April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Fought as part of the larger British-led Battle of Arras during the First World War, the battle was the first instance in which all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) fought together. The success of the unified Canadian Corps in capturing the ridge from German troops, after failed efforts to do so by British and French forces, has steadily grown in significance in recent decades to attain the status of a founding myth, in which Vimy represented Canada’s birth as a nation. This mythologized narrative obscures the true nature of an imperialist war that led to the death of millions, while furthering the revival of a militaristic Canadian nationalism that lays the foundation for future wars.
Nearly 100,000 soldiers in the CEF, then a part of the British Expeditionary Force, participated in the Battle of Vimy Ridge from April 9-12, 1917. Supported by a massive creeping artillery barrage against three defending German divisions, Canadian soldiers engaged in fierce fighting as they climbed the ridge, which at a height of 475 metres offered an unobstructed view for several kilometres. The Canadian Corps captured most of the ridge by the end of the first day and managed to hold it while attaining the rest of their objectives over subsequent days. The Canadians suffered 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded before German troops retreated east.
In their book The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, authors Ian McKay and Jamie Swift use the term “Vimyism” to describe the nationalist mythology centred around Vimy Ridge that has come to dominate portrayals of the First World War in Canada. For McKay and Swift, Vimyism denotes “a network of ideas and symbols that centre on how Canada’s Great War experience somehow represents the country’s supreme triumph … that the war itself and anyone who fought and died in it should be unconditionally revered and commemorated—and not least because it marked the country’s birth.”
Other tenets of Vimyism as described by McKay and Swift include Canadian exceptionalism, wherein Canadians are said to have succeeded where others failed; the idea that aside from a few malcontents, “the vast majority of Canadians believed that death on the Western Front was noble”; and the central founding myth that the rights and freedoms Canadians enjoy today were established by its soldiers in the First World War, ostensibly fighting for values such as democracy, freedom, Christianity and civilization against an autocratic and lawless enemy.
The Role of Imperialism
Such noble rhetoric bears little relation to the political and economic factors that actually caused the war. The First World War at its root was a product of imperialism, the process by which the capitalists of each country, in their search for ever-greater profits beyond the home market, expand their operations around the world seeking access to new markets and control over resources. In his contemporary book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Vladimir Lenin described the real goals of the Allies and Central Powers: “The war of 1914-18 was imperialist (that is, an annexationist, predatory, war of plunder) on the part of both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies and spheres of influence of finance capital, etc.”
To recruit millions of poor and working class soldiers to fight in the trenches, however, the ruling class in each country needed to maintain the fiction that the war was motivated by more high-minded goals: “defence of the Fatherland”, to “make the world safe for democracy,” and so on. Canada was no exception. There is a close resemblance between Vimyist mythology and the war propaganda that dominated official Canada throughout the First World War. During the war, bourgeois politicians, the press and many elements of civil society all trumpeted the virtues of “civilization” as supposedly embodied by the British Empire and its loyal Dominion of Canada. Along with these jingoistic bromides came a healthy dose of anti-German sentiment, bolstered by sensationalist reports from Belgium of the evil “Hun” bayoneting babies, raping nuns and crucifying Canadian soldiers.
Anti-war Sentiment in the Interwar Period
Perhaps even more striking than its resemblance to contemporary propaganda, however, is the massive gulf between the tenets of Vimyism and how the battle and war were seen by returning soldiers—and, as the years passed, increasingly large sentiments of Canadian society. The senseless butchery of industrialized warfare destroyed an entire generation that suffered death in the trenches, returned home permanently wounded and traumatized, or lost beloved partners, friends and family members.
Where John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, with its jingoistic exhortation to “take up our quarrel with the foe”, had previously symbolized pro-war fervor in Canada, the interwar years saw a new skepticism towards war that found expression in art by returning veterans. Group of Seven artist Fred Varley’s haunting painting For What?—whose very title summed up the pointlessness of the war—depicted a surreal landscape of mud and shell craters, where weary soldiers rested in between burying the corpses of their comrades. Writer Charles Yale Harrison depicted similar disillusionment in his anti-war novella Generals Die in Bed (1930), which highlighted the very different experiences of the war between those sitting comfortably behind the front lines, and the poor and working class soldiers who did most of the fighting and dying.
