Thinking about One Day in August

Thinking about One Day in August

You’d think that a span of nine days including two weekends, Thanksgiving Monday, and Western University’s inaugural fall reading week would be relaxing. That’s ample time to rest and recharge for the sprint to the Christmas break, right?

Alas, the work of a graduate student is never done. I’m buried under readings (fancy that — it’s reading week) and 56 midterms that need to be marked by next Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I felt that I needed to post something in here, even if it’s just a brief reflection on something that stood out to me in the last few weeks. So here goes.

One theme that’s emerged recently with Charlotte Gray‘s visit to Western for the Goodman Lecture Series is the tension between history written inside and outside the academy. I prefer the terms popular and academic history — some use public history for the former, but I feel that public history is a separate field within academic history that encompasses the popular in many applications.

Anyways, this year’s Public History MA cohort got to sit down for lunch with Mrs. Gray, who argued in her lectures that academic and popular history have — or at least ought to have — a symbiotic relationship. You know, what then-Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi told the Gungan leadership in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace:

You and the Naboo form a symbiotic circle, what happens to one of you will affect the other, you must understand this…

The tension between public and academic history — or even just established history and recent discoveries — is real. Here’s an example, one I ran by Charlotte Gray at lunch.

In 2012, Historian David O’Keefe and his team produced Dieppe Uncovered, an hour-long documentary on Operation Jubilee, the infamous raid on the north coast of France that became Canada’s single worst day of casualties in the Second World War. The docudrama’s “cutting-edge research has uncovered new information that may change history books and the perception of the Dieppe Raid.” Check out the trailer below.

Just to get my bias out of the way, O’Keefe is a colleague of mine who I admire quite a bit. But I was very skeptical as I watched the film air on History Television for the 70th anniversary of the raid in 2012.

one-day-in-augustO’Keefe followed this up with a 2013 book called One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe. It was a national bestseller and was nominated for many Canadian literary awards that year. It was well-received by the book-buying Canadian public. The book was also a pleasure to read. It is organized more like a mystery novel using real historical evidence than a typical monograph with the thesis and supporting arguments stated up front.

Yet responses in the established historical community in Canada were largely negative. Popular Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke, writer of the Canadian Battle Series of books (including Tragedy at Dieppe) had a lively debate with David O’Keefe on a CBC Radio One program back in 2013. They debated whether or not the intelligence-gathering mission was the driving purpose behind the operation. Canada’s leading military historian, Tim Cook, took issue with O’Keefe’s conclusions in The Necessary War, volume one of his recently published Second World War series:

But while the operation was expected to provide valuable information to assist in breaking the U-boat codes and gaining an upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, the failure of the Royal Navy to devote any of its large ships to the Dieppe operation would suggest that this stealth raid did not matter as much to the navy as some historians have sensationally claimed — going so far as to argue that the entire Dieppe raid was but a cover for the commando pinch. It was not.

That’s a fairly blunt appraisal.

Here’s my question. Should Professor O’Keefe (he teaches at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec) have written an academic article, say in Canadian Military History, before taking his findings to the public? Arguably his chosen course — a docudrama and then a mystery-style non-fiction book — doesn’t make the evidence he presents as accessible to scholars for their review. However, in doing so, O’Keefe may have been scooped, and his work may not have reached the broad audience that it did. For me, this is a Catch-22 — you’re damned if you go about it either way.

This leads me to a second question. Shouldn’t we be able to trust the Canadian public — or at least those interested enough to watch the film or read the book — to make up their minds about the raid? Perhaps not, if we consider that the vast majority of Canadians don’t have much in the way of historical training. Or perhaps so, if we consider that the Canadian public is as highly educated as it’s ever been in history.

What do you think? Leave me a comment below. As for Charlotte Gray, I can’t remember her response… as I said, it’s been an exhausting week.

milton-greggIn other news. This year is the Western History Department’s centenary, and they’re hosting some great events on October 27th to celebrate the occasion. One of these is the Greatest (Dead) Canadian competition. My nominee is Brigadier Milton Fowler Gregg, VC PC OC CBE MC ED CD.

Gregg died on 13 March 1978, aged 85. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest. He was an incredible leader and manager who applied his administrative skills to make Canada a better place.

