Vimy Ridge: Birth of a Nation?

10 04 2012

Christopher Moore has posted some thoughts about the recent anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. For the benefit of non-Canadian readers, I should explain that Vimy Ridge is sort of the Canadian equivalent of what Gallipoli is for Australians– a battle in a British war that is somehow seen as marking the transition to Canadian nationhood. Apparently there was a big ceremony at Vimy Ridge a few days ago, attended by Governor-General David Johnston and thousands of Canadians.  See here, here, and here.

Academic historians have, of course, discredited much of the mythology surrounding Vimy Ridge. Among academic historians it is well-known that British troops played an important role in battle– it was British artillery that paved that way for the success of the Canadians. It is also well-known that many of the so-called “Canadians” in the battle were very recent British immigrants with tenuous loyalties to the Dominion of Canada, as opposed to the Empire as a whole. Indeed, as Geoffrey Hayes, Michael Bechthold, and Andrew Iarocci pointed out, individuals born in the British Isles probably outnumbered people born in Canada at the battle. In part, this was a function of the disproportionate numbers of British immigrants in the “Canadian” Expeditionary Force in the First World War.

It was once traditional for people giving Canadian history lectures to distinguish the English-speaking Canadians, who were enthusiastic about the First World War, and the French Canadians, who were neutralist. We now know that the situation was more nuanced than that and that in parts of Ontario that had been settled in the late eighteenth century, enlistment rates were as low as they were in rural Quebec. Many n-th generation Anglo-Saxon Canadians probably viewed that First World War much as their American cousins did, which isn’t surprising since many of them subscribed to magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. We should remember that until early 1917, most Americans favoured remaining neutral.

In the early 1920s, few Canadians would have identified Vimy Ridge as the most important Canadian battle of the war. (Personally I think that the Canadians’ most valuable contribution came in the last 100 days of the war in 1918). I suspect that many Canadian newspaper readers in, say, 1922, would have identified the Somme as the most important battle for the CEF. The claim that Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge really began to be made in earnest in the mid-1960s, when Canada adopted its new flag and went through an identity crisis of sorts. (It helped that the 50th anniversary of Vimy Ridge and the 100th anniversary of Confederation were in the same year).  As Dr. Jearn Martin points out, the claim that Vimy Ridge represented the birth of the nation has never resonated in Quebec, where many people continue to regard Canadian participation in the First World War as a profoundly anti-national act.

The claim that Vimy Ridge represented the birth of, or even an intensification of pre-existing Canadian national sentiment, has long struck me as faintly absurd. There were, of course, nationalist movements throughout the British Empire that attempted to use the First World War to make a bid for independence. For instance, there were risings in South Africa by Afrikaners who were still unreconciled to British rule, the 1915 Mutiny in the Indian army, and anti-British guerilla warfare in the Punjab and the jungles of Malaya. (It should be noted that the British were not above trying to exploit nationalist discontent in the colonial possessions of their enemies, most notably in Ottoman Turkey and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even as they fought to suppress nationalist insurrections within their own Empire).

Above all, there was the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. The juxtaposition of the Irish rebellion against British rule at Easter 1916 and the efforts by the Canadian soldiers on behalf of the British Empire at Easter 1917 illustrates the enormous problems with the efforts of 1960s Canadian nationalists to try to depict Vimy Ridge as in any way connected to nationalism. The suggest that Vimy Ridge intensified Canada’s desire to be independent of Britain or the First World War was Canada’s “War of Independence” is to stretch the truth so far that it breaks.

We don’t know whether German military strategists paid much attention to the state of public opinion in Canada and the other White Dominions before 1914. However, it appears that diplomatic experts in Berlin believed that Australia would unilaterally declare independence from Britain should the mother country involve itself in a major European conflict. This prediction rested on the assumption that the Australians would do the practical thing and protect their own interests by opting out of Britain’s war by issuing a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Of course, the Australians and the Canadians did the exact opposite of what the Germans had anticipated: they drew closer to the land of their ancestors. As one Australian observer put it, the German diplomats might as “truthfully prophesied that Yorkshire would declare its independence or that Manchester would become as republic” as the independence of Australia. [1] The same could be said for English-speaking Canada.