The construction of war memorials in virtually every Canadian city and town following the Armistice was not itself without controversy. In a trend that would be familiar to veterans of the Canadian war in Afghanistan, many of the same patriotic citizens who praised soldiers as national heroes during the war ignored and denigrated the flesh-and-blood human beings who returned home from it, shattered physically and mentally only to face grinding poverty and unemployment.
McKay and Swift describe much of the popular opposition at the time to building expensive war memorials that served no practical purpose:
Throughout much of the 1920s … a slew of leftists took potshots at war monuments as a way of dramatizing the social injustices of the post-1918 world. In 1921 the Halifax city council was urged to hire unemployed and disabled workers and veterans. The following year the local labour paper argued that “democracy” was the only suitable monument to the war dead, not the $50,000 monument the city had in mind. Socialist (and future Toronto mayor) James Simpson drew a portrait in 1921 of the profiteers, sitting “over their wines and in their luxurious automobiles,” talking of “the monuments they will erect to our gallant dead who fell in France,” all the while plotting to force those who had returned from the war to live in oppression and misery. A member of the Vancouver Women Workers decried military memorials in 1922. If you sought the true legacy of the war, she cried, look to the “overfilled hospitals, cemeteries and the extended bread lines.” The unveiling of the cenotaph in Vancouver was picketed by left-wing veterans who were themselves attacked. Another Vancouver veteran stated, “We do not want war shrines and war memorials,” but work. In the House of Commons, such progressives as J.S. Woodsworth, William Irvine, and Agnes Macphail made a regular point of arguing against war memorials. In 1923 Woodsworth quoted from one woman’s letter who argued that the men “who had the great misfortune to return to Canada with their lives” were entitled to the money that was otherwise going to be wasted on a memorial. He pointed out that Canada’s enormous accumulated war debt constituted “a very imposing war memorial, and one that is likely to prove very enduring indeed.”
Notably, speakers at the unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial—despite their portrayal of the war in terms of martial “valour” and “sacrifice”—did not in any way describe the Battle of Vimy Ridge as the “birth of the nation”. Historical accounts of the First World War in subsequent decades by Canadian writers spoke relatively little of Vimy. In his 1960 book Decisive Decades: A History of the Twentieth Century for Canadians, which served as a standard Ontario Grade 10 history textbook into the 1970s, historian A.B. Hodgetts wrote only four sentences on the Battle of Vimy Ridge, as part of a paragraph on the Battle of Arras.
The Origins of Vimyism
The rise of a specifically Canadian nationalism was a gradual process. The First World War undoubtedly contributed to the development of a national consciousness, though the extent to which it did so is debated among historians. The weakening of British economic and military power as a result of the war, and the simultaneous rise of the United States, played a major role in Canada’s distancing itself from the British Empire. Much has been made of Canada signing the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as a sign of its new independence, yet it did so in indented form along with the other Dominions, with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George signing on behalf of the entire empire. The precise nature of Canada’s relationship to the empire remained ambiguous until the Statute of Westminster in 1931 established the legislative independence of Canada and other self-governing Dominions. At no point during this period, however, did any public figure ascribe particular significance to Vimy as a symbol of Canadian independence.
McKay and Swift suggest that the emergence of Vimyism coincided with the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967. In the half-century since the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the demographics and culture of Canada had changed dramatically. The steadfast British nationalism that dominated English-speaking Canada during the war had given way to closer cultural, political and economic ties with the United States, a rising tide of Quebec nationalism and the perceived need for a more independent Canada to develop its own national symbols and myths. The Battle of Vimy Ridge, increasingly portrayed as a national achievement embodying Canadian unity, fit the bill perfectly.