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My First Podcast – Fortress Malta with Mackenzie Brash

My First Podcast – Fortress Malta with Mackenzie Brash

I did it! I finally produced a podcast of my own. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since Angus Wallace of WW2 Podcast interviewed me about my master’s thesis in 2015.

The episode I produced is called “Achilles’s Sword and Shield: Fortress Malta in the Second World War.” It’s part of a series of podcasts called PubHistoryPod, which my classmates in the Western University Public History MA Program in History and I are completing as part of our Digital Public History course.

Tune in as I examine the most bombed place on earth with the help of my guest, Mackenzie Brash. Mackenzie is a fellow Public History graduate student who took a year abroad as part of her undergraduate program at Western University. I’ve read about the Siege of Malta extensively, but I’ve never visited the island, so I’m excited to get Mackenzie’s insights on the experiences of those who endured the war there.

Give it a listen:

The resources Mackenzie and I mentioned:

Dennis Barnham, Malta Spitfire Pilot: Ten Weeks of Terror, April-June 1942 (2013)
James Holland, Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-1943 (2004)
James Holland’s The Battle for Malta (2013)
National War Museum (Malta)

Reflecting on my work to produce the podcast, I realize that I’ve learned some lessons. First, try not to record yourself when you have a cold – when you do it sometimes sounds like you’re underwater. Second, try to record using the same equipment whenever possible. I interviewed Mackenzie using the really nice mics in our Digital History Lab at the university, while I recorded myself on a computer headset. While the computer headset is adequate, it has a different sound than the lab mics, making editing a bit more time-consuming. I hope to find ways to use this developing skill to promote my own work, Eagles over Husky, in the future.

Finally, I’d like to thank my classmate, Mackenzie Brash, for agreeing to the interview in the first place. I haven’t known her long, but Mackenzie’s passion for the Maltese experience in the Second World War easily rivals my own for the Battle of Sicily in 1943. The survival of Malta made the invasion of Sicily possible and ultimately accelerated the defeat of the Axis powers. Thank you for helping me tell that story, Mackenzie. I wish you all the best in Malta this summer as you follow your dream!

PS: I apologize if I am difficult to hear during parts of the interview. I amplified these sections, and they sounded good with headphones, but I should have upped the volume even more. Cheers.

Coolthentic Call of Duty: WWII

Coolthentic Call of Duty: WWII

I’m a gamer. I’ve played video games since I was in elementary school, spending my free time with titles like Medal of Honor, Battlefield 1942, and Call of Duty. Like the rest of these franchises, Call of Duty started as a first-person shooter set during the Second World War. I fondly remember running and gunning through levels as a paratrooper in the American 101st Airborne Division, a British Special Operations Executive operative, or a Russian conscript. In recent years, Call of Duty has opted to showcase modern or even futuristic warfare. However, following the recent success of Battlefield 1 set in the First World War, Call of Duty has returned to its roots with their 2017 title – Call of Duty: WWII.

The games have changed a lot since the first Call of Duty title released in 2003. Where there were once two game modes (campaign and multiplayer), there are now three with the addition of Zombies. I’ll be focusing primarily on the campaign mode for this post. Here’s a snippet from the game’s marketing:

Call of Duty®: WWII tells the story of Private Ronald “Red” Daniels, a young recruit in the U.S. First Infantry Division who experiences combat for the first time on D-Day, one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. After surviving the beaches of Normandy, Red and his squad will fight their way across Europe, engaging the enemy in iconic battle locations such as the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, as they make their way into Germany.

If you’re more of a visual person, check out the Official Call of Duty: WWII – Story Trailer below.

On September 18th, the game launched its marketing campaign, ‘Welcome to the Frontlines (Mission Briefing): A Week of Intel.’ I was browsing Twitter when I came across this Tweet by British military historian, Jonathan Ware:

Jonathan took issue with an image that features one of the game’s characters, Major Arthur Crowley. In the image, his file states that he joined the BEF in 1938. The BEF is the British Expeditionary Force, the name for the British Army in Western Europe in 1939-1940. Arthur Crowley, therefore, could not have joined the BEF in 1938. A better background would have him joining the British Army in 1938, perhaps indicating that he served with the BEF during the Battle of France in 1940. Jonathan is right. Small details like this aren’t hard to get right. So, I asked myself. Did the developers employ an historical consultant to help them be faithful to the past?

