Friday, April 13, 2007

Victory at Vimy

Canadians are modest folks, even about war. But at the end of World War Two we had the world’s 4th largest armed forces. We burned down the White House during the War of 1812. It is our nature to second-guess military victories with relentless revisionism. This is a good thing as sober second thought keeps us out of jingoistic nightmares like the Vietnam or Iraq wars.
But the Great War’s Battle of Vimy Ridge is somewhat of an exception. The victory was barely won before it began to take on legendary status, at least in Canada. Over the 90 years since the battle the belief has grown that ‘Canada was born at Vimy’. And anyone appearing to question this will get an earful. Michael Valpy’s thoughtful piece in the Globe & Mail discussed the mythology of Vimy, and he was rewarded with a great deal of harrumphing “how dare he” vitriol in response. These folks had best keep away from a new book, an interesting, yes, revisionist, new collection of essays on the battle by Canadian and British historians, Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment.

Traditionalists need not fear. Another new Vimy book, by journalist and military author Ted Barris shows where it stands with its title: Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age. Barris shares with Pierre Berton’s classic, Vimy, the idea that Canada ‘became a nation’ with the Vimy victory. Berton’s book is still an excellent read. Barris includes more first-person narratives in his book.

Many of the people criticizing Valpy’s article on the Vimy legend may have missed his excellent piece on the Vimy memorial itself. Paul Fussell’s stunning book, The Great War and Modern Memory broke new ground in thinking about the First World War and memory. UWO history professor Jonathan Vance made use of Fussel’s ideas in a Canadian context in his book, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War. Vance shows how the idea of Canada as a nation born out of the war began.
Personally, I think it is important to remember Vimy as a great Canadian victory. Working together as Canadians, using characteristically Canuck ideas (innovation - the creeping barrage, the tunnelling, the methodical preparation; egalitarianism – gathering ideas and sharing plans with and from everyone, regardless of rank) and with the courage and hard work that carved a country out of icy wilderness, our boys did what the big countries had been unable to do. It is something to be celebrated.
But, as many of the writers I’ve mentioned have noted, Vimy and other WWI memorials are war memorials, not victory memorials. The Vimy memorial gave physical form to the immense, incalculable grief caused by that obscene, senseless slaughter of a conflict. Jane Urquhart’s excellent novel, The Stone Carvers, speaks about loss and remembrance and the Great War. Her novel includes characters carving the memorial under the direction of its creator, Toronto sculptor Walter Allward. And one can’t go wrong, as well, with Timothy Findley’s classic novel, The Wars, which makes the insanity of war, the Great War in this case, explicit.


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