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Horror was commonplace. Slaughter was mundane. Four Canadians would win the Victoria Cross.
April 9, 2010 11:04 PM   Subscribe

Canada was another country before it was born. In the fire of the battle of Vimy Ridge, people who were born in Canada, or who came to Canada, came together, as Canadians, in one of the defining battles of the the First World War. This is the 93rd anniversary of the greatest unifying event in Canadian history.
posted by Dipsomaniac (32 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 


Some quite moving words from Her Majesty the Queen, The End of an Era.
posted by boubelium at 11:16 PM on April 9, 2010


Today, Canada, you become a man.
posted by regicide is good for you at 11:28 PM on April 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Because you killed a bunch of other men
posted by regicide is good for you at 11:29 PM on April 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey regicide, valour doesn't have to mean killing. Courage doesn't have to be slaughter.

Denigrating what brought a nation together doesn't make you cooler.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 11:33 PM on April 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Pierre Berton's book Vimy is an excellent book on the battle and the history surrounding it.
posted by fatbird at 11:40 PM on April 9, 2010


This has been making the radio news cycle locally pretty heavily when it's not normally much of an event. 93rd struck me as a weird anniversary to generate such interest but I imagine it's because there finally aren't any Great War veterans left.
posted by Mitheral at 12:08 AM on April 10, 2010


I'm an American (not the best one), my wife is Canadian (the best one). Thank You Canada.
posted by vapidave at 12:09 AM on April 10, 2010


Hey regicide, valour doesn't have to mean killing. Courage doesn't have to be slaughter.

Right. In fact I'm pretty sure they are never those things.

Denigrating what brought a nation together doesn't make you cooler.

I'm not denigrating "what brought a nation together," I'm denigrating the idea that participation in possibly the greatest collective mistake in the history of the species is any sort of thing I should be identifying my country with.
posted by regicide is good for you at 12:43 AM on April 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


Is that how nations are forged?

You spend your life being told that the country became a nation at Vimy Ridge. Problem is, for the memorials and the textbooks and the commemorations, Vimy hardly occupies a place in the Canadian psyche. It's a famous battle that you're supposed to care about, but for all the official piety, precious few seem to. I have no doubt that it was significant, but significant in the formation of a nation that's since evolved past the point of recognition. In Flanders Fields still has resonance as a national icon from the era, but not Vimy. Why?

It's not that Canadians are anti-war, or averse to glorifying our victories. Ottawa still blooms with tulips every spring, a reminder (if not a result) of the liberation of Holland. We won't let you forget who stormed Juno beach or, for that matter, got slaughtered at Dieppe.

Maybe it's because Vimy was the "birth" of a Canada that's since passed, a drab anglo place that saluted to a national anthem that began "In days of yore, from Britain's shore, Wolfe the dauntless hero came / And planted firm Britannia's flag on Canada's fair domain!" Americans, Brits, and citizens of the planet's sundry other countries seem to feel a certain continuity with their national histories, but it's hard to overstate how little connection my generation seems to feel with Canada before the 1960's, the years of Pearson and Trudeau.

Maybe it would be the same for any country. "Hey kids, here's the pointless slaughter that made us a nation" is never really going to fly as a creation myth. Revolutionary war, patriotic uprising, just war - that's all good. But a pyrrhic victory in a pointless war?

It's late and I'm not going to contradict Pierre Berton. But the the Vimy disconnect echoes louder than the battle itself.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:47 AM on April 10, 2010 [18 favorites]


Just like Gallipoli, a nationalist propaganda legend deliberately contrived to offset natural revulsion towards a war in which the British empire tossed hundreds of thousands of young lives into a meat grinder on the other side of the world from their homes, and for no purpose. Because the foundation of Australia and Canada lacked the dramatic narratives of a revolutionary war, we couldn't become "real" countries until participating in the idiotic bloodbath of ww1. Of course unlike America's founding drama, it doesn't commemorate independence from the Britsh empire, but rather the most abject servility toward it.
posted by moorooka at 1:00 AM on April 10, 2010 [16 favorites]


The winner of Vimy Ridge was Vimy Ridge and environs, fertilized with more than 200,000 British, French, German, and Canadian corpses and countless body bits that were blown off and left behind when their owners were shipped home in bandages.

But I guess Canada did get something in the end. In 1922, France handed the ridge over to Canada (tax free in perpetuity!). There's quite a nice view from the top, and the walks reportedly make excellent jogging trails.
posted by pracowity at 2:53 AM on April 10, 2010


Just like Gallipoli, a nationalist propaganda legend deliberately contrived to offset natural revulsion towards a war

It's something that bothers me about how history is presented from high school to popular media.

