Vimy: The History of an Idea: The Canadian War Museum

Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Vimy: The History of an Idea: The Canadian War Museum


In April 1917, Canadians captured Vimy Ridge in one of the First World War's most costly battles. One hundred years later, the Canadian War Museum explores the battle itself and the many ways it has been commemorated, through compelling upgrades to its existing section exploring the Battle of Vimy Ridge, as well as the exciting new temporary exhibition, Vimy--Beyond the Battle. Located in the War Museum's popular South African and First World Wars gallery, the section on the Battle of Vimy Ridge goes into greater depth than ever before to explore all aspects of the battle--from strategic planning and field preparations to the experience of combat--which led to the loss and injury of over 10,200 Canadians between April 9 and 12, 1917. Vimy--Beyond the Battle will be on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa until November 12, 2017. The exhibition uses the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a starting point to explore how Canadians have commemorated conflict over the past 100 years.

Although the Battle of Vimy Ridge is now seen as an iconic event in Canadian history, it didn't start out that way. In April 1917, when the battle was fought-and even on November 11, 1918, when the war came to an end-Vimy was viewed as a single hard-won battle among many others. Over the intervening century, however, generations of Canadians have come to see Vimy as integral to Canada's reputation and identity on the world stage.

Although Vimy was ultimately chosen as the site for Canada's national First World War memorial, Ypres, in Belgium, had been the initial choice. In the early 1920s, when a memorial was being planned, the Second Battle of Ypres-where Canadians had first engaged the enemy in April 1915-was still considered Canada's most famous battle of the war. It was where Allied soldiers were first exposed to poison gas, and it was where Lieutenant-Colonel lohn McCrae had penned "In Flanders Fields."

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King intervened, suggesting that the monument be placed on Vimy Ridge instead. It was a decision that would effectively change Vimy's place in Canadian history. In July 1936, 6,200 Canadian veterans crossed the Atlantic in five ocean liners to take part in the unveiling ceremony. King Edward VIII's role at the monument's unveiling-his last official function before abdicating-also brought worldwide attention to the Canadian battle.

As Vimy took hold in the Canadian imagination, the bond between battle, monument, pilgrimage, and an emerging and distinct Canadian identity grew stronger. When German forces overran France during the Second World War and Vimy was occupied, Canadians worried that the monument would not survive the fighting. …

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