The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the most carefully planned operation the Canadians fought during the First World War. The ridge was the site of several titanic battles, starting in October 1914, and a place where hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers had been killed or maimed in attempting to capture or hold the critically important geographical position. The 7-kilometre Vimy Ridge protected the coal-rich area around Lens that the Germans occupied and desperately needed to retain to supply their war effort. When the Canadians arrived at the foot of the western side of the ridge in October 1916, Vimy was a vast desert of shell craters and rotting corpses. The Canadians faced one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front. Under the command of British general Sir Julian Byng, the four Canadian divisions, with significant support from British engineers, gunners, and soldiers, prepared for the battle in April 1917. The assault on Vimy was part of a larger British push, the Arras offensive, which was, in turn, a supporting attack for the French Artois offensive to the south. Through meticulous preparation, training, determination, and sacrifice, the Canadians succeeded where the French armies had failed in the past. The Corps’ victory solidified its reputation among allies and opponents as an elite fighting force.
But Vimy is more than a battle. The unanswered question of Vimy is how the battle became a focal point of remembrance and an icon of Canadian identity. Why do Canadians remember Vimy instead of the 1915 Battle of Second Ypres or the 1918 Hundred Days campaign? The former was the first major engagement where the Canadians faced chlorine gas and stopped the overwhelming German forces; the latter was hailed at the time as the most important series of battles by the Canadian Corps. To pull back the gaze further, why do Canadians celebrate Vimy more intensely than they mark battles of the Second World War, such as the Battle of the Atlantic, D-Day, or the liberation of the Dutch in 1945? How do we make sense of the proud Canadians in 2007 who returned to Vimy Ridge wearing hats and T-shirts that proclaimed “Vimy: Birth of the Nation.” No one would attribute that origin story to the battles of Ridgeway, Paardeberg, or Ortona, to Normandy, Kapyong, or the Medak Pocket. Vimy is unique.
The value that Canadians attach to the battle and the memorial is forever linked to the Great War. For many English Canadians the war marked Canada’s coming of age, as its primary land formation, the Canadian Corps, spearheaded a number of Allied offensives and delivered hard-fought victories. The war was perceived differently in French Canada, which had a distinct culture and identity, and by many of the two million immigrants who had come to Canada since the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the war was an important transformative event for all. The enormous exertions on the home front saw millions of shells produced for the war effort, crops produced by farmers to feed the Allied nations, and unprecedented patriotic support of the war effort and the soldiers. Major social changes, from industrialization, income tax, and enfranchisement for women to deeper government intervention into the lives of Canadians, were ushered in by the war.
Copyright © 2017 by Tim Cook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.