Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Vimy myth

We travelled to an SCA event in Whitby yesterday, and returned to Windsor today.  For most of that drive we listened to CBC Radio One.  Excellent material, more excellent than usual.

The most thought-provoking program today was the Sunday Edition (closely followed by "The House," the regular parliamentary affairs show, this weekend devoted to the role of colonial parliamentarians in the negotiation of Canadian Confederation).  Sunday Edition talked about the role of the battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War in creating modern Canadian nationalism.  

Sunday Edition started out by giving the usual account of why Vimy was important:

It wasn't until April, 1917, the story goes, when Canada stormed a battlefield in the North of France and seized a hill that had been held by the German army, that the country came of age, emerging as a united, resourceful, vigorous and valourous 50-year-old nation.

The Canadians were given little chance of taking Vimy Ridge from the Germans. But the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force — all fighting together for the first time in the Great War — hurled an awesome artillery barrage at the German position and surged across the battlefield, forcing the Germans to retreat. 

After a four-day battle, nearly 36-hundred Canadian soldiers lay dead in the cold, corpse-littered muck and slime, and 7-thousand more were wounded. But they held the Ridge and helped shift the course of the war toward an Allied victory.

Since that time, Canadian politicians have seized on the Vimy victory, as a symbol of Canada's coming-of-age, o f its independence from Britain, as the smithy in which Canadian nationhood was forged.
The segment was an interview with Ian MacKay, one of the authors of "The Vimy Trap."  According to MacKay, there was no surge of Canadian nationalism connected with Vimy.  As late as the 1930s, the overwhelming evaluation of the war, especially among those who fought it, was that the Great War was a futile catastrophe and that peace was a necessity.  Two people who felt strongly that way were two future prime ministers, John Diefenbaker (Conservative) and Lester Pearson (Liberal and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize).  They like many others made no connection between  the Great War and the growth of Canadian nationalism and sovereignty.  Canada's military history is not universally lauded as an encouragement to nationalism.  In both world wars, for instance, French Canadians were extremely skeptical of the need to support the British Empire, for obvious reasons (note the Seven Years War otherwise known as "the Conquest" and Canadian participation in the South African (Boer) War.)

I find it very unfortunate that both of our most recent prime ministers (one Conservative, one Liberal) have gone out of their way to talk up the Canadian war record for its supposed nation-building role.  I was not raised Canadian so the First World War holds no magic for me.  Indeed, when I have taught the war --not as part of Canadian, U.S. or European history but always as part of world history-- I've had to  hold myself  back from denouncing it as one giant war crime.

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