The Vimy Trap

In The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift interrogate the mythology surrounding the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge, and how that myth has been manipulated to inform our understanding of Canada and its nationhood. In this excerpt, the authors offer competing and conflicting ways in which war is commemorated in Canada and around the world. 

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Vimy is a trap because, as it has come to be mythologized by militarists, historians, and nationalists, it tempts us to think that chivalric war somehow survived the coming of the epoch of mechanized warfare. There is a childishness to Vimyism. In its essence, it wants us to return to a day of glorious warfare—as signalled by the Citizenship Guide’s visual homage to the charges of the mounted cavalry, which were, in one soldier’s words, “exceedingly gallant, but futile” in an age of heavy artillery.[i] So many official and popular representations of war today avoid something that the returned soldiers of the Great War kept insisting upon: that under conditions of modernity, war had changed—changed quite completely.

Yet Vimyism persists. In November 2015, days after terrorists murdered civilians in Paris (while others had just, with far less attention paid, murdered civilians in Beirut and bombed a Russian airplane over the Sinai), Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall responded by urging Ottawa to put a hold on refugee resettlement but not do the same for aerial bombing in Iraq and Syria. “As a citizen, I would rather they continue the air strikes. I would rather Canada continue the fight. That’s Canada’s history, that’s our tradition. When tyranny threatens freedom-loving people anywhere, Canada has responded, yes, with a humane response. But Canada also fights.”[ii]

A different view of history urges us instead to remember other traditions, such as peacekeeping and diplomacy; urges us not to fight but to discover other ways of facing the serious issues that can and do lead to war. We take comfort from how this conclusion was shared by a vast number of Canadians from 1918 to our own time—people for whom the appropriate slogan for the Great War was not “birth of a nation” but “Please God—never again.”[iii]

A different view of history urges us instead to remember other traditions, such as peacekeeping and diplomacy; urges us not to fight but to discover other ways of facing the serious issues that can and do lead to war.

Yet slogans only go so far. The politics of peace and war, of memory and commemoration, in Canada—then and now—are always more complicated. Contrary to those who say there was one big, valorous war to which all right-thinking Canadians subscribed, there have been many competing and conflicting ways of understanding the Great War, and war in general.

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Just before Remembrance Day in 2014, the Canadian government unveiled seven new bronze figures that together comprise Parliament Hill’s first-ever war memorial. The authorities solemnly deposited some dirt—now inevitably described as “sacred soil”—from War of 1812 battlefields at the base of the fighting figures cast in bronze. The memorial sits in a prominent spot in front of the East Block.

The monument recalls action figures in a toy soldier set marketed to small boys. One fellow is firing a cannon, another a musket. One figure brandishes a knife; another raises a fist. Two of the fighters seem to be Aboriginal (one may be Metis). A woman is bandaging an arm. The statue is not just about patriotism but inclusiveness and diversity. “Canada’s Newest Monument Evokes the Memory of War of 1812 Heroes,” proclaimed the official press release. “This new landmark on Parliament Hill will forever remind us of the courage and bravery of those who served and successfully defended their land in the fight for Canada more than 200 years ago,” intoned Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, failing to mention that the Aboriginal peoples who fought for the Crown were betrayed by the British and lost their land.[iv] For sculptor Adrienne Alison, who had previously known little about the War of 1812, the commission was all about history. “After this, I really feel like we, as Canadians, don’t know our own history,” she said as she began work on the piece. “It’s an important thing, to popularize this. It’s nation-building.” Glover then situated this new monument in the now-sanctified setting of the Great War: “To me, now, this is as important as Vimy Ridge.”[v] In martial nationalism, all of Canada’s wars—even, in this case, one fought before there even was a Dominion of Canada—are rolled into one: wherever and whenever the forces of empire were engaged, there we should find our meaning as a people….

In martial nationalism, all of Canada’s wars are rolled into one: wherever and whenever the forces of empire were engaged, there we should find our meaning as a people….

