Tim Cook. Vimy: The Battle and the Legend. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2018. Pp. 488.
Reviewed by Richard Roy
The memory of any event, especially battles and wars, must be constructed and periodically reinvigorated if it is to endure. Tim Cook, a military historian at the Canadian War Museum who has written extensively on the Great War, has produced an excellent book on how Vimy – the battle, the monument and the idea – has become such a recognizable feature in Canadian history and culture. Cook had two main objectives in this work: he wanted “to examine the battle of Vimy Ridge in detail,” and he wanted to “unravel the constructed legend of Vimy during the 100 years that followed it.”
How a nation chooses to remember its own history involves deliberate choices. Cook provides a highly readable account of the context behind it and then the battle itself. He meticulously explores the decisions and practices, often state-led, that led to the development and sustainment of the Vimy myth.
In the four days from 9-12 April 1917, the Canadian Corp captured the seemingly impregnable Vimy Ridge from the Germans at a cost of 3,600 Canadian lives. Cook gives a balanced account of the events leading up to the battle from the failed French offensives of 1915, to the appointment of Sir Julien Byng as corps commander in May 1916, to the move to the vicinity of Vimy in late fall of 1916, to the extensive efforts to gather lessons learned from the Somme fighting. In fully describing the preparations for the battle, he provides solid evaluations of the key commanders and unveils the tools and techniques – from machine guns, to artillery, to air planes and tactics – that would prove so crucial to success.
His account of the battle records the efforts and triumphs of each Canadian division in turn as well as explains the faults in the German defence of the ridge. Normally untold aspects are also noted from the weary tromp of stretcher bearers to the fighting to mop-up enemy pockets in order to clear and consolidate the ground won. The fog and friction of war come out well in the narrative. For instance, how much easier would have been the 4th Canadian Division’s assault if not for the botched major raid in March, and how unlikely was it that the untested and unsupported 85th Battalion from Nova Scotia would secure the “Pimple” without which the whole Canadian position on the ridge would have been at risk.
Cook provides a window on the extensive and complex debates over commemorating the fallen. Even where to inscribe the names of the fallen was complicated: should they have been only put on the Menin Gate with those of allies, should they all have been only put on a national monument, and how would they be captured in the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower in Ottawa. Selecting the overseas sites of remembrance was no easier. Initially all eight sites were seen as equal with expectations that they would all have the same monument. But Walter Allward’s submission so overshadowed the others that it became the obvious selection. It was quickly realized, like Clemesha”s “Brooding Soldier,” that it could not be replicated as this would detract from its importance. Once Vimy was selected as the primary site an enormous amount of work was required to prepare it. Clearing of thousands upon thousands of unexploded shells was one of many onerous tasks. Despite numerous entreaties, Allward was not to be rushed and the Vimy Memorial was unveiled only in July 1936.
Cook carefully explains how the meaning and importance of Vimy has waxed and waned over the last century. Some of the standard mechanisms that promote remembrance have ill-served the Vimy idea. It has not been greatly assisted by the negative reception the war has retained in literature nor the near complete failure of the Archer Duguid-led official history program. Major events over the last 100 years including the Great Depression, the Second World War and the anti-war movement of the 1960s and early 1970s have also affected the interpretation. The primary mechanism that seems to have served to maintain the visibility of Vimy has been the practice of spectacles, major events focused upon it, and their meaning.
This linkage began with the annual Vimy dinners hosted by Sir Julien Byng while Governor General of Canada. The massive Legion-led pilgrimage in 1936 to the Vimy monument for the unveiling by the King drew Empire-wide attention to the site. Subsequent pilgrimages, often state sponsored, have kept the idea of Vimy alive for subsequent generations. The revival of the Canadian War Museum historian J.L. Granatstein and the short tempest of works that are produced near anniversary dates continue to make Vimy resonate with Canadians.
This is an excellent book. Cook comprehensively traces the evolution of the Vimy myth. While an important battle, it was not initially seen as the prime “nation-building” event that was later attributed it. Cook competently and thoroughly explores the various mechanisms and deliberate choices that have given this myth and life and sustained it – literature, official histories, monuments, and public consciousness. He tracks how the audience has shifted over the intervening years. Initially, it consisted largely of veterans and a nation trying to rationalize the cost of the war. From the 1960s onward, the myth has been continually refreshed to serve as a symbol of national unity and to retell the sacrifices of Canadians. This book reflects that Canadians may well take pride in the accomplishments of the battle itself and in the ideals that underpin the Vimy myth. Reports of death of Canadian history may have been exaggerated as this book is well worth the read.
*Image courtesy of Associated Press