It turns out that they did. Call of Duty: WWII employs American military historian Martin K.A. Morgan. Morgan has extensive public history experience, as a park ranger and museum professional with publishing and broadcasting credits to his name. As part of the game’s marketing campaign, they also released the short documentary, ‘Brotherhood of Heroes.’

It’s a video focused on how the game developers want to honour the past. They want the player to “have a strong understanding of what happened and what the time was like.” This begs the question. Are video games entertainment, or are they education? Perhaps they’re edutainment?

For me, the video was interesting in a few ways. First, coupled with the story trailer above, it really does illustrate how compelling video games can be. Adam Chapman, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg and author of Digital Games as History, notes that “these games have similar potential to historical film and television, they can easily communicate a lot of visual information about historical environments and artefacts and they add life, movement and colour to history in a way that can be very engaging.”

Second, I found it interesting that while Morgan introduces the D-Day landings in Normandy as a multinational, coalition operation involving 14 different nations, the developers chose to focus on an American story: Omaha Beach. Omaha Beach is a compelling story, but it’s been done so many times. It’s featured in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and in past Call of Duty and other video games. Since the developers are mostly American and their primary market is an American audience, this makes sense, but I still feel it’s a missed opportunity to focus on parts of history the general public is less familiar with. After all, there were four other beaches in Normandy: Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword. At least the game is dealing with the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, which often gets forgotten in the shadow of the Battle of the Bulge.

Third, I’m not comfortable with the glorifying message near the end of the doc. Freedom from oppression and the greatest generation are terms that get thrown around rather liberally. I personally do believe that those who served the Allied cause saved the world, but the cost was immense! Furthermore, as Jeff Keshen’s book Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War suggests, our history is much more complicated than the simplified notion of good versus evil. The same goes for the United States, where African Americans like the Tuskegee Airmen had to overcome segregation and prejudice to fight for their own country.

Lastly, Morgan and the developers entirely refrain from referring to the enemy as Germany. Instead, the enemy is Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. It’s not even Nazi Germany, my preferred expression. For me, only speaking about Hitler and the Nazis without mentioning Germany tends to sanitize the war and misses the fact that much of German society supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and his government’s war effort to the end.

Am I nitpicking? You tell me. I will say this: Chapman is right. Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers (2001), and Call of Duty were all experiences that helped increase my interest in the Second World War and ultimately inspired my path to becoming an historian. The ability for these visual mediums to convey personal stories can make them enthralling experiences. I, for one, am excited about Call of Duty: WWII’s November 3rd release date. In fact, I’ve already got the game pre-ordered. Maybe I’ll have more to say about the subject then.

In related, personal news, there’s an initiative that I get involved in every year that’s related to this subject. On November 4th, I’ll be playing games for 24 hours to raise funds for sick kids at my local children’s hospital! This year, I’m supporting the Children’s Health Foundation in London, Ontario. Please support me by making a donation at THIS LINK. I’ll likely be streaming my play online, and my focus will be games with historical settings such as Call of Duty: WWII or Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

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The Value of Digital Preservation

The Value of Digital Preservation

One of the things I love about the Public History program so far are the connections I’m making between our in-class discussions and my experience as an historian. This week in Digital Public History we discussed digital preservation and crowdsourcing, two methods that when combined well can result in real value creation for future historians and researchers.

IMG_20170920_213723_274Earlier this week I had the pleasure of returning to my academic roots at Wilfrid Laurier University, just down the road in Waterloo. The Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) was hosting a public lecture by Professor Terry Copp, one of Canada’s leading military historians. Terry – an old mentor of mine from my undergraduate days – gave another of his brilliant talks, this one providing context to the events portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster film, Dunkirk.

I hadn’t visited LCMSDS for years, and it was great to reconnect with old friends, make some new ones, and reminisce about my time at the centre. In summer 2012, before heading to Fredericton to commence my Master of Arts in military history, the centre gave me a job! Terry employed me as one of a number of undergraduate students who assisted with the Second World War Air Photo Collection digitization project.

The collection is mainly composed of aerial photos of Northwest Europe (Normandy, France; Belgium; and The Netherlands) taken by photo-reconnaissance Spitfires in 1944-1945. These photos were then sent back to the Air Photo Interpretation Section for analysis and were used to help cartographers create maps for First Canadian Army. After the war, the collection found its purpose as an educational aide at the air photo interpretation school in Rivers, Manitoba. Then, when the school closed in 1971, the photos were sent to the Canadian War Museum. The museum did not have adequate storage space for the 300 boxes of approximately 130,000 photos. In 1985, Professor Copp secured permission to move the photos to LCMSDS.

