The Battle of Vimy Ridge was first seen by many as a horrific event due to the thousands of soldiers killed, but at the same time, there was also a deep sense of pride for the contribution that Canada made. The day after the battle begun, The Vancouver Sun ran the headline, “Famous Ridge the Scene of Many Gory Battles Was Stormed and Carried by Warriors from Canada.” It was not long until it became seen as the driving force contributing to Canada coming into existence as an independent nation with its own identity. Many Canadians view the Battle of Vimy Ridge as being the turning point that led the allies to win The Great War.
Was Vimy Ridge a core element of Canada’s founding, or is all of what we were taught by the state and academics based on a myth? There have been several works written by historians on the Battle of Vimy Ridge with the patriotic glorification of war narratives, but only a few have published views that differ from the norm by looking at the Battle of Vimy Ridge through a critical lens. Most of us in Canada are aware of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, how the battle unfolded, and what led up to the battle of 1917. The Battle of Vimy Ridge has been taught in schools across the country for many years. What the high school courses do not do is provide an examination of how perceptions of the event have changed and for the most part, it is not challenged: students are not taught alternate ways of thinking and do not learn to critically analyze. There has been a considerable amount of historical discussion and debate in recent years around whether Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge or if this narrative is a long-held myth.
Throughout history, we have mainly only ever known narratives by so-called “experts”: scholars, governments, elites, etc. Even in our society today, most of our media is heavily influenced by those who have wealth and power. Any ideas that are not in line with the capitalist ideology typically do not get published or produced.
According to J.L. Granatstein, there are several myths around Canada and Vimy Ridge including: only Canadians fought in the battle, Vimy Ridge won the war for the allies, and Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge.
Canadians did prove themselves at Vimy Ridge, but it would not have been possible without the contribution from the British Army. This gets left out of the narrative about Vimy Ridge told in Canada. The key planners were all British officers, and the commander of the Canadian Corps was from the British Army. Three of the four divisions were led by Canadians but many of them were British immigrants to Canada.
The attack on Vimy Ridge was largely a diversion to keep German troops in Northern France so that the scheduled attack on Aisne River would succeed. All the other British offences on the Arras front resulted in high death tolls and minimum gains which made the Battle of Vimy Ridge stand out as being more successful than it actually was. However, it was still small on the large scale as most people outside of Canada are unaware of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and are only aware of the overall battle of Arras which Vimy Ridge was part of.
In 1914, Canada was a colony, and therefore, if Britain went to war, Canada had to as well. By 1917, Canada had an army of over 400,000 soldiers. The size of Canada’s army, along with the Battle of Vimy Ridge, caused Canadians to have tremendous amounts of pride, and that is what is needed to become an autonomous nation.
One important factor that is often left out is how mandatory enlistment drove wedges between different groups, according to Granatstein, “That issue [conscription] tore Canada apart, pitting French against English, labour against capital, farmers against city dwellers.” There were even riots against conscription in Montreal. While Vimy Ridge may have helped build Anglo-Canadian nationality, very few Francophones enlisted, and they did not think Britain’s imperialist war was of concern to them. It may have helped with strengthening a national identity for Quebec, but the war caused more division between Anglophones and Francophones than it did uniting the country.
According to Inglis (a masters student at Simon Fraser University) the perceived significant victory at Vimy Ridge, and the impact felt because of that, was the moment that the Canadian soldiers who were immigrants from Britain began to feel Canadian. As a result of the success at Vimy Ridge, Canada was given greater military independence, a stronger voice in the Imperial War Cabinet, and a seat at the Paris Peace Conference.
Inglis states that after Confederation, nationalism and imperialism were the two main ideas for the future of Canada. They were loyal to the British Empire, but many did not want to give away Canadian independence.
In the 1880s, Canada had economic problems and “felt the need to create a cohesive national heritage.” Canada’s first contribution to ‘Empire Building’ was in 1812 when they boosted the role of the militia. It gave Canadians the sense that the Empire was as much theirs as it was Britain’s. In the 1890s there was a renewed fear of the United States, which resulted in closer ties with Britain. Closer ties did not necessarily mean reduced autonomy, but instead being able to have Britain’s influence and power when needed.
“In fact, some proponents foresaw a Canada with a greater capacity for growth than Britain and thus and eventual leading role in the Empire.”
Canada’s participation in the Boer War, specifically the victory at Paardeberg, made Canada’s military significant in the Empire. Monuments were created and veterans met on February 27th to remember Paardeberg Day. This created national Canadian patriotism and pride. Historians state that the Boer War brought Canada closer to independence, and Canadian nationhood became recognized by the world. After the Boer War, there was a movement to strengthen the militia which resulted in a renewed pride in Canadian nationhood.
After the outbreak of war in 1914, Canadians started to recognize and celebrate how they were different from Britain. They thought that the debt Britain owed to Canada would give Canada a better status with more leverage after the war.
Luke Harris agrees that World War I contributed to developing a national consciousness but that the Battle of Vimy Ridge was not significant in Canada achieving legislative independence under the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Harris states that the “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.” The Battle of Vimy Ridge resulted in the death of 3,598 Canadian soldiers and 7,004 were wounded.
Many historians argue that the rights and freedoms Canadians have today were a result of Canada’s participation in the First World War. The idea that soldiers fought for the values of democracy, freedom, Christianity, and civilization and that the enemy was autocratic and lawless. Harris states this narrative ignores both the political and economic factors that caused the war and that the root of World War I was due to imperialism and capitalism. Countries wanted more profits beyond what was inside their own country. This resulted in them expanding around the world for new markets and control over resources.
Millions of poor working-class men were recruited to fight in the war to achieve imperialist expansion and capitalist goals according to Harris. The ruling class used propaganda to convince the lower classes that the war was motivated by noble goals such as making the world safe for democracy.
Matt Barter is a third-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.
Vimy Ridge Myth #1: Only Canadians fought in the defining battle
One thought on “The Battle of Vimy Ridge: Where Canada Became a Nation or a Long-Held Myth”
Excellent article Matt! I’ve heard the phrase about Vimy Ridge and how it helped define Canada as a nation many times, but I never had a good understanding of the phrase until now.
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