With the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge fast approaching, it seemed to be a good time to delve into Vimy, Pierre Berton’s popular account of the Canadian exploits to capture a strategic spot on the Western Front.
Berton set out “to tell not just what happened but also what it was like.” (Author’s note, p 313) He interviewed survivors and combed through old diaries, memoirs, letters, newspaper accounts and oral histories. The result is a lively account of Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 – when the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together for the first (and only) time – the events leading to it and the mopping up afterwards.
We learn about the months of planning and training, where all men were taught the plans. The novel strategies like creeping barrage. The tunnelling into chalk to place everyone and everything just so.
The men in the trenches lived with death – and slept with it. Jim Curtis of Calgary was so cold and so tired one night that he crawled under the blankets with a group of strangers only to discover the following morning that they were all corpses awaiting burial. … A group of ten gunners digging a pit for a trench mortar in a French cemetery worked their way down through six layers of corpses and thought nothing of hanging their canteens on protruding shinbones: the dead were part of the landscape. (p 136)
Statistics roll easily off the tongue – 3600 Canadians killed in one battle. The “grisly moments” and “terror of combat” – are another matter. Soldiers “numbly fil(ed) away the horror in the recesses of memory to be retrieved at a later time when it could never again be discarded.” (p 226)
Canadian soldiers from across the country succeeded in a common cause. Several of them recount the feeling of standing at the top of the ridge and looking to the verdant “promised land” that had been hidden for so long.
Was it a proud moment for the Canadian troops? Sure, for those who survived. Was it a contributing factor in the evolution from colony to nation? No doubt. A transformative event for Canada? It has come to be known as such. The birth of a nation? That’s over the top.
Was it worth it? The answer, of course, is no. (p 308)
Berton brings home the challenge of honouring the brave deeds of the individuals without glorifying the war.
Vimy was published in 1986, just before the 70th anniversary of the battle. The original cover showed a Victoria Cross on brown serge. The most recent edition sports a photo of Thomas Ricketts. Ricketts, a fresh-faced soldier in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, wasn’t at Vimy … Newfoundland wasn’t yet part of Canada. Ouch!
With so many books on the list, I’ve decided not to reread any for Great War 100 Reads. That means no full review of Jane Urqhuart’s novel, The Stone Carvers, which I read about 15 years ago. Building the Vimy Memorial is a central event in a parable about the redemptive quality of art. Worth a read.