The “birth of the nation” interpretation of Vimy Ridge implicitly equates the Dublin Rising of 1916 and Gandhi’s long campaign for Indian independence with loyal British colonies fighting in a British war. I’m certain many Irish and Indian nationalists, of which I am not, would find this interpretation deeply offensive. I find it merely laughable.

The main reason the Vimy-as-birth-of-the-nation idea has caught on in Canada is that most Canadians are woefully ignorant of the histories of the other part of the Empire of which Canada was once a part. Canadians are also ignorant of the ways in which their history intersects with that of those of other erstwhile parts of the Empire. For instance, few Canadians know that the Komagata Maru episode in 1914 touched off a series of Sikh revolts in India.

Fewer still know that one of the war aims of Sir Robert Borden, Canada’s Prime Minister during this conflict, was the acquisition of Jamaica as a Canadian colony.  Borden believed that the acquisition of “subject races” by Canada would be a good thing because it would assimilate conditions within the Dominion to those prevailing in the British Empire as a whole.[2]

For those interested in learning more about the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, I suggest that they look at the Irish website, which has a series of podcasts by Professor Michael Laffan on the Easter Rising. I defy any open-minded person to study the Easter Rising and then declare that Vimy Ridge saw the birth of Canada as a separate nation.

I would also ask proponents of the Vimy-as-nation-building thesis to study the Easter 1918 riots in Quebec City, which were sparked by federal efforts to enforce conscription in Quebec’s capital city. As a recent article in the Canadian Historical Review made clear, these riots created fears that Canada might be plunged into civil war. The Quebec City riots required the dispatch of English-speaking troops to assert the authority of the Dominion government, because Francophone soldiers and local police had become unreliable in its eyes. The riots were followed by the first twentieth-century discussion in the Quebec legislature of the possibility of the secession of Quebec from both Canada and the British Empire, proposals which would have been unthinkable in 1914. [3] Great going!!!

I’m deeply opposed to this mythologizing about Vimy Ridge being the birth of a nation. First, it rests on a tissue of lies. As somewhat who cares about historical accuracy, I don’t like that.

I also think that the celebration of the Canadians who fought for the land of their ancestors (Britain) at Vimy Ridge is extremely dangerous. As someone who is a dual citizen, I have given careful thought to the issue of national loyalty. I regard my loyalties to Canada and Britain as congruent, not because both countries share an anachronistic head of state, but because both countries are liberal democracies. In that sense, I would see no conflict between someone being a dual citizen of, say, the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany, provided the person in question regarded the national interests of these two states are distinct.

That being said, I think that hyphenated Canadianism is pernicious. I do believe that immigrants to Canada and their children should, while living on Canadian soil, try to forget their old world ethnic loyalties and focus on participation on the civic nation of Canada. The same is true of immigrants to the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, France, etc.

What we have with the Vimy Ridge celebrations is a thinly disguised form of hyphenated Canadianism—Canadians of British ancestry (such as Governor-General Johnston) are celebrating the decision of early twentieth century Canadian residents to return to Europe to fight on behalf of the land of their ancestors. The pining for the Old Red Ensign flag and jubilation some people with British surnames felt when the names “Royal Canadian Navy” and “Royal Canadian Air Force” were recently resurrected by a minister surnamed MacKay, these phenomena are confined almost exclusively to the half of the Canadian population that traces its ancestry to the British Isles. In my experience, the French quarter of the Canadian population and the more than 25% of Canadians of neither British nor French ancestry care nothing for these symbols.

