As a historian of Canada’s involvement in the First World War I get awfully tired of talking and writing about the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Especially tiresome is the intellectual work of critiquing the reification of Vimy’s nationalist mythology, a topic that seems to come up annually when its anniversary rolls around. The Vimy mythology has an enduring power.
Over the course of the last five years, four collaborators (Mary Chaktsiris, Sarah Glassford, Christopher Schultz, Nathan Smith) and I curated the “Canada’s First World War” series for ActiveHistory.ca that sought to problematize and expand our understanding of Canada’s experience of the First World War. We wanted to give voice to stories that had been lost in more monolithic narratives, to question accepted mythologies and to lift up subaltern histories that had been ignored. One of those narratives that most dominate this history and most obscure others is the Vimy mythology, and one of our primary goals was to finally expose Canadians to the problems associated with viewing Canadian identity and nation building through a Vimy-hued lens. We did publish one article on Vimy, by Canadian War Museum historian Nic Clark, but the article’s critique of Vimy’s place in Canada’s mythology supported this goal.
We published almost 70 articles by historians both professional and amateur, and with little institutional and no financial support, garnered significant attention within the Canadian historical community. We were largely unsuccessful, however, in impacting the broader understanding of Canada’s First World War history and undermining the dominance of the Vimy myth. When it came down to it, Canadian media outlets showed little interest in our project and returned repeatedly to a small community of Canadian historians and commentators who were invested professionally and politically in Vimy’s continued importance.
For many historians, history buffs, and historically aware Canadians, Vimy has become a touchstone that covers the whole of Canada’s experience of war from 1914 to 1918. Since the 1960s and the 50th anniversary of the First World War, hundreds of books and articles have been written about it, most notably Pierre Berton’s 1986 Vimy. These works have all contributed to a narrative that has become especially powerful in the 21st century as Canada, for the first time in over 50 years, found itself at war in Afghanistan (2001-2014).
The historical power of this event has been and continues to be mobilized by successive Federal governments linking the centennial anniversary of the battle in 2017 to Canada’s larger sesquicentennial celebrations. Advocacy organizations like the Vimy Foundation continue to trumpet the battle’s purported importance as “a milestone where Canada came of age and was then recognized on the world stage.” Vimy also continues to be referenced by public figures, particularly ones, like Don Cherry, who beat the drums of war and patriotism.
This is the narrative that historians Ian McKay and Jamie Swift seek to question in their 2017 book, The Vimy Trap: Or, How we Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War. This book along with Tim Cook’s Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, also published in 2017 set out the opposing sides of this debate. While the authors of both books agree about the power of the mythology that surrounded Vimy in the Canadian idea of itself as an independent nation, they disagree on whether this is a good thing or not. And though both of these books examine this mythology rather than refight the history of the battle itself, these books are still about Vimy Ridge.
This then is the trap. Even as historians seek to criticize and undermine Vimy’s dominant place in Canada’s First World War narrative we give it more air – something I note, not without irony, that I am doing in this article.
What I am hoping is that as the centenary of the First World War recedes from view, the relative importance we accord to the War, and to Vimy, fades. That we will start to examine events and issues that tell histories that represent more broadly the diversity of experiences that have made Canada the place it is, rather than relying on outdated ideas around nation-building through war.
Jonathan Weier is a historian of war and society and one of the editors of the “Canada’s First World War” series on ActiveHistory.ca.
This post is part of ActiveHistory.ca’s ongoing project on the First World War: “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”. Launched in 2014, the series is concluding in 2019. All the posts in the series continue to be accessible here.
This series is an excellent resource for instructors. I frequently assign articles from it to my Canadian history classes, and just last week had a class write on the following exam question: “Why is the Great War – and the Battle of Vimy Ridge in particular – sometimes mythologized as marking the birth of the Canadian nation? What aspects of the war run counter to this depiction?” You may feel as though the work has not penetrated the public consciousness, but it is making a difference in the classroom.
Thanks for the comment Mary-Ann, it’s really great to know that the work we’ve been doing is making it into classrooms.