Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

The Vimy Trap

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The mission of the Vimy Foundation is to preserve and promote Canada’s First World War legacy as symbolized with the victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, a milestone where Canada came of age and was then recognized on the world stage. … Inspired by the heroic victory of the Canadian Forces at Vimy Ridge, the Vimy Foundation believes that the key to a successful future lies in knowing one’s past, and that the remarkable story of Vimy should be shared with young people from across the country. (Vimy Foundation website)

Ball cap fronts feature an image of the Vimy Memorial and ‘VIMY’ ‘1917’, while the Royal Canadian Legion Poppy silhouette is embroidered onto the brim. ‘BIRTH OF A NATION’ has been incorporated onto the right side while the Royal Canadian Legion logo and the colours representing the four Canadian Divisions who fought together for the first time complete the design. (Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Store)

Two odd motifs to mark the centenary of Vimy Ridge. Can a country be born or come of age by its men being slaughtered in a faraway land? Can swag keep that country alive?

In The Vimy Trap or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift ask some bold and uncomfortable questions about WW1 and Canada’s role in it.

By Vimyism we mean a network of ideas and symbols that centre on how Canada’s Great War experience somehow represents the country’s supreme triumph – a scaling of a grand height of honour and bravery and maturity, a glorious achievement – and affirm that the war itself and anyone who fought and died in it should be unconditionally revered an commemorated – and not least because it marked the country’s birth. (p 9)

Presenting extensive historical research,* The Vimy Trap shows how the Vimyist interpretation doesn’t bear out. It documents that any nationalistic pride in 1917 was countered by the conscription crisis and resulting divisions between English and French Canada. The prevailing attitude in the decades following the war was of a hard lesson in futility and a cry for peace. The more recent “birth of a nation” and “coming of age as a nation” portrayals have grown from occasional peeps to a dominant narrative given official credence, especially by the government in power in Canada for almost 10 years from 2006.

The book is not without flaws. The authors occasionally get caught up in their own rhetoric. At some points they overstate their case, ignoring the opposing evidence they present. Or they might overstate the opposing evidence, setting up a straw man to easily knock down.

Compare, for example, how the Vimy Monument itself is characterized. From several viewpoints, they show that it was built with a dual purpose: a call for peace and a memorial to those who were killed:

  • In the application guidelines: “‘It is not the intention that this monument should glorify war or suggest the arrogance of a conqueror. Backtracking slightly, the guidelines then announced that an expression of ‘the spirit of victory’ was essential to ‘immortalize Canada’s defenders’ and to ‘convey a feeling of gratitude that out of this great conflict a new hope has sprung for the future prosperity under peaceful conditions.’ Thus the Canadian soldiers who had lost their lives ‘in the service of humanity’ were to be hailed without in any way glorifying the war in which they had fought.” (p 141)
  • Walter Allward, designer of the monument, wanted to create “something beautiful” that was “worthy of the men who gave their lives and, as a protest in a quiet way against the futility of war, may make men regret that humanity has to go to war instead of being proud of it.” (p 135)
  • “Vimy is, paradoxically, both Victory Column and Garden of Gethsemane. This derives from the decision in the early 1920s to inscribe upon the monument the names of missing soldiers.” (p 157)

Yet in describing the Great War exhibit now in the Canadian War Museum, “the great Vimy Memorial too undergoes a transformation – it is not Allward’s ‘sermon against war,’ or the peace monument so many people thought it was in 1936, but a war memorial paying tribute to Canada’s soldiers.” (p 236)

They complain that Frederick Varley’s starkly anti-war painting For What? is “consigned to a corner without the benefit of careful lighting and high profile enjoyed by other paintings in the (Canadian War Museum) exhibition.” (p 241) While I share their criticism about the particular selections on display from the extensive art collection, I find that most of the art in the museum is treated like ill-lit wallpaper.

Despite the inconsistencies, McKay and Swift make a good case for looking behind the Vimyism for a more nuanced view of Canada in WW1. Birth of a nation or coming of age? No. More like a step on the continuing path, with much still to learn about peace.


* Including 60 pages of endnotes and 25 pages of additional reading, all in very small type.

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Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at greatwar100reads.wordpress.com.

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