Most Canadians know the name Vimy and know something of the story of the First World War battle. We consider it a nation-making moment.
Likely not, unless you have been to the Canadian War Museum to see a new exhibition about those battles that in many ways are more significant in this country’s military history than Vimy.
There were some 45,000 Canadian casualties in these battles, with 15,000 killed. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Great War, the War to End All Wars, on Nov. 11, it is worth knowing that these battles basically sealed the victory for the Allies over Germany, said Jack Granatstein, who co-curated the exhibition with the museum’s Great War historian Tim Cook.
For Granatstein, the historian and outspoken defender of the study of history in Canada, the exhibition called Victory 1918 – The Last 100 Days “is an attempt to restore the efforts of the Canadian Corps to their proper place. Vimy was a great battle but it didn’t change anything. The front simply moved a few hundred yards. and sat there until the 100 days.”
“The Germans effectively were defeated in the period from July to the end of the war and the Canadians played an absolutely major role from Aug. 8, 1918 at Amiens to Nov. 11. These were huge battles with terrible casualties inflicted on the Canadians. But in the end they beat the German army in the field.”
The Canadians were led by a great general, Granatstein said.
“Arthur Currie was widely considered one of the best generals by the British. He was given his head and could do his own planning.
Currie understood that beating the Germans would require courage and tactical surprise, Granatstein said.
“The Canadians had the courage and they did a remarkable job.”
History isn’t taught very much in the schools, he said, in explanation of why the battles are not well known. “And military history is scarcely taught at all. So it’s not surprising people don’t know much about these battles.”
But, recalling the conclusion of the historian Charles Stacey, Granatstein said the Canadian Corps in the First World War was the single greatest achievement of of the Canadian people to that point. And, he added, it might still be.
The museum exhibition is the largest Tim Cook has ever been involved in. It features, among other things, five Victoria Crosses, paintings and other art works, including one dramatic battle scene by Frederick Varley, later of the Group of Seven, and weapons such as the Lewis light-machine gun, so vital to the Canadian Corps success.
This, Cook said, “is the most intense battle show we have ever done. It’s about combat, service, sacrifice and what it took to beat the Germans.
“We have given it a title: The 100 Days. That actually emerges in 1919 but it is not a phrase that rolls off the tongue. It is a challenge for Canadians to remember every battle. We hope that after they leave here people will know that the Canadian Corps did play a spearhead role in these battles.”
The museum has been marking the end of the First World War over the past few years with exhibitions on Vimy, on women and war, on the air war and Canadian battles in Belgium.
“We made this anniversary cycle a focal point,” Cook said. “It is our job. But we deliberately said that this was important for Canadians to take note of.”
Cook feels a personal responsibility to “tell this story as time moves along. I have devoted my adult life to it. When I do an exhibition like this, with the whole team of about 45, almost everyone from the museum is involved.
“An exhibition like this, might get 75,000 people coming through.” So it can transmit more information in a few weeks that one of Cook’s 11 books will do in a few years, despite all their accolades.
One of the most striking elements of the show are the large photographs on view that have been carefully colourized by Canadian Colour.
“We think of it as a black and white war but the soldiers fought and died in colour. For me it was important to make that connection. We worked very hard with the Vimy Foundation and with (the company) Canadian Colour to get it right.”
For an observer, the colour seems to pull details out that might have been hidden in the shadows of a black and white photograph.
Another really exceptional feature of the exhibition are two “films” prepared by the National Film Board of Canada, a partner in this exhibition. Using archival images, the NFB has animated the images and created, in one a meeting of the military planners with General Currie as they prepared and attack. In the other they show the death of the last Canadian killed in the war, Private George Price shot by a German sniper on the streets of Mons, France, literally two minutes before the armistice. It is a very affecting film and the biggest film project jointly undertaken by the war museum and the NFB.
This is Granatstein’s first ever curated exhibition. And he has enjoyed the effort. As much as he considers his time running the war museum to be the greatest single thing “I have ever done.”
He ran the museum for two years before this current building was opened.
“I had just written Who has Killed Canadian History? (which criticized the striking lack of understanding and knowledge of history in the country, much of which he blamed on government).
“It was coming out just as I was asked to come here. I never expected to be asked to run a museum, and I had not the slightest idea what I was getting into, but I had written that book.
“So I was on a limb, stuck out there and I had to say yes. I commuted every week from Toronto which was awful but running the museum was great fun. I learned a lot. I have never done an exhibit until this one. I’m glad I had this opportunity and glad that I had a chance to run the museum.”
We are more aware today, thanks to his efforts and the hard work of many others And as the country prepares to mark a special Remembrance Day, Granatstein expects a very big crowd at the war memorial and the continuation of a new tradition that he loves.
“When people started leaving the poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I thought that was wondrous.”
Victory 1918 – The Last 100 Days continues at the Canadian War Museum until March 31, 2019.