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

Anzac, Vimy, and Social Memory

26 04 2010

According to the BBC’s Sydney correspondent, Australians are debating whether the increased popularity of Anzac Day in recent years is helping to promote militarism and chauvinism in that country.  Two historians, Professors Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, have denounced Anzac Day and “the relentless militarisation of our history”. (To hear Professor Lake speak on this topic, click here).

Marilyn Lake

Anyway, I thought that this might be of interest to Canadian readers, especially since Vimy Ridge has a significance to Canadians similar to that of Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand.  In fact, something called Vimy Ridge Day was invented by our parliament in 2003 to supplement 11 November. In Australia and New Zealand, both Remembrance and Anzac Days are celebrated.

Anzac Cove, Turkey

The parallels between the social memories of the First World War in Canada and Australia are striking. In both cases, the citizens of increasingly multicultural countries pause each year to venerate men who died for an Empire that no longer exists.  In both countries, hard right people who pine for the good old days of the British Empire have latched onto the relevant holidays for present-day political purposes. In both countries, conservatives say  that military history is a very important, indeed central, part of the national historical narrative.

The place of Anzac, Vimy, and other events in military history in the social memories of Australia and Canada is especially striking when one considers that these countries are, thanks to lucky geography and the peaceful disposition of their inhabitants, among the least militarised societies on earth. Compare the histories of Canada and Australia to those of most of the 180 members of the UN and you will see just how pacific their histories are.  The militarization of Australian history described by Professor Lake is ironic because military force has probably played a less important role in the history of Australia than in the history of any other continent (unless you count the guards who watched over the first convict settlers as military). South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, have all been terribly scarred by war. Australia hasn’t.

Similarly, the striking thing about Canada’s past after 1815 is just how _unmilitary_ it is. (I admit that military conflict is a big part of Canadian history before 1815). With the exception of the 1885 Rebellion in Western Canada and the Battle of Batoche, Canada’s domestic history has been _very_ peaceful by international standards. The FLQ crisis was really the exception that proves the rule that Canada is peaceful. Yeah, many Canadians went to help the mother country out in the two world wars and South Africa.  The losses, although tragic, were light compared to those other countries. It’s true that there was a bit of food and gasoline rationing in Canada during WWII, although most British people wouldn’t have considered what we had real rationing at all. Toronto didn’t get bombed. Postwar, Canada made some contributions to UN missions around the world. These contributions are now honoured on the $10 bill.  A few Canadians still go to fight for their respective mother countries today (e.g., the Serbian Canadians who fought in Bosnia in the 1990s). However, the overall importance of war and military conflict in post-1867 Canadian history is probably less than in the history of any other major country in the western hemisphere. War is also less important in Canadian history than in the histories of the countries that supply most of Canada’s immigrants (India, Pakistan, China).  Canada since Confederation has been a pretty peaceful place where few people have died from violence, including wars and other forms of political violence.

Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of Canadian history, many of our national commemorations revolve around the military.  We have a national day to mark the end of the First World War (in Europe), but we don’t have a national day to commemorate the completion of the CPR which took place, I’ve been told, in Canada. This is ass backwards!  What is even more bizarre is that so much of the social memory of English-speaking Canada focuses on 20th century  military history and events that took place overseas rather than on the earlier  wars and battles fought here on home turf.  From a purely Canadian standpoint, the pre-1815 battles on Canadian soil were probably more important.

Yet for reasons that probably include the absence of photographic and motion picture records, the pre-1815 wars aren’t a major part of the social memory of English-speaking Canada.  Recognition of the people who died in the pre-1815 conflicts have only recently begun to be integrated into the 11 November ceremonies in Ottawa, a long overdue development. It was only in 2005 that statues representing those of who served in the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and other pre-Confederation conflicts were added to the national war memorial in Ottawa.

Statue of Joseph Brant, National War Memorial, Ottawa

As someone who teaches Canadian history to first-year university students, I try to strike the right balance between military and non-military aspects of our history. I talk about Canada’s role in the two world wars, but I also assigned a book on the history of the donut in Canada. Which of those topics is most important? In the long run, over-consumption of donuts may kill more Canadians than either world war.

Emphasizing the role of military conflict in Australian and Canadian history at the expense of other themes (e.g., economic growth, the emergence of consumer culture, the advent of TV, women’s emancipation, the histories of accountancy and fast food) obscures two important truths.

First, the world has been getting more peaceful over the last few centuries. So observers have been so bold as to predict that war is on the way out. This is a risky claim, but it does seem that  as societies progress from tribalism to the nation state to capitalist democracy, the percentage of the population that dies from violence typically falls. The 20th century is often remembered as a bloody century and age of unprecedented mass murder. There are some terrible data points that support this view (the Holocaust, the Battle of Stalingrad) but in reality it was a relatively peaceful period of human history. One of the reasons why the death toll in the two world wars was so high was that the world’s population numbered in the billions by the 20th century. The percentage of the world and European populations that died from war and other forms of violence was actually lower than in early centuries. Of course, the atrocities that took place were captured on film. A German boy born in 1900 likely died of disease, not war, whereas in a hunter-gatherer society about half of all males die violently. Today Europe is, thank goodness, very peaceful, as is the world as a whole.

