be an academic in depth study. Where parents were given as being Canadian residents then I have listed them as being Canadian born. Where parents have been given as other nationalities e.g. British then I have listed them as being British (or whatever). For those soldiers without family information I have checked the Attestation papers.

Of the 694 Canadians buried in the three locations, 372 were Canadian born, so slightly more than half and more or less in agreement with the broader picture. Even by April 1917, after thirty months of war, the Canadian Corps was only just beginning to tip in the favour of born and bred Canadians.

Few of those burials are French-Canadians. Only thirty-one soldiers list their place of birth as being Quebec (province) and of those thirty-one only a handful have names or relatives that suggest they might have been Francophone. In comparison, nineteen of the burials were born in the USA and there are almost certainly more Russians (7) than Francophones. There are no casualties marked as having been French born although there are two Japanese and two Italians !

The Prussians of Ontario

To French-Canadians the British Empire was something to be wary of. As for France, few even contemplated the idea of rushing off to the defence of France. The religious education provided in Quebec taught its students that they had been abandoned by France. A France that had declared itself a secular republic ; a republic without religion and, worse yet, against the religious orders, a country that since 1760 had shown scant regard for its former subjects. Their roots had been Canadian for generations as opposed to the majority of the army that set out to fight the Hun.

It is no great surprise to discover that some French Canadians considered the war against France as some form of Divine retribution — and Marshal Pétain would make the same claim in 1940 after the fall of France !

To add insult to injury, in 1912 Ontario adopted Regulation 17, a law that prevented Francophone schools from using French in the classroom. If anybody was a threat to their French culture and institutions it certainly wasn’t the Germans, rather the Prussians of Ontario as Henri Bourassa described them.

 

Conscription, the great divider

The high casualty rate at Vimy did ensure one thing back home in Canada. Conscription. The Borden government may well have pledged itself against the idea but Vimy (The Corps’ bloodiest day) followed by Hill 70 and then Passchendael later that year only confirmed what should have been obvious. If Canada was to maintain its four Divisions in the field then conscription was going to be a necessity.

Australia on the other hand voted (twice) against conscription. By the war’s end it found itself struggling to maintain the Australian Corps’ strength.

The conscription laws were passed in 1917 with so many possible exemptions that few men actually got called to the colours. Those exemptions had to be greatly curtailed and when an effort was made in 1918 to gather up draft-dodgers, riots took place in Quebec. A thousand troops were sent by the government to quell them. Somebody fired at the soldiers, the soldiers fired back and the result, according to the newspapers at the time was : thirty two wounded and four civilians killed.

Vimy might be an emotional subject for Anglophone Canadians but Quebecois have hardly heard of it or take an interest. Their legacy of the war is soldiers firing on people protesting about being forced to take part in something that had nothing to do with them.

French Canada provided about 15,000 volunteers during the war. Most came from Montréal. It is difficult to be certain about anything because nothing on the Attestation papers required the soldier to state his language.

French Canadians made up about 30% of the population but only 4% of the soldiers within the Canadian Corps. It can also be added that half the recruits from Quebec were anglophones and half the Francophone recruits came from Provinces outside of Quebec.

The instigation of conscription however, caused fault lines between the two communities. The casualties at Vimy did not bind the nation they almost caused its fracture.

 

Not a memorial to the missing

The Vimy Memorial was not designed as a memorial to the missing — that was added later. It was intended (as the wording on its walls state) as a memorial to ALL of Canada’s dead.

The addition of the names was brought about by the need to have such a memorial and not having enough money to create one. Allward was against the idea of defacing his work but was forced to relent and offered up the areas that we see today.

 

Where else could Vimy be ?

If Walter Allward’s entry had not won the competition would the Canadian Memorial be situated where it is ?

It was originally accepted by those concerned that the monument in whatever shape it took would be placed in Belgium. However the design Allward proposed cries out for a geographical situation such as Vimy Ridge.

Try and imagine Clemsha’s Brooding Soldier sitting on Vimy Ridge it would be lost in the scale of the countryside. Likewise imagine Allward’s creation sitting along the roadside at Vancouver Corner. Literally and metaphorically over the top.

Architect and terrain came together at Vimy. Allward had never visited the site but if he had done so he would have proposed it himself. A more ideal location does not exist on the Canadian battlefields.

If the memorial was sitting atop Hill 62 in Belgium (as indeed was initially considered) few would be visiting the block of granite on Hill 145.

Without Allward’s monumental masterpiece Vimy would not exist.

None of this is to say that the Canadian success on the ridge doesn’t merit its place in history, rather that the long delays in the creation of the monument and the ever increasing cost forced the politicians back in Canada to justify the enormous outlay. Why have a grandiose edifice if the battle was not significant ?

Visitors come as much to marvel at a piece of art (created by a Canadian artist to boot) as learn their history, but they will go home remembering the art for far longer than the history.

The entrance to the memorial

Nothing else like it on the Western front — but I rather think that Canada made Vimy