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Fast-forward nearly thirty years later. While the collection was in good shape, there was no telling when it might start to deteriorate. In 2011, the centre began a project to digitize the entire collection with the backing of a number of private funders and some student elbow grease. By June 2012, around the time I started scanning, 30 percent of the collection was digitized. Our goal was to hit 60 percent by September. In the end, the project took until August 2013 to complete. Today, the result is a searchable online database with plenty of applications.

For instance, in 2010, Mike Bechthold used the photos to help illuminate the fate of Worthington Force. During the Battle of Normandy, Worthington Force was a combined infantry-armour task force from 4th Canadian Armoured Division. The force got lost while driving to its objectives on 9 August 1944. The photos allowed Mike to piece together what happened to the Canadians as they were isolated and destroyed by superior German forces.

Victory-15

I used the aerial photos to help understand what happened to the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada weeks before on 25 July 1944. The photos confirmed some of my previous research and led to new questions about how much information the Black Watch officers had when making decisions on that fateful day.

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The centre is also working on a crowdsourcing follow-up project whereby interested parties can help them to identify photo boxes by their geographic location. Furthermore, there is an ongoing effort to couple the centre’s photo collection with maps to create a geographic information system (GIS) to understand better the terrain faced by First Canadian Army during the campaign to liberate Northwest Europe. As Terry Copp demonstrated in Fields of Fire (2003), even small gradient changes in terrain can have a big impact on the battlefield.

I’m looking forward to future returns to Waterloo and LCMSDS as their Military History Speaker Series continues this fall.

Looking Forward

Looking Forward

I’ve decided to follow my passion for history and make it a career. For the last three years, I worked for a management consulting firm in Moncton, New Brunswick. I learned a lot there, especially the need to activate one’s purpose motive, and that’s what I want to do. My overall goal is to land a job at one of Canada’s military museums, historical societies, or heritage institutions.

My first step on this journey is as a candidate in the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate Studies program in Public History. While I already have a research-based Master of Arts, I was particularly attracted to this program’s practical agenda. This is one of the reasons I’m writing this new blog post. Part of the course requirements for our Digital Public History class – History 9808A – is to maintain a blog to spark class discussions, to serve as a project log, to act as an online presence for future employers, and to get comfortable with writing in public.

I’ve maintained my blog on this website for over three years now, and I wrote the blog at Symplicity Designs, but I’m still a work-in-progress when it comes to public writing. The work I do in History 9808A and my other courses in the program will go a long way to preparing me for a career in the public history field.

I’m excited about Digital Public History in particular because it will give me and my classmates a forum to practice digital history skills and to make our work public. Personally, I’m looking forward to designing and producing a podcast. I’ve been on a podcast as a guest before (check out this previous post on my interview with Angus Wallace and WW2 Podcast) and I’m a regular listener to various other history podcasts. I’ll encourage my classmates to check them out at the links below:

History 9808A wraps up later this fall with an Independent Project meant to give us time to explore an application in digital history. This leads me to what I want to accomplish this term. By December, I would like to have a live website for promoting my first book. Eagles over Husky will be published sometime in Q1 2018 by Helion and Company, based in the United Kingdom. I’ve already bought the domain EaglesoverHusky.com and intend to use http://patrickmdennis.com/ and https://markmanson.net/ as inspiration for my website. I will probably focus more on the book than on myself the author.

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A backup idea (and something I’ve already begun) is to design an On This Date in History (#OTDH) Twitter campaign to promote my book. This campaign will be modelled on Twitter accounts such as @BofB1940, @RAAFvictoryroll, and @RealTimeWWII. I’ll be using the Twitter handle @EaglesoverHusky (already active) to execute the campaign.

The next eight months of coursework (followed by a four-month internship) look to be both some of the most challenging and exciting in my career as an historian. I look forward to sharing my trials, tribulations, successes, and achievements with you over the next 12 months.