Perhaps the most significant step in the road to Vimyism was the 1985 publication of the book Vimy by Pierre Berton, Canada’s most popular historian and described by McKay and Swift as “one of English Canada’s foremost twentieth-century mythmakers.” With his undeniable talent for storytelling, Berton’s account of the battle marked the moment at which the mythologized narrative we know today began to take shape, with the author describing the battle as the moment in which Canada “came of age”—even as he included less glowing details such as the March 1st raid preceding the battle, in which the use of phosgene and an unforeseen change in wind direction led to Canadian forces accidentally gassing their own troops.
In the years that followed publication of Berton’s book, Vimyist attitudes steadily grew in prominence in direct contrast to the dwindling number of Canadians who retained a living memory of the First World War. By the 21st century, Vimyism had found a particularly influential advocate in Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who led a conscious refurbishing of militarism by championing Canada’s identity as a “warrior nation”. The 2008 Citizenship Guide marked one of the most prominent official examples of the Vimyist mindset during the Harper era, invoking the words of Brig.-Gen. Alex Ross of the Dominion Council of the Canadian Legion: “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
Debunking Nationalist Myths
At this point, some may object to our negative portrayal of Vimyism. What is wrong, they might argue, with an inspiring national founding myth? Do not the basic facts remain that all four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time at Vimy Ridge, a relatively well-planned battle and a rare victory—a Canadian victory—in a war largely characterized by poor planning and mass slaughter for little gain?
From a historical point of view, there are many facts that call this simplified patriotic narrative into question. In The Vimy Trap, McKay and Swift detail objections from military historians to Berton’s account of the battle as a major victory in the war, fought by independent-minded Canadian soldiers using innovative techniques such as the creeping artillery barrage, and—in an unconventional move for the time— equipped with maps of the battlefield. The authors write:
[…] the majority of the Canadian Corps consisted of first-generation British immigrants; and as military historian Paul Dickson points out, only about a third of the troops sent overseas in the fall of 1914 were born in Canada. Even the native-born according to Dickson, “were often only one generation removed from Britain,” and six months after Vimy, Jean Martin shows, 55.48 per cent of the Canadian Corps was “foreign,” that is, born outside Canada. Offered a chance to serve in the military, most eligible men in Canada had given it a pass. Vimy, from this perspective, was a British victory.
The Canadian Corps was not autonomous. Functioning as an integral part of the British Expeditionary Force, it was not an independent national army. At most, the Canadian Corps was a “proto-national army.” Canadian soldiers were governed by British military law and subject to British military discipline. As Gary Sheffield points out, “the key role played by British units and formations and individual British officers in the 9 April 1917 attack” at Vimy Ridge cannot be ignored. The simple reason why Canadian soldiers found themselves north of Arras in early 1917 was that “the Canadian Corps was then part of the First British Army.” […]
Contrary to interpretations claiming that Canadian soldiers were trained to be exceptionally free-thinking and free-standing, in contrast to the servile, tradition-bound Brits, both Canadian and British soldiers, as members of the same army under the same general, were (unsurprisingly) “prepared to fight in a similar way.” If, as [Patrick] Brennan maintains, the barrage plans of the Canadian artillery were important to the Vimy assault, then some credit for them must surely go to Major Alan Brooke, staff officer of the Royal Artillery, who was ultimately responsible for that facet of the attack. Instead Brooke is conveniently written off as a “haughty Englishman.” Even the widespread dissemination of maps to soldiers was not so very original to the Canadians: the practice had already become standard within the BEF, having also been tried out by the French command. […]
Was this battle, as Berton states, “the greatest victory of the war”? As Sheffield remarks, with due scholarly gravitas, “It is not easy to see how this claim can be substantiated.” Vimy Ridge marked “only the northern flank of the Battle of Arras,” which was in turn an attempt only to divert German strength from the much bigger struggle to uproot the German army from France. Indeed, even the very identity of the particular, or overall, victory at Vimy is in some doubt. At least some of the German defenders, according to evidence gathered by [Andrew] Godefroy, thought they had scored a victory or at least a draw. The Germans were not necessarily deluded. In April 1917, the German high command had “adopted a largely defensive strategy in the west, designed to hold on to ground already won, while the war on the Eastern Front was decided.” […] In April 1917 the Germans even gave out awards to those in the 261st Prussian Reserve Infantry Regiment who had engaged in the “fierce fighting at Vimy Ridge” and “prevented a British breakthrough of the German lines between April 9 and 13 April 1917.”
