Cohen: Time to move beyond the myth of Vimy

Andrew Cohen on Vimy, with help from Jack Granatstein:

“For the first time, Canadians soldiers fought as one unit, under the command of Canadian officers and employing tactics developed by Canadians,” according to an article in the National Post in 2013. “And we won, trouncing the Germans where our allies had failed and congratulating ourselves ever since.”

As J.L. Granatstein argues, that view “is almost completely wrong. Almost. All that it gets right is that Canadians have congratulated themselves ever since.”

Granatstein, the highly decorated military historian who chaired the advisory board of the Vimy Foundation until 2014, is not belittling the foundation or Canada’s role in the Allied offensive that spring. Nor am I.

But, as he points out in his provocative new book, The Greatest Victory: Canada’s One Hundred Days, 1918, we have come to believe a more comforting mythology. His persuasive point is that our decisive impact came in the last three months of the war, that those were our greatest battles.

At Vimy, Granatstein writes, the Canadian Corps was not commanded by a Canadian but by British Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng. The planners were not Canadians, as widely thought, but Britons. Seven of nine of the Heavy Artillery Groups that put Canadians on Vimy Ridge were from the Royal Artillery. And the supplies, weapons and ammunition were largely from Britain, he says.

While thousands of the soldiers at Vimy were born in Canada, most were recent British immigrants to Canada. (Indeed, we had no citizenship then.)

Most important – and hardest for us to accept – is that Vimy changed little. Yes, we took the ridge with courage, daring and innovation, a magnificent victory. But the Germans retreated a few miles east into new trenches, suffering a “tactical” more than a strategic defeat.

“Vimy regrettably did not win the war or even substantially change its course,” concludes Granatstein.

Yet that is not what Canadians know about Vimy. More likely, they hear that it “began our evolution from dominion to independent nation.” Or, more breathlessly, it marked “the birth of a nation.”

It helped that the battle opened under gun metal skies on Easter Sunday, fostering a poetic sense of resurrection. That some 10,300 were killed or wounded, that they fought through snow and sleet, that it was our greatest victory in the war up to then – all contributed to a national mythology.

But the birth of a nation? Lord, we had been here for 300 years, and organized as a country since 1867. To say that we fell from the heavens in 1917 denies centuries of achievement and sacrifice. That we began to emerge in the world afterward because we went to the Versailles Conference is an empty boast; in reality, we had little international influence until the Second World War.

All this may be useful to those who crave a comforting narrative. A century ago, as an adolescent people, we needed one.

Today we should remember Vimy. But we should also ask what we were doing there, and in the slaughterhouse of the Great War itself, and what the war did to us. That’s what a mature, self-confident people does.

Vimy is a myth. It’s time to move beyond it.

Cohen: Time to move beyond the myth of Vimy | Ottawa Citizen.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

4 Responses to Cohen: Time to move beyond the myth of Vimy

  1. gjreid says:

    Yes, the 100 days were a spectacular – very costly in lives – series of Canadian victories – see the video of our 100 Days below. But Vimy was not perhaps as insignificant as Granatstein implies. When I interviewed Oxford historian Hugh Strachan he said that the possession of Vimy by the Allies in 1918 split and greatly weakened the Germans great March 1918 offensives, which was of great importance for the final Allied victory later in 1918. See “For King and Empire” Episode 5 – the 100 days.

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks for this correction. You should also send it to Cohen.

  3. gjreid says:

    Good idea, thanks Andrew. Arthur Currie – we’ve just done a Currie bio for TVO in “The Great War Tour” – was an extraordinary organizer and tactician, and he did form the Canadian Corps into an exceptional fighting force. Byng had given much of the impetus and also backed Currie in many difficult circumstances, as did Douglas Haig, who realized how talented – and occasionally pig-headed, Currie could be. When Currie was pig-headed he usually had good reason to be pig-headed, and was defending the interests of the Corps, the men, and their fighting ability.

  4. Andrew says:

    Pleased that this has provoked discussion. Thanks.

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