By Walter Klaassen
Several weeks ago the CBC National News offered a film clip of the President of France, Francois Hollande, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel standing together at the site commemorating the 1916 Battle of Verdun. It has been called the biggest battle in history. It lasted for 300 days and resulted in 300,000 French and German dead. It was called a French victory because the Germans did not achieve the breakthrough they had intended to make. The commemoration was not a celebration of victory. As the modern representatives of the belligerents of a century ago met, Chancellor Merkel said that President Hollande’s invitation to the event was a great honour. In his address the President said that now Verdun is a capital of peace, but also that “Verdun is a city that represents – at the same time – the worst, where Europe got lost.” A French soldier wrote at the time: “People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means? Hell cannot be so terrible as this [battle]. Humanity is mad: it must be mad to do what it is doing.” After a century the battle zone is still forbidden territory for housing and farming because of unexploded shells. Available on the web are moving photographs of the two national leaders of those enemies of a century ago stretching their hands over a memorial wreath in sorrow and regret. The visitors’ centre focuses on educating French and German youth about the horrors and consequences of war.
For several years now, in April, the media have been reminding us of the Battle of Vimy Ridge which, Prime Minister Trudeau said, “was the moment that defined our nation.” In April of this year (2016) there was a commemoration event at Canada’s War Museum at which Canadian and French flags were flown. There will be many more like it, culminating in a huge commemoration next April at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, on the site of the battle. The gathering is expected to be the largest since the monument was erected in 1936. A recent poll suggested that the anniversary of the battle will be one of the most important celebrations during Canada’s 150th anniversary. We are also promised a 20$ bill with a Vimy Ridge theme.
The attack on Vimy Ridge took place on Easter Monday 1917. All four Canadian divisions, more than 15,000 men set out to seize Vimy Ridge which the French had failed to take, even with 100,000 casualties. The battle began early on April 9 and lasted for four days. The price of the victory was 11,000 Canadian casualties, 3,600 deaths. There were about 20,000 German casualties.
It was Brigadier-General Alexander E. Ross who, a few years after the war wrote: “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” This mantra, repeated often by military historians and politicians, was not original with Brigadier-General Ross. Its source is the essay “What is a Nation?” by the French 19th century writer Ernest Renan. He wrote that “nations are made by doing great things together.” Canadian historian Desmond Morton wrote: “As Renan had foreseen, Canadians had shaped a nation.”
If all this were true, then Vimy Ridge was as essential to Canada’s birth as the union of egg and sperm is essential to the birth of a child. It means that the senseless horror of war produced the marvel of life that is Canada. It means that we can never do what President Hollande did when he invited Chancellor Merkel to commemorate the Battle of Verdun together. If we were to do the same thing with Vimy Ridge we would, on this view, be denying our own country.
But, of course, the notion that Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge is a nationalistic fiction. Canada became a nation by the imagination and effort of generations of immigrants working together as farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, nurses and doctors, scientists, technicians, religious leaders and others. These had made Canada a nation long before the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
None of this puts in question the bravery and determination of the Canadian soldier, ready to face the machine guns when he left the protection of the trench. But the word of one veteran of Vimy Ridge, the author’s father-in-law Frank Frederick Strange, puts another slant on that event and refutes the fiction. He said: “We were not heroes; we were victims.”
And none of this suggests that we should not commemorate the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Set free from the paralyzing fiction that Vimy Ridge gave birth to our nation, we could commemorate the event like they did recently at Verdun. We should urge our Prime Minister to invite the German Chancellor to the Vimy Memorial for a joint commemoration. Perhaps it could be done without talk about the Canadian victory, and rather join our former enemies in deploring that we were ever part of such a horror. And finally, we could begin to teach our youth, not about the glory of the victory at Vimy Ridge, but rather, as at the Verdun centre, about the horrors and consequences of war.
Walter Klaassen, Adjunct Professor, University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Klaassen received his doctorate from Oxford University in 1960. He has published extensively on the history of Anabaptism.
ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.