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.