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.

Through Blood and Sweat, a Book Review

Zuehlke, Mark (2015) Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds. Douglas & McIntyre. 288 Pages. ISBN 1771620099

In the summer of 2013 I found myself on a battlefield tour of Sicily. I was there with a group of touring scholars organized by The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. Seventy years earlier the island was the site of a relatively overlooked Second World War battle. We visited the battlegrounds of American, British, and Canadian engagements against German and Italian defenders. I was in the midst of research for my master’s thesis, having visited archives in the United Kingdom on my way to the island.

BloodandSweat_frontA second group of Canadians was visiting the island. This group was Operation Husky 2013: The 70th Anniversary Citizens Memorial Campaign. A small but devoted contingent of Canadians led by businessman Steve Gregory marched the approximate route taken by 1st Canadian Infantry Division in 1943, stopping at towns along the way for remembrance ceremonies involving local officials and Sicilians. Mark Zuehlke, Canada’s leading popular military historian, recounts the journey in his most recent book, Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds.

As someone who was in Sicily at the time but was not at many of the marcher’s ceremonies, I was keenly interested in Zuehlke’s recounting of these moments. Veteran Sherry Atkinson emerges as the book’s – and indeed the memorial campaign’s – highlight in these ceremonies. In Modica, a small Sicilian town that Lieutenant Atkinson helped liberate in 1943, he recalls how he and his fellow soldiers were so moved by the sight of starving children that they gave away all of their rations. Sherry’s war was mercifully short. A couple of weeks later he was wounded outside of Nicosia by shrapnel from an artillery shell. In 2013 he tells the locals, “My blood has been shed upon your earth, and I consider myself one of you.” Sherry’s message throughout the memorial campaign is that remembrance is not about glorifying war, but about hoping that war never happens again.

Another great moment shared by Zuehlke is the effort to capture a piece of history in the present. His group recreated a photo of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada moving up to hear General Montgomery speak in 1943. This is the photo on the bottom half of the book’s cover. My tour group recreated our own historical image. We visited Troina, the site of the heaviest fighting American troops encountered on the island. The town is full of historical posters featuring images of the town and its occupants in 1943. These inspired us to capture our own photograph. We chose one of Robert Capa’s famous images of American troops resting near the entrance to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in the battle’s aftermath.

IMG_20160131_102438Markers honouring the fallen along the marchers’ route were another part of the memorial campaign. The exercise was primarily meant to honour the Canadian Army’s losses across the island. I sponsored a marker and, having researched the airman’s fate, sent the campaign an email noting that he and his crew were killed when their Wellington bomber was shot down and crashed in the mountains north of Messina. I was disappointed when my advice for where to place his marker went unheeded, but acknowledged the difficulties of fitting the air campaign into the route. The marchers’ path can be generally said to mark where soldiers fell, but the reality is not so simple for airmen. Canadian airmen lost their lives across the central Mediterranean in support of Operation HUSKY. Their names are on memorials all over the Mediterranean – from the Agira Canadian War Cemetery to the Malta Memorial for airmen who have no known grave. I’d be interested to know Zuehlke’s reflections on this point as he seems to have initially been skeptical of the marker concept.

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Missing from the book is a reflection on what Sicily meant in respect to the larger war. Zuehlke makes this connection in his previous work, Operation Husky, but not here. This is a shame, because it needs to be remembered too. It is not enough to say that lives were lost in the fight for the peace, liberty, and freedom of Canadians and Sicilians alike. True enough, but how was that fight being waged, and where did Sicily fit inside that strategy?

The book is an excellent remembrance reflection. It is not often that an historian takes the time to reflect on the battle he or she studies in the manner Zuehlke has. Through Blood and Sweat will make an engaging primary source for future war and memory researchers for many years to come.

Eagles over Husky with WW2 Podcast

Eagles over Husky with WW2 Podcast

11102735_1633119866923950_1421865506041426316_nIn 2014 I completed my master’s thesis in military history through the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick. Since then, I’ve been working to share my findings with interested readers through popular history journals and other publications.

This past summer I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Angus Wallace, the mastermind behind WW2 Podcast. He graciously agreed to share my findings with his listeners in this month’s episode. The following is a summary of these findings:

Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign

Allied air forces played a crucial role in the Battle of Sicily. The Luftwaffe was intended to provide a significant part of the Axis force meant to defend the island and throw the Allies back into the sea. The Allied air forces foiled this effort and inflicted losses on a German Air Force that was badly needed to defend the Reich, serve on the Eastern Front, or held in reserve for the 1944 invasion of Normandy. Raids on mainland Italian railway transport crippled Axis resupply efforts and brought pressure on the Italian state to denounce Fascism and join the Allied side. Army commanders also relied heavily on tactical air power to destroy Axis forces in Sicily. While most histories of the campaign focus on the escape of German forces across the Messina Straits, this thesis argues that these contributions were critical to a strategic victory which forced Nazi Germany to stand alone in the defence of Southern Europe.

Angus has managed to pull together some amazing guest speakers in a short time. I am humbled to be included among the likes of Mark Zuehlke, Canada’s leading popular military historian. Although Mark’s podcast covered the ill-fated Dieppe Raid of 1942, he also speaks to his most recent book, Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek into Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds. I’ve ordered my copy just in time for Remembrance Day and plan on writing a review which will appear here.

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