In Canada and Australia, the demographic impact of war was very small indeed. More Canadians died from car accidents between 1950 to 1953 than in the Korean Conflict, yet there are no memorials to them.

Second, Canada and Australia have been two of the countries that have been vanguard of the move towards a more peaceful world. Among other things, they are the nations that have embraced multiculturalism, democracy, capitalism, and globalization. Maybe we need more memorials to these phenomena.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Toronto

A Response to my Vimy Ridge Day Post

10 04 2010

My response to a reply on my earlier Vimy Ridge Day post.

A reader wrote:

“I’ve seen some balanced commentary in the press that did mention the Conscription crisis as part of the nation-creation of WWI, but as you suggest, there is little talk of the British Empire, or of the fact that the “Canadians” who fought at Vimy contained an awful lot of British-born. These themes are well-known to historians, but public commemorations are not about history, they are about memory, the selective kind.”

Here is my reply:

“These themes are well-known to historians, but public commemorations are not about history, they are about memory, the selective kind.”

True, events like this are about the construction of usable pasts by politicians. It seems to me that one of the jobs of historians is to call BS whenever this happens. Margaret Macmillan’s excellent recent book on the uses and abuses of historical analogy is helpful in this regard, but I expect that relatively few copies were sold.   It makes me sad that more of the academic history doesn’t filter down into the social memory. It suggests a lack of synchronization between universities, secondary schools, the media, and the general public at the bottom. Perhaps the government should appoint an academic historian as it chief historical officer to pre-check all speeches by dignitaries for questionable interpretations of history.  This office would be an extension of the educational functions of the state, much like subsidies for schools, museums, and public television. Our society puts lots of resources into the creation and dissemination of historical knowledge and it is a shame there is so little evidence of this at events like this. One of the problems is that most academic historians in Canada have stopped writing for the general public.

Vimy Ridge Day

9 04 2010

Today was Vimy Ridge Day in Ottawa. See here. Vimy Ridge Day was established in 2003 by the federal government to remember the Canadians who got killed fighting in the First World War. Vimy Ridge Day was the brain child of Brent J. St. Denis, who was then the MP for the Northern Ontario riding of Algoma-Manitoulin. Today’s ceremony got extra attention because the last Canadian veteran of the war died recently.

As someone who researches the history of Anglo-Canadian relations, I’m mildly interested in the social history of the First World War in Canada. I was struck by the fact that none of the speakers at today’s ceremony, not even the Queen’s official representative in Canada(!), could bring themselves to mention the “British Empire.” That’s right, the name of the entity for which the Canadians were fighting went totally unmentioned. This is the elephant in the room nobody can bring him/herself to mention. Instead, there were anachronistic statements to the effect that the Canadians who fought in the war were fighting either for Canada or for the “international community”.

The silence on the British Empire is deafening. I bet nobody mentioned the Conscription Crisis either. Wasted opportunity to educate the public on a bit of history.

For the record, let me state that I’m glad the British Empire no longer exists. It is likely that the British decision to get involved in the First World War accelerated the demise of the British Empire and its break-up into a number of successor states in various part of the world, of which the modern nation of Canada is but one. That being said, I think that the British Empire was an important part of Canada’s history and our public leaders should not be ashamed to mention it. For Canadians, the legacy of the British Empire was pretty mixed. The old Empire was probably not as bad some left-wing historians suggest nor as good as Niall Ferguson argues. But regardless of whether it was good or bad entity, it was an important part of the Canadian story and should not be ignored. As someone with a passionate belief in historical accuracy, it is offends me when the past is distorted through such a bizarre omission. What would we think of a text on Italian history that didn’t mention the Roman Empire. The difference is that the Roman Empire was long ago, whereas the British Empire is still part of living memory (just barely though).

My reading of the situation is this. Canada today likes to think of itself as a tolerant, multicultural nation. We also have large numbers of immigrants from countries where the words “British Empire” evoke a visceral and very negative reaction. Many Canadians admire the other people who helped to overthrow British rule in their part of the world. (My university has a statue of Gandhi). All of  this means that inconvenient truths such as the fact that the First World War was divisive, that Quebeckers and many others hated conscription, that Anglo-Canadians once loved the British Empire, and that British immigrants outnumbered native-born Canadians at Vimy Ridge go totally unmentioned.

Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal Party and a former historian, was present at today’s ceremony. It is too bad that his current position does not allow him to say something interesting/truthful about Vimy Ridge.

Ignatieff, 9 April 2010