“Danger gathers upon our path. We cannot afford – and have no right – to look back. We must look forward.” – Winston Churchill, 10 December 1936

Flying to Victory, a Book Review

Bechthold, Mike (2017) Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941. University of Oklahoma Press. 296 Pages. ISBN: 9780806155968

The Second World War saw the formation of many famous Allied air forces. The Flying Tigers, the Cactus Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, RAF Bomber Command, and RAF Fighter Command are among the best known. In the Mediterranean, perhaps none was more famous than the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). This is the tactical air force that helped Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army defeat Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in 1942. The victory was the result of an effective combination of air and land power according to an air support doctrine developed by Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham.

9780806155968Coningham owes more to his predecessor, Air Vice-Marshal Raymond Collishaw, than historians have realized. Collishaw commanded No. 202 Group – and later No. 204 Group, which would later become the WDAF – between the opening of the war in the desert and November 1941. In that time, Collishaw’s command achieved much success, demonstrating the features of tactical air doctrine later associated with his successor. Mike Bechthold’s new monograph, Flying to Victory, offers us a new layer for understanding the development of Allied air support during the Second World War.

Raymond Collishaw was a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. During the First World War, Collishaw became one of the Empire’s leading flying aces, destroying 61 enemy aircraft and eight observation balloons with Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force squadrons. Authors often celebrate his air-fighting prowess. In fact, some historians have gone as far as to say that his aggressive spirit made him ill-suited for commanding air forces at the end of tenuous supply lines. In Flying to Victory, Bechthold defuses these arguments.

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Raymond Collishaw in the cockpit circa 1917

Collishaw’s experience with close army support missions during the 100 Days campaign at the end of the First World War taught him how wasteful these operations could be. He came out of the war believing that only emergencies – such as the Kaiser’s spring offensive in 1918 – warranted a heavy close air support focus. This and his experiences commanding various air units during Britain’s interwar conflicts served to prepare Collishaw for command in the Western Desert. He was well-suited to command operations at the end of a tenuous supply line while working jointly with army and naval commanders.

Collishaw first demonstrated the difference that an effective air support doctrine could make during early fighting in the desert and Operation COMPASS. In 1940-41, No. 202 Group faced an Italian Royal Air Force (IRAF) with superior numbers and quality of aircraft. Collishaw’s command achieved air superiority in spite of these disadvantages. While the IRAF squandered its superior resources by focusing on providing defensive screens for the Italian Army, Collishaw directed his forces to focus on disrupting and destroying IRAF aircraft and infrastructure. With air superiority secured, Collishaw’s forces focused on impeding the Italian logistical network and applying close-support attacks at the army’s request in special circumstances. Alongside Lieutenant-General Richard O’Conner’s Western Desert Force, the British offensive drove the Italians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica, completely destroying the Italian Tenth Army in the process.

Although Operation COMPASS was a model of cooperation between the army and air force, this model would soon be forgotten amid British retreats in the Western Desert, Greece, and Crete in spring 1941. The Germans had joined their Italian allies in the Mediterranean war. During Operation BREVITY, an attempt to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Collishaw commanded No. 204 Group (which had absorbed No. 202 Group in April 1941). He once again proved the usefulness of interdiction operations, though army commanders were disappointed that the RAF considered attacks on tanks on the battlefield to be impracticable. His forces immobilized counterattacking German units at critical junctures that saved army units, though the overall operation failed to relieve Tobruk.

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Raymond Collishaw circa the Second World War

The overall failures of BREVITY and Crete put the air force in a tough position. The Royal Navy had lost many ships to Axis air attacks during the evacuation of Crete. During Operation BATTLEAXE, another attempt to relieve Tobruk, the army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, Collishaw’s immediate superior, made a calculated move. With Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal’s blessing, he ordered Collishaw to accede to the army’s requests. This way, the RAF could avoid blame for failing to cooperate with the army even though this was a misemployment of resources that ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.

BATTLEAXE effectively settled the debate over tactical air power raging between the RAF and army early in the war. Before BATTLEAXE, Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed the army’s view of air support. After BATTLEAXE, he fully endorsed the RAF’s view. Churchill accepted that attacks on enemy airbases, ports, and lines of communication were more effective even though the army would not be afforded the comforting sight of friendly aircraft overhead. The result was “The Middle East (Army and RAF) Directive on Direct Air Support”, a document that marked the beginning of designing the war-winning air support system the Allies would continue to develop in 1942. This document reflected the operations and exercises that Raymond Collishaw commanded. Tedder and Coningham went on to refine and improve this system.

