By: Scott Taylor
In a recent poll conducted by the Vimy Foundation, over 80 per cent of Canadians supported the idea that the centenary of that First World War battle should be the centrepiece of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.
The same poll also revealed that a whopping 60 per cent of those questioned believe that it was on that bloody battlefield in 1917 that Canada truly became a nation.
Almost the same number of respondents claimed it was their desire to visit the Vimy Memorial in France at some point in their lifetime, making Vimy a virtual Mecca for Canadian travellers.
With these incredibly positive results, the Vimy Foundation can truly be proud of their success in implementing their mandate of heightening the importance of the Vimy Battle.
For the average citizen that still uses cash money, it is the image of the towering marble-slabbed Vimy Memorial that adorns our most circulated currency — the $20 bill.
For those who orbit in Canadian defence circles, Vimy Ridge has grown into mythical proportions.
For instance, the Conference of Defence Associations Institute stages its annual Vimy Award Dinner Gala, during which it presents a prominent Canadian with the Vimy Award.
The standard rationale used to justify Vimy Ridge as the birth of our nation is the fact that this was the first battle in which all four Canadian divisions fought together as a single corps, and that as a fighting force the Canadians achieved a victory which had eluded the British and French during previous attempts to capture the height.
During the four-day assault, between April 9–12, 1917, the Canadian Corps suffered some 3,600 soldiers killed and thousands more wounded.
This is a horrendous butcher’s bill by today’s standards, but certainly not shocking during the First World War when it was routine for armies to lose tens of thousands of troops in the capture of only a few hundred metres of contested battlefield.
It is true that all sources of national pride are somewhat mythological, but before we convince ourselves fully that Canada was born in that battle, we should perhaps add a little perspective.
First of all, who determined that it is at the corps level that a country becomes an independent nation?
Why not at the regimental or divisional level?
At that time, British Gen. Sir Julian Byng commanded the Canadian Corps.
(It would not be until August 1917 that a Canadian Corps would come under command of a Canadian officer, Sir General Arthur Currie.)
In addition to a British division directly supporting the Canadians at Vimy, the Canadian Corps remained part of the British First Army.
The Vimy Ridge assault was only one small effort as part of the First Army’s larger offensive, which was in turn only a diversion to assist a much larger coincidental French attack at Arras.
Yes, the Canadians were successful in the assault and managed to drive the Germans off the heavily defended high ground.
However, despite all the hype, the Canadians did not achieve the breakthrough that would end the bloody stalemate.
The defeated Germans simply dug a new trench line a few hundred metres behind Vimy Ridge.
The isolated victory by the Canadians at Vimy in no way caused the German war effort to collapse, nor did it even irrevocably change the fortune of war in favour of the allies.
One year after the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge, the Germans had defeated Russia and were thus able to transfer 50 divisions from the eastern front to the trenches in France.
During their spring offensive of 1918, German stormtroopers came closer to capturing Paris than they had in 1914.
Arguably the most significant event determining the allied victory in the First World War did happen in April 1917, but it was not on the muddy fields of Vimy Ridge.
It was that same month that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany and the Central Powers.
Canada earned its one seat at the post-war international big boy table — the League of Nations — in recognition of the herculean contribution our nation paid throughout the war’s entire four-year conflict.
If Vimy is simply viewed as a symbol of that achievement so be it, but let’s not keep pretending that it was a decisive battle that won the war for the allies and made us a nation.