Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Editorial Exchange: Debate over Vimy Shows Its Enduring Power

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Editorial Exchange: Debate over Vimy Shows Its Enduring Power

Article excerpt

Editorial Exchange: Debate over Vimy shows its enduring power


An editorial from the Toronto Star, published April 7:

"In one place where the trench had been blown in and it was very narrow, I came on a poor fellow lengthwise of the trench and everyone had been tramping right over him till he was almost buried in the mud. Of course he was dead so I suppose it didn't inconvenience him any. But imagine the sensation of having to tramp on dead bodies.

"In another place I came on one of my own company lying with both legs blown off at the knees, but still alive and conscious. I stopped and talked to him a few minutes. Scenes like this are not uncommon in war."

This was the reality of Vimy Ridge for Stuart C. Kirkland, a 33-year-old lieutenant with the Canadian Corps who went over the top in the dawning hours of April 9, 1917, a century ago tomorrow.

Kirkland survived with just a slight wound to his left arm. ("It was a lucky scratch," he wrote home to his brother in Dutton, Ont. "The bullet went through clean as a dollar.") Famously, though, 3,598 Canadians did not return after fighting for four days at Vimy. It was the bloodiest episode in Canada's military history.

Four days of battle -- followed by a century of contestation over the meaning and symbolism of Vimy. After 100 years, writes the military historian Tim Cook, Vimy remains "a site of mass killing and myth-making."

Certainly, the significance of Vimy to the (mostly English) Canadian imagination by now well exceeds the actual impact of the battle at the time. It was, at most, a tactical victory at a time when the rival armies were stuck in a bloody stalemate. It was just one engagement in a wider British offensive that ultimately fell short. Vimy was in no sense the turning point of the First World War, as some of its most enthusiastic chroniclers have asserted.

Still less was it the "birth of a nation," as various historians and politicians have argued on and off over the decades, and as may be claimed yet again this weekend at the centenary ceremonies in Flanders.

At best, that formulation is a lazy shorthand for the outsized impact of the First World War on Canada, at the time a country of just 8 million people only just starting to push back against its junior status in the British Empire.

Those who contest the birth-of-a-nation claim point out a number of inconvenient facts that don't fit that narrative.

Most of the "Canadian" troops were actually British-born, hardly motivated by a specifically Canadian patriotism. Other actions by the Canadian Corps (such as that at Ypres two years earlier) were also cited at the time as the moment this country was supposedly "born" as a full-fledged nation. And most importantly, French Canada bitterly resisted participation in the war. …

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