I'm as much of a military history/tech/strategy fanboi as the next guy, but it's clear that safe distance allows us civilians to treat wars as something that can be analyzed and argued about like a chess game, with the personalities and geopolitics just making it that little bit more exciting. Alexander was a brilliant but misunderstood emo kid who just wanted to conquer the world. Hannibal is awesome because he had the balls to sacrifice thousands of men and animals to kill whoever was on the other side of the mountain. Ol' Caius Julius - we've all read the pretty fictional words that Mark Anthony spoke for him, we'll just keep calling it July shall we? Atilla - the worst Hun, even worse than... uh, nope never learned about any other Huns though I think there were some in Biggles. Ashoka was such a wise and gentle emperor, never mind that he got there by being one of the most brutally effective war-makers South Asia ever produced; it's a bildungsroman! It's so unfortunate how Hitler treated Rommel.... blah blah

There is no doubt that sometimes you've got to take up arms to defend yourself, your family, your community or your freedom - India is fortunate that by the time Gandhi came around, the British Empire was capable of embarrassment. I'm just kind of tired of peaceful civil history being treated as mostly unexceptional lulls between the world-shaping wars. On the other hand, dramatic tales of valor and courage allow us to trick each other into believing that going to war is more noble than it really should be, never mind the cause. I don't think that delusion lasts very long for most enlisted soldiers under fire; they know that defensive war is like chemotherapy, a cure almost as horrible as the disease. I'm amazed that Kipling's delusion-free concern for those guys while being a card-carrying Imperialist didn't cause his head to explode.
posted by vanar sena at 4:22 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, it looks like the history lessons weren't enough to teach me how to spell Attila.
posted by vanar sena at 4:31 AM on April 10, 2010


As a Canadian, I have always found this focus on Vimy Ridge to be disturbing and remarkably "un-Canadian". The attempt to wrangle a particular military victory into some sort of pseudo-nationalistic birth-moment (with repeated emphasis on how other armies had failed at this particular task) is both: 1) at conflict with the true genius and identity of a progressive and peaceful Canada that seeks to lead in the world through example rather than bombs, and 2) representative of a still-present and unfortunate inferiority complex ('see we can fight just as good daddy!') that bubbles up in all kinds of ways, especially in relation to the US.

Vimy Ridge was an important battle but of course embedded in a much broader war. I don't dispute its relevance to history, but the implied notion that it should or does somehow define Canada as a people is what really aggravates me.
posted by modernnomad at 5:31 AM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Every Canadian knows the birth of our great nation began with the formation of the NHL.
posted by bwg at 5:48 AM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Every Canadian knows the birth of our great nation began with the formation of the donut.
posted by scruss at 6:53 AM on April 10, 2010


The First World War is important to Canada because it was the first time a large group of people from across the country came in contact with each other, and that Canada was no longer an abstraction.

Interestingly enough, John Babcock, Canada's last World War I veteran who just died, never actually saw active service, and instead loaded trucks and dug ditches in England during the war.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:53 AM on April 10, 2010


Vimy is also mostly presented as the "birth of Canada" in English Canada. In Quebec high school history books, it's almost passed over.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:24 AM on April 10, 2010


Wow, lots of Vimy hate here.

Vimy Ridge isn't seen as important because it was a big bloody battle in which we participated. We participated in lots of those throughout the war, few of which are remembered. It's considered crucial to the formation of the national identity because it was the first time the Canadian Corps fought together on a large scale and won--an entirely Canadian victory. At the start of the war, Canada was considered a manpower pool that would augment the British forces. The defence minister of the day, Sam Hughes, fought successfully to form our own forces and to fight as Canadians. Vimy is seen as the culmination of that process because, after the British and the French failed to take the ridge, the Canadian Corps was successful at it, in part because we innovated in the use of certain tactics such as the creeping barrage and the use of sound-ranging for effective counter-battery fire (among others).

It's not a tale of valor and glory. Canadians seem to love our condemnations of war more than our victories--the slogan of Remembrance Day, when we honour our war dead, is "never again". One of the best selling books in Canada about WWI is Timothy Findley's The Wars, which is about little so much as the sheer insanity of WWI.