Air Marshal Tedder, the conduit for Collishaw’s early application of winning air support doctrine to Portal and Churchill, replaced Collishaw with Coningham in November 1941. Promoted from air commodore to air vice-marshal, Collishaw commanded No. 14 Group defending Scapa Flow, Scotland until July 1943, when the RAF involuntarily retired him. Bechthold’s evidence suggests that Tedder held a bias against Collishaw. Largely ignoring the results he achieved in the desert, Tedder and historians since have assessed Collishaw as incapable of running a larger command organization and delegating responsibility to his staff. Bechthold encourages us to avoid this speculative analysis of potential and instead focus on his war record. The result is an excellent profile of a man and – as it turns out – a largely misunderstood air campaign in the first year of warfare in the Western Desert.

Collishaw Street

Raymond Collishaw isn’t completely forgotten in Canada, although he is mostly celebrated for his First World War exploits. This is Collishaw Street in Moncton, NB.

Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, a Book Review

Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, a Book Review

Cook, Tim (2017) Vimy: The Battle and the Legend. Allen Lane. 512 Pages. ISBN 0735233160

In April 2017, tens of thousands of Canadians will make the pilgrimage to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. 2017 is also Canada’s 150th birthday, the country being born with the British North America Act of 1867. This is a happy – albeit somewhat awkward – circumstance considering that Canadians often refer to the Battle of Vimy Ridge as the “birth of the nation.” Which is it, then? Was Canada born in 1867 or 50 years later in 1917? Perhaps Vimy was a coming of age event instead.

9780735233164Canada’s leading military historian, Tim Cook, has authored one of the most important
books in the field. Vimy: The Battle and the Legend answers why Canadians are flocking to the ridge this year. How did a tactical victory which cost Canada 3,598 dead over four days for no strategic gain become the centrepiece for Canadians’ understanding of the First World War as a nation-building moment? Tim Cook sets out to answer this question, and he delivers.

The first third of the book deals with the battle itself. Cook recounts how the Canadian Corps of four divisions came to be and performed over two years of combat. To be blunt, the Canadians’ performance, like much of the British Expeditionary Force, was mixed at best. Or at least it was until Vimy when all four divisions advanced together for the first time. They were executing part of a wider British offensive that would become known as the Second Battle of Arras.

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Canadians atop Vimy Ridge looking out over the Douai plain. The view explains why the ridge was a remarkable tactical feature.

The Allies had to have Vimy Ridge because it afforded the Germans incredible visibility into the British rear, especially for the British Third Army’s planned advance towards Cambrai to the south-east. For this task, the Canadians were commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, a British officer who would later go on to become the 12th Governor General of Canada. Byng and his officers – including future Canadian Corps commander Major-General Arthur Currie – used best practices learned from the British and French experiences in 1916 to make their plan. They emphasized devolution of command – the Corps’ cartography section created 40,000 maps for issue down to the private soldiers – and close cooperation between the infantry and gunners. Counterbattery fire and a well-coordinated creeping barrage protected the infantry as they crossed no man’s land. The artillery also helped the infantry hold against German counterattacks all across the ridge. After four days the Canadians held the ridge at the cost of 10,602 casualties. The rest of the British offensive had early promise but succumbed to a German defence-in-depth that inflicted heavy casualties and forced a stalemate.

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Canadians and German prisoners move a light rail car taking wounded soldiers out of the line.

The latter two-thirds of Cook’s book examine the impact of the battle, both immediate and over the next 100 years. Cook’s chapter on Vimy’s consequences for the remainder of Canada’s First World War experience contains perhaps some of the most outstanding writing in Canadian military history. In it, he links the casualties at Vimy with the policies of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s government and the implications of those policies for Canada as a whole. The Canadian Corps’ victory gave Borden ammunition at the negotiating table with Britain for increased autonomy within the British Empire. It also touched him on a personal level. Borden was in London during the battle and visited Canadian soldiers in hospital there in the aftermath. He was shocked to discover that many of these men would be sent back to the front. This experience played a significant role in Borden’s decision to implement universal service when he returned to Canada.

