On April 9, up to 25,000 Canadians will be climb up Vimy Ridge to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War battle.
Vimy has become a central event in the history of this country. The facts are significant. The battle represents the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps were responsible for taking the fight to the enemy in battle. About 100,000 Canadians forged up the ridge and took it from an entrenched German army. That is a number of Canadian soldiers in action that is almost unheard of again in Canadian military history. Four Victoria Crosses were handed out for bravery in those bloody days.
But Vimy was also part of the larger battle of Arras and while it was important, some have questioned its overall military significance in the larger scheme of things.
Tim Cook has no such doubts. The Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum is the author of a new history of the battle called Vimy: The Battle and The Legend (Allen Lane). He is a prolific chronicler of Canada’s military history and he will join Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all those other Canadians on April 9, when he takes part in a televised broadcast from northeastern France. He will also take part in the Spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 30 at 6:30 p.m. The event will be hosted by Charlotte Gray.
“I knew the 100th (anniversary) would be a significant event. I didn’t think it would be quite like this. There were about 3,500 in France for the 90th anniversary. When we talk 25,000, it will be the largest movement of Canadians in peacetime.
“God knows where they will stay because Arras is a tiny town.”
When Cook approached the book originally, he intended to do about half of it on the battle and the other half on the memory. “In effect, why do we care.”
However the book turned out to be more weighted toward the meaning of Vimy, examining why some Canadians call it the birth of a nation, as Canadian Brigadier General Arthur Edward Ross once wrote.
“The book really is about the Vimy idea,” he said.
In military terms, Cook calls Vimy a tactical victory. It is, in his opinion, a significant win.
“The Germans had this ridge. They had captured it in 1914 and had held it against several French counterattacks. This is a position the allies wanted and so it came to the Canadians.”
The battle itself begins at 5:30 a.m. on April 9 and it was a bloodbath, Cook said. The Canadians fought their way up the ridge and eventually captured it. There were 10,602 casualties taken over the four days of fighting.
The toll of the dead is one of the reasons Vimy matters to this day, he said.
“It really was a hard fought battle. Perhaps, if it had been a walk-over, I don’t think we would have thought about it the same way.”
But that only explains part of our sentiment. Cook notes that other countries hardly even noticed Vimy.
“The French don’t acknowledge it, the British don’t care. The Germans dismiss it. But it’s our battle. We decided it, in some way the way the Australians mark Gallipoli. Countries do this. The Americans do it with Gettysburg.
“We choose battles, that’s what nations do, to represent something. How a nation is forged, for example. In our case how we succeeded.”
The Canadian Corps in 2017 was battle-hardened. The contingent had been fighting on the Western Front since 2015. But the casualties were steep and new soldiers were constantly replacing the fallen.
“But the commanders were experienced, the officers were experienced and the soldiers were too. It was about 100,000 strong, made up of Canadians from across the country, British and French. That’s a part of the story that will resonate over the years. And most are volunteers at this point.”
The battle was celebrated by the homefront at the time as a success for Canadian soldiers against the Germans, he says. There was a lot of pride in the capture of the ridge because the French had failed to do it, the birth of the nation appellation doesn’t really happen for years, he added. In fact Canada wasn’t a “nation” in 1917. That too would only happen over the ensuing decades.
“But it’s something that we have chosen. It’s a date. It matters.”
These are pieces of the legend. But Cook feels that the most important thing that has solidified the legend of Vimy is the massive monument that was built there.
“When (the sculptor) Walter Allward won the competition to build the monument in 1920, it’s not supposed to be built at Vimy. It was just one of the places that could have been the location.”
It was intended originally as a memorial to the overall effort of the nation in the First World War. But if it had been built somewhere else we might not have been talking about Vimy so much, Cook suggests.
The whole Vimy idea is now “shorthand” for how the First World War changed Canada. The country lost 66,000 soldiers during the war.
“I feel this personally having been to Vimy many times. Vimy is a very powerful Canadian place. You hear this from everyone who goes there. It’s a spot quite unlike any other.
“The monument is almost un-Canadian in the sense that it is so large, dominating that ridge. You see it from kilometres away. There’s nothing like it in Canada. We have never built anything like the Vimy monument before and we have never built anything like it afterwards.”
He believes that the country wouldn’t build another memorial like Vimy today. We don’t have a similar-sized memorial to the Second World War. As the previous federal government knows, memorials can be controversial in this country.
“So what is it about Vimy? It’s something about the battle mixed with the monument. If you see the monument itself, it has those 20 grieving figures on it. None of that really speaks to nationalism. It’s really monument to grief and to death.”
Still five generations of Canadians have decided that Vimy matters, he says. Not everyone because as Cook points out it doesn’t mean the same in French Canada. That reflects the complexity of the country perhaps.
Still Canadians keep going there on a pilgrimage of sorts. When the memorial was unveiled in 1936 by the British king, 6,000 Canadians were on hand. “They called themselves pilgrims,” Cook said. It will be a similar sense for the 25,000 going this year.
The Vimy anniversary is being celebrated at the Canadian War Museum with an exhibition called Vimy: Beyond the Battle that opens on April 6 and runs until Nov. 17. The existing display on the battle is also being revamped and updated and it will be unveiled on April 6 as well.
On March 30 at 7:30 p.m., Cook will deliver at talk about the battle in the Barney Danson Theatre in the Canadian War Museum.
And on April 9 starting at 7 p.m., the museum will host Vimy: A Commemoration in Words and Music featuring the performance of a new piece of music called The Unknown Soldier by composer Andrew Ager and an address by historian Margaret McMillan who will set the scene of the battle.
For more information about the events, please see warmuseum.ca.