It's a story about a people succeeding on their own. It's hyperbole to describe it as a birthing moment, but it was definitely a significant point in our independence and the developing coherence of our national identity. There's a good reason we have a national inferiority complex: Throughout our history we've been dominated by larger and more powerful nations to whom we're considered a loyal appendage. Even today, we're still expected to toe the line for the U.S.--look at the grief we got for not going to Iraq, as if it were unthinkable that we wouldn't support the U.S.
posted by fatbird at 8:41 AM on April 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


The attempt to wrangle a particular military victory into some sort of pseudo-nationalistic birth-moment (with repeated emphasis on how other armies had failed at this particular task) ...

... is exactly the kind of propaganda that feeds the Conservatives currently in minority power. They LOVE this sort of jingoistic stuff that brings us all back to a simpler time (pre-dating even donut ubiquity) when Canada was mostly rural, plain and WHITE.
posted by philip-random at 8:49 AM on April 10, 2010


I'm amazed that Kipling's delusion-free concern for those guys while being a card-carrying Imperialist didn't cause his head to explode.

There's a lot more depth to Kipling than you suggest here. Even before his son was killed at Loos (1915) his work showed no little ambivalence to the whole Empire thing.

"Go, bind your sons to exile, To serve your captives' need;"

I don't see how one can read that line without seeing irony in flashing lights.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:00 AM on April 10, 2010


Vimy Ridge was a good application of the tactics that allowed WWI to become mobile again, breaking the trench stalemate, but the Canadian forces were applying previously developed methods. No offense to Canadian ingenuity, but with the exception of Colonel McNaughton's particular method of sound ranging, by April of 1917 the techniques used at Vimy Ridge were well-known.

The creeping barrage was invented by the English back in 1915. Sound ranging was being worked on from a number of directions. Mostly, the battle was one of the first effective applications of what were known as Hutier tactics, which had been developed first by Russian general Aleksei Brusilov.

It's bitterly ironic that Australia and Canada take pride in the nationalism that they emerged from WWI with. It was, to a large degree, the rise of nationalism that led to WWI in the first place.
posted by MrVisible at 10:07 AM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:38 AM on April 10, 2010


I am very pleased that Stephen Harper is making a big deal of our last WWI veteran dying. This is one of the exceedingly few times I don't despise the man.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:40 AM on April 10, 2010


MrVisible, Pierre Berton specifically credits the Canadian Corps at Vimy with the development of the Creeping Barrage that worked there, and your Wikipedia cite only generally describes the development of various forms of moving barrages throughout the war. Do you have another cite for the Creeping Barrage being used earlier?
posted by fatbird at 11:06 AM on April 10, 2010


I am very pleased that Stephen Harper is making a big deal of our last WWI veteran dying. This is one of the exceedingly few times I don't despise the man.


Harper wraps himself in the Canadian flag, which is great if you're a Tim's chugging wildcat driving your Ram 3000 around Cochrane, Alberta, but his Tory-blue nationalism schtick makes me queasy.

On As It Happens, John Babcock's (grand?)daughter explained he really didn't want a state funeral.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:12 AM on April 10, 2010


I just think that it is appropriate to have a significant moment of silence, thought, and thanks for the last veteran of a major war. I hope it's not all about this one last man, though: it should be for all those that fought.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:16 AM on April 10, 2010


Just off the bat:
http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/worldwar1/p/prcreepingb.htm
http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/interactive/creeping-barrage
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWcreeping.htm

Whatever the case, it wasn't long after Vimy that this sort of barrage was out of favor anyway. It tore up the ground that the infantry had to traverse to get to the enemy, and days' worth of shelling might have been damaging to the entrenched enemy, but it gave plenty of time for ample reserves to be called up. Short, precise bombardments lasting hours became the next artillery fad, made possible in part by advances in listening post technology.
posted by MrVisible at 11:25 AM on April 10, 2010


Canadians seem to love our condemnations of war more than our victories

As you & every fucking person and nation should.
posted by lalochezia at 11:34 AM on April 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


We Canucks are what I call 'quietly patriotic'.

We love our country. We fumble through our national anthem at sporting events, not because we aren't proud, but because the ending can be hard to sing. Remembrance Day is marked by the mass wearing of the poppy on our jackets for a week or so ahead of November 11.

My father emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada in part because Canadians helped liberate Holland from the Nazis. That makes me happy to have been born in Canada, that Canadians had the good character to step up and help put down oppression.

Mostly we Canucks want to live in peace, except for when a fight breaks out at a hockey game.
posted by bwg at 6:28 PM on April 10, 2010


When I think of Canada in WWI, I always think of the Senate murals and the scandal of the Ross rifles.

This is a good reminder for Senators, even if they have Gen. Dallaire.
posted by QIbHom at 6:00 AM on April 13, 2010


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