As tends to be the case with history, the facts of the Battle of Vimy Ridge are more complex than the simplified mythology that defines Vimyism.
War and the Class Struggle in Canada
The larger danger of Vimyism, however, lies less in its account of the battle itself and more for what it obscures about the war as a whole. It is in many ways a case of “missing the forest for the trees”. The method of dialectical materialism—the philosophy of Marxism—is to understand an issue by looking at all of its constituent elements and their interaction with exterior factors, examining the contradictions between each component in order to better understand the whole. The overwhelming, often provincialist focus on the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a stirring moment of national unity and the birth of Canadian independence, obscures the real history of the battle itself and of Canada during the war. By drawing attention away from the larger nature of the First World War, it revives dangerous nationalist and militaristic myths of the same kind that drove more than 60,000 largely working class Canadian soldiers to their deaths from 1914-1918, and 10 million total in all the belligerent nations.
Contrary to the narrative of national unity, Canada during the First World War was marked by deep divisions and none deeper than the Conscription Crisis of 1917 that nearly tore the country apart. Where Vimyist ideologues portray a country fighting shoulder to shoulder, the Canadian home front was marked by deep Anglo-chauvinism promoted by the bourgeois media that portrayed Quebec—the population of which was far less enthusiastic about the prospect of fighting and dying an ocean away for the glory of the British Empire—as a province of shirkers and cowards. Mass protests and riots broke out across Quebec in 1918 as the Union government of Robert Borden sought to enforce conscription. Borden eventually deployed more than 1,200 soldiers from Ontario to violently put down the uprising. Officially, five civilians were killed and dozens more injured in gunfire during the Easter Monday riots.
Vimyism also overlooks the war profiteering that led to the deaths of many soldiers who were equipped with shoddy supplies, such as boots that quickly rotted in the mud and shovels with holes in them. Perhaps the most notorious example of profiteering was the Ross rifle, a Canadian-manufactured bolt-action rifle championed by Defence Minister Sam Hughes. Hughes also served as head of the Imperial Munitions Board of Canada, where he coordinated $1 billion worth of contracts. Despite the reputation of the Ross for constantly jamming and the tendency of its bayonet to fall off when fired, Hughes insisted on equipping all Canadian soldiers with the rifle and granted an $18 million subsidy to manufacturer Charles Ross. Though the Ross rifle was finally withdrawn in 1916 after public outrage and replaced with the British Lee-Enfield, the scandal-ridden Canadian war industry continued to do $2 million of business on a daily basis. These ill-gotten gains suggest the much-quoted observation of Lenin, who, when a comrade told him that “war is terrible”, is said to have replied, “Yes. But it is a terribly profitable thing.”
Above all, the mythologized narrative of the Battle of Vimy Ridge draws attention away from the imperialist nature of the First World War. The pointless slaughter of millions on the battlefields of Europe, which devastated whole societies, shattered survivors and their families and led to the outbreak of a new and even more terrible world war less than two decades later, was conducted for one purpose only: to guarantee the profit margins of a tiny minority of wealthy capitalists. The working masses who represent the vast majority of society and do the vast majority of the suffering and dying in war, must never forget this fact. We cannot allow the revival of the same national chauvinism and militarism that provided the ideological foundation for the First World War to do the same for future imperialist wars.
Every Remembrance Day, the myths of Vimyism are propagated to children and youth, who are told that they owe their “freedoms” to Canadian soldiers of the First World War. The Vimyist notion that Canada’s wars are fought not for profits, but for abstract values such as freedom and democracy, continues to be used by politicians and the bourgeois press to justify new imperialist wars, as was the case for Afghanistan. The working class of all nations must save future generations of their children from killing each other for the profits of the 1% and the capitalist class.
The First World War was once referred to as “the war to end all wars,” but in fact there is only one such war: the class war. To create a world of peace, let us wage that last war until the attainment of final victory for the working class: the achievement of a socialist society based not on profit, but on human need.
For international working class solidarity!
No war but the class war!