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.
Canada’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.
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.
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.”
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.