Conscription would poison Canadian unity. Nearly one year after the battle, riots erupted in Quebec City in protest of the policy. English Canadian soldiers arrived to restore order. French Canadian marksmen supporting the rioters sniped at the English Canadian soldiers from rooftops. The soldiers fired on the crowd and, although they made efforts to minimize casualties, killed four French Canadians. Far from being a unifying moment, the ripples of Vimy Ridge threatened to tear the country apart. But the manpower that conscription afforded the Canadian Corps enabled it to sustain the 45,000 casualties it suffered during the 100 Days campaign that brought the war to an end in 1918.

Cook then delves into efforts to commemorate the First World War in Canada. These efforts occurred against the backdrop of a Canada fractured on ethnic and social lines – Acadian Canadians, the labour movement, and farmers had also been sorely treated in the course of the war effort. Furthermore, the cenotaphs erected across Canada emphasized that the war had been a local experience. Cook explains why and how Canada chose Vimy Ridge as the site of the country’s national monument overseas, including the selection process for the memorial itself. As it turns out, Vimy was far from an ideal location. The Vimy battlefield was a mess of rotted corpses and unexploded ordnance. Furthermore, the site did not have the support of Canadian Corps commander Sir Arthur Currie. On Vimy, he said, “I do not think it was the most outstanding battle, or had the greatest material effect on the winning of the war.”

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The names of missing Canadian soldiers in France on the Vimy Memorial.

Nevertheless, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial came to be built on the site of the Canadian Corps’ first clear-cut victory. The book also outlines the construction of the monument and the significance of its various features – important considerations for any visit to the site. The real standout on the monument are the engravings of over 11,000 names of Canadian soldiers who went missing in France between 1915 and 1918. This is just one feature that connects Vimy to the wider war and makes it a gateway to a broader national experience.

Between the dedication of the monument by King Edward VIII in 1936 and the present day, the symbolism of Vimy has taken on different meanings. As dictators took power in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, many Canadians turned their backs on the First World War. Many veterans could not do this, and they looked to Vimy as a symbol to rehabilitate the war’s image. They used Vimy to help understand emerging Canadian autonomy within the British Empire.

Vimy had little relevance to Canadians as they emerged from the Second World War. There were new battles and new heroes that seemed to matter more. Furthermore, in the 1950s and 60s peacekeeping afforded Canada an opportunity to raise its profile internationally and many Canadians happily embraced the image of the peaceable kingdom. The 1960s was also a decade of new Canadian symbols. The country adopted a new flag and a new national honours system – yet more steps away from attachment to the British Empire. Older Canadians and veterans used Vimy in this context to make sense of a Canada that was changing. This culminated when Canadians celebrated the 50th anniversary of the battle alongside the country’s centennial celebrations. Vimy was proclaimed the “birth of the nation.”

There are only two minor detractors with the book. First, while Tim Cook clearly articulates his stance that Vimy does not represent the birth of Canada, he does not go into his reasons why in any great detail. He simply lets the fact that the Canadian state was founded with the BNA Act in 1867 stand on its own. However, Cook does understand Vimy as a symbol of Canada’s First World War, a war that he’s previously identified as Canada’s war of independence. In doing so, Cook positions Vimy as an important event (both the event itself and how Canadians remember it) in shaping modern Canada. This leads me to the second detractor. Cook notes that Canadian troops first moved into Vimy in October 1916, well before the battle occurred in April 1917. He leaves the fact that the Canadian Corps spent a significant part of its war based near Vimy out of his analysis. Perhaps many veterans could identify with Vimy because so many served there before, after, or during the battle. A veteran’s experience living in an area during the war could be as compelling as fighting and losing comrades over what becomes hallowed ground.

These are but minor blemishes. Tim Cook has provided Canadians with an outstanding, highly readable account of one of Canada’s enduring national symbols. To understand Vimy is not to know about the bloody Canadian surge up a ridge in 1917, but to know that generations of Canadians have used that moment to understand who we are. Vimy is part of a never-ending search for our origins as a people. Vimy: The Battle and the Legend should be required reading for all Canadians, especially those making the Vimy pilgrimage.

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A VIMY FLIGHT replica Nieuport 11 fighter flies over the Vimy Memorial in March 2017. The Royal Flying Corps took heavy losses leading up to and during the Battle of Arras. Yet the efforts of observation planes gave the Candian Corps’ artillery at Vimy Ridge crucial intelligence for their bombardments.