Vimy: celebrating the heroics of the unthinkable


It is, as I write, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which is touted as “the birth of our nation”. Thousands of Canadians have travelled to the site. Steve Pakin of TVO fame, took his sons. Justin Trudeau also went and delivered a typically earnest speech.

It is difficult to separate the battle from the First World War itself, let alone appreciate either the heroics or the carnage. Vimy was just one of the battles in which the Canadians fought. Others included Passchendaele, St-Eloi, Mont Sorrel, Hill 70, Beaumont Hamel, Cambrel and Mons. In all, over 625,000 Canadians took part in the war. Ten percent—one in ten—of them died. This from a country of only 8 million people. And in just four years The Great War exterminated 17 million people on both sides and injured another 20 million.

Vimy, located 175 kilometres north of Paris, was a point on the stalled front line. The battle itself was a diversionary tactic, meant to draw the German attention away from a planned French assault to the south as a part of the larger Battle of Arras. Vimy had already cost 100,000 French lives. The Vimy diversion involved 15,000 Canadians. Nearly 1000 heavy artillery guns rained a million shells on the Germans for a week prior to the battle. In the end, the ridge was won—at a cost of 3600 Canadians dead and 7000 wounded.

Brigadier-General Alexander Ross, commander of the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and later head of the Canadian Legion, was an ardent promoter Vimy’s legacy. In 1936 he mobilized five shiploads of Canadian veterans to celebrate the ribbon cutting at the new Vimy monument. On the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1967, remembering that day on April 9, he coined the famous line, “I thought then that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” The words stuck.

It’s pretty easy to see how this baptism of blood and a young Canada emerging out of Britain’s shadow would resonate with Canadians. But not all. Many French Canadians and First Nations people don’t see it that way. Quebecois see Canada as an enterprise stretching back to 1608 with the founding of Quebec City and even earlier. First Nations people have a much longer history stretching back 12,000 years, and see themselves as the original inhabitants, not merely Canadians or North Americans.

I don’t really like whole idea of celebrating this war or any war. The definition of war is failure. Failure politically, and failure as a human species. The First World War was a particularly stupid war. Its roots can be traced in two lines: the industrialization of Europe, and the lingering influence of its cross-bred royal families.

Industrialization demanded two things: technology and raw materials. The technology was local—and competitive, pitting country against country and inevitably fuelling nationalism. Raw materials in Europe were scarce and therefore not local. The British and French had neatly solved this by empire-building for three centuries. Russia lagged behind, rich in resources but poor in technology. Modern Germany was a new country without an empire, but needed one to feed its rapidly growing industrial machine. And the best way to showcase new technology? Arming up. Ships, guns, airplanes, tanks, and putting them to work. Boys and their toys.

The boys in question, Nicholas II, Tzar of Russia, King George V of England and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, were cousins, all grandsons of Queen Victoria, whose offspring sat on the thrones of nine European countries. Wilhelm was decidedly unstable, suffering from a deformed arm at birth and an oversized inferiority complex. Nicholas and George were healthy and chummy, and charmingly disinclined to include Wilhelm in family activities. With the three countries arming up, it was like giving loaded guns to toddlers, with predictable results.

The cause of the war comes down to cocksmanship. But I’ve completely skipped over the horrors of this war, the trenches, the mud, wet and cold, the rats and disease, the constant shelling, and the pointless charges over “no man’s land” into machine gun fire and the slaughter of men and horses. Hell would have been kinder.

Yet here we are, 100 years later, still fighting. Since 1945, the U.S. has been at war constantly for 67—all but 5—of those 72 years. Canada has supported this collective insanity with soldiers and/or arms the whole time. So for all that, is the world a better place?


Popular Posts