As official Canada bedecked Parliament Hill with a permanent homage to the glories of war, the president of France and the German chancellor together inaugurated a new European war memorial not far from Canada’s Vimy Ridge monument. On a far larger scale than Kollwitz’s quiet, grief-laden meditation in stone, this European monument is a massive elliptical “Ring of Remembrance” 129 metres long and 75 wide. Part of the ring appears to balance precariously out over the ground, symbolizing the fragile nature of peace. The ring has five hundred panels of bronzed stainless steel that invite visitors to ponder a list of 579,606 names, German and French alike. The Great War killed that many people in Northern France alone. Architect Philippe Prost explained that it is all about reconciliation, to “unite yesterday’s enemies.” He added, “The Ring is synonymous with unity and eternity. Unity, because the names form a sort of human chain, and eternity because the letters are joined without an end, in alphabetical order without any distinction of nationality, rank or religion.”[vi]

Canadian actor, playwright, and director Robert Thomson also turned his back on national distinctions. Having lost five great uncles, killed between 1914 and 1918, he based his play The Lost Boys on their letters home. He went on to initiate The World Remembers/Le monde se souvient, which entailed the creation of a database of the names of as many of the war dead as possible. “The challenge of Remembrance Day is to honour the dead in ways that communicate the immensity of the loss,” Thomson explained. “And surely we must have multiple narratives about the problems of war and the challenges of peace.” In 2014 The World Remembers began projecting their names in public places—schools, libraries, churches, the walls of public buildings. The display would terminate every 11 November in each of the centenaries of the war years. The World Remembers embraced the approach of the transnational Ring of Remembrance. The projected database display featured a Canadian at the centre of the moving image, circled by the rapidly changing names of people from other countries. In 2015 the name of Robert Keenan, for instance, remained on the screen for five minutes. Every twenty-three seconds a ring of names surrounding the Canadian name faded away to be replaced by another group: Ali Mustafa, Turkey. Charles Parker, Great Britain. Otto Weideke, Germany. Alphonse Leroux, France.

Nearly eight decades after the unveiling of Allward’s majestic sermon against war at Vimy, the name of Canadian nurse Katherine Maud McDonald of Brantford, Ont., appeared on the "Ring of Remembrance." She was killed at the First Canadian General Hospital in 1918. Placing her name together with those of the German dead, perhaps those who fired the gun that killed her, reflects the transnational spirit of mature mourning and painful reconciliation that suffuses The World Remembers.

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Book Cover The Vimy Trap

About The Vimy Trap:  

The story of the bloody 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge is, according to many of today’s tellings, a heroic founding moment for Canada. This noble, birth-of-a-nation narrative is regularly applied to the Great War in general. Yet this mythical tale is rather new. “Vimyism”— today’s official story of glorious, martial patriotism—contrasts sharply with the complex ways in which veterans, artists, clerics, and even politicians who had supported the war interpreted its meaning over the decades.

Was the Great War a futile imperial debacle? A proud, nation-building milestone? Contending Great War memories have helped to shape how later wars were imagined. The Vimy Trap provides a powerful probe of commemoration cultures. This subtle, fast-paced work of public history—combining scholarly insight with sharp-eyed journalism, and based on primary sources and school textbooks, battlefield visits and war art—explains both how and why peace and war remain contested terrain in ever-changing landscapes of Canadian memory.

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Notes:

[i] ST, 433.

[ii]Globe and Mail, 17 November, 2015

[iii] For Donald Schurman, in 1990, it was “almost impossible to imagine Canadian writers protesting in print, either against World War One or its successor. Support for the military goals of the war was a hallmark of the colonial English Canadian.” For Mark Sheftall, in 2009, while the interwar years witnessed the rise of cultural works that “emphasized the disillusioning human, material, social and spiritual cost of the conflict,” in Canada (along with New Zealand and Australia) the “dominant narrative for the duration of the inter-war period focused on what was achieved between 1914 and 1918 by the nation and its soldiers, rather than on what was lost in the process.” See Donald Schurman, “Writing About War,” inWriting About Canada:  A Handbook for Modern Canadian History, ed. John Schultz (Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 241; Mark Sheftall,Altered Memories of the Great War: Divergent narratives of Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada (London: I.B. Taurus, 2009), 57–58. Quite the contrary, we argue: from 1918 to today, and especially from the 1920s to the 1970s, the Great War was a site of conflict and contradiction, not consensus, in Canada and Quebec.

[iv] http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=900699 (July 2015).

[v] “Toronto sculptor Adrienne Alison creates monument to War of 1812,”Toronto Star, June 27, 2013.

[vi] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/architecture/11220393/The-Ring-of-Remembrance-Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.html (October 2015).

November 7, 2016
Books mentioned in this post
The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys

Letters from the Sons in Two Acts, 1914-1923
edition:Paperback
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