By Scott Taylor
Once again this year Remembrance Day ceremonies – now stretched into what is termed Remembrance Week – proved to be a lightening rod for the usual cabal of ‘death or glory’ historians to whinge to the media about how we don’t give enough gravitas to Canada’s Great War effort.
“I think the government of Canada botched commemoration of the First World War” complained Jack Granatstein, prolific author and full time cheerleader of war and destruction, to the Canadian Press. “Other than the Vimy Ridge [100th anniversary] celebration in 2017, I think they have done a very bad job”.
Echoing Granatstein’s sentiments was University of Calgary historian David Bercuson who lamented about Canada having missed an opportunity to herald the end of the war to end all wars. “When are we ever going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the armistice again?” whined Bercuson.
That’s right folks, the word he chose to use was ‘celebrate’ not ‘reflect’ or ‘mourn’. The senseless slaughter and the horrors of trench warfare are not something to celebrate, and we need to clarify that our soldiers did not fight that war for democracy and human rights. No, they fought instead to advance the economic aims of the British Empire.
An initiative was founded in Canada in 1996 called the Vimy Foundation, and since that juncture they have been wildly successful in convincing Canadians that it was upon the bloody slopes of Vimy Ridge that Canada came of age as a nation on April 9, 1917.
Canadian school children and tourists make Vimy Ridge visits into a virtual pilgrimage, and as Granatstein mentioned, last year Canada staged a massive display of military pomp and ceremony at the battle site memorial in France, to ‘celebrate’ the 100th anniversary.
The rationale for declaring this Canada’s birthplace has always been a bit of a stretch for me. Yes, it was the first time Canadian troops fought together as a single corps, but they were still under British command of Sir Julian Byng. Yes, Canadians captured the ridge – after British and French troops had failed – but the entire attack was staged at Vimy Ridge as part of a diversion for a French offensive further south, which ultimately failed.
The First World War would continue its bloody stalemate for another 18 months before Germany finally capitulated.
Some Canadian historians have argued that the Battle of Hill 70 would be a more fitting birthplace of Canada. This engagement was fought in August 1917 by the Canadian Corps, then under command of Canadian General Sir Arthur Currie. They captured the objective and suffered fewer casualties than at Vimy. However, the same argument can be made that Canada was still part of a larger British formation, fighting in a war in which the original Canadian recruiting posters read “Britons: Your Empire Needs You”.
In my opinion, the defining moment when Canada emerged as an independent nation was in September 1922. This was when Prime Minister Mackenzie King said “no” to a British request to send Canadian troops to yet another senseless war.
It was known at the time as the Chanak Crisis and it resulted from Britain’s heavy-handed dismantling of the Ottoman Empire following the 1918 Armistice.
The British has initially supported a Greek military expedition into Anatolia. Taking advantage of the disorganized and defeated Ottoman forces, the Greeks had pushed forward all the way to Ankara. Here, the Turks regrouped under a dynamic General, Mustafa Kemal and the tables were soon turned.
The routed Greeks were soon bottled up in two desperate bridgeheads on the Anatolian mainland – Chanak and Smyrna.
Not wishing to abandon the Greeks, and not willing to put the onus of a military intervention only upon the war weary British public, the London War Office put the call out to the British Dominions to join in the fight.
New Zealand said ‘ready aye ready’ while Australia and South Africa delayed their response. Canada’s Mackenzie King said ‘no’ and this ended any indecision on the part of Australia and South Africa, as they too soon echoed our ‘no’.
Without allies, Britain signed the Treaty of Lausanne with the Turks, Allied troops withdrew from Anatolia and Turkey emerged as a modern nation under the most dynamic leader in their history – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Father of Turkey).
This Canadian decision to opt out of a military campaign therefore had an immediate consequence in world events. It tipped the balance for the other dominions, which forced Britain to conclude a peace.
That is far more than what can be said for the aftermath of Canadian troops, under British command, capturing a few hundred yards of trenches at Vimy Ridge.