Ethnic nationalism of the sort represented by the Vimy Ridge celebrations has the potential to be an existential threat of Canada. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we saw some people advocate Canadian participation in this war on the grounds that Canada’s was “an Anglo-Saxon country”. We thus saw the revival and modernisation of one of the most dangerous of all ideas, race patriotism.  As Canadian academic Srdjan Vucetic has noted in a recent book published by Stanford University Press, the idea that the Anglo-Saxon countries ought to hang together is deeply entrenched the political cultures of the United States, Britain, and Australia. In my opinion, this idea has contributed to some really bad policy decisions in all of these countries. For instance, the United States has spent a trillion dollars and thousands of lives in its recent wars. It’s going to take some time for GDP growth to make up for that last money.  The dead soldiers are never going to come back. But in the final analysis, Britain and the United States will still exist at the end of these wars. In Canada, the potential implications of ethnic nationalism are much more serious and they do pose an existential threat to the nation-state.

I feel passionate about this issue because I attended a high school in a Toronto suburb in the early 1990s where there were tensions between students of Serbian ancestry and those from other ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia. Some young men Canadian birth went to Bosnia in the 1990s to fight in the armies of their respective ethnic groups. They may even have ended up shooting each other. More recently, we have seen Jewish and Muslim students rioting at Concordia University or Tamils blocking traffic in Toronto because of events on the other side of the world.

It is difficult for the host population to demand exclusive loyalty to Canada on the part of immigrant ethnic groups when some members of the country’s dominant ethnic group, people of British ancestry, persist in identifying with the land of their ancestors and celebrating people who fought wars on behalf of the ethnic homeland. On a fundamental level, the British immigrants who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914 are no different from the Croatian-Canadians and Serbian-Canadians who slugged it out in Bosnia in the 1990s.  Of course, the same might be said of the German-Canadians and German-Americans who made it back to Germany in the summer of 1914 in time to enlist in the German army. The Canadians who fought in the First World War should not be condemned, but neither should they be honoured.  Enough time has passed that we should be able to study their motivations in a detached and non-emotional way.

The really sad thing about the recent Vimy Ridge celebrations is that David Johnston, a former academic who once devoted his life to the pursuit of truth, decided to legitimize the event with his presence.

[1] Neville Meaney, “In History’s Page: Identity and Myth” in Australia’s Empire, 378.

[2] Borden to Sir George Perley, 3 June 1916, in Sir Robert Borden Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, microfilm C-4314. Borden’s comments have been cited in the existing historical literature on Canada’s wartime plans for southern expansion P.G. Wigley, “Canada and Imperialism: West Indian Aspirations and the First World War” in Canada and the Commonwealth Caribbean, edited by Brian Douglas Tennyson (Lanham : University Press of America, 1988);  Brinsley Samaroo. ‘The Politics of Disharmony: the debate on the political union of the British West Indies and Canada, 1884-1921’ Revista/Review Interamericana 7 (1977):46-59.

[3] Martin F. Auger, “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots”  Canadian Historical Review 89 (2008): 503-540.

See also: Hayes, Geoffrey, Michael Bechthold, and Andrew Iarocci. 2007. Vimy Ridge: a Canadian reassessment. Waterloo, Ont: Wilfrid Laurier University Press



One response

29 10 2016
Laine Frajberg

The writer makes some valid points but errs (in my view) when he characterizes the Vimy victory as simply Anglo-Canadians celebrating a British-Canadian-or British ?- victory.The opposing view (that I share) is that while the Canadians who embarked for Europe in 1914 regarded themselves simply as British subjects living in Canada,after Vimy these same men began to develop a distinct CANADIAN patriotism.And this distinct patriotism spread,slowly, but steadily, to the rest of Anglo-Canada.And this growing feeling of national distinctness (from Britain) was behind Canada’s successful drive for diplomatic autonomy in the 1920’s-a drive which culminated in Canada’s being granted de-facto independence in 1931.(Statute of Westminister) So in that sense Vimy marks the beginning of Canada’s ascent to independent nationhood.(The Fathers of Confedreration had no such objective in 1867-and would have regarded individuals who favoured complete independence from Britain as traitors.Galt did,however,favour economic independence in matters of trade )It is,however,probably,an exaggeration to imply as Gen.Ross did that Canada,itself was born at Vimy.

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