Remembering Vimy and the Canadian Experience in the Great War

CDA Institute Research Manager and Senior Editor Matthew Overton attended the 100th Anniversary Commemoration at the Vimy Memorial in France and provides some thoughts from that significant event. 

The Battle of Vimy it seems, continues to evoke a wide variety of emotions and commentaries, even though it is now 100 years in the past.  Like the Great War itself and the campaigns of 1917 – for which the seizure of the Vimy heights was a part – Canadians have no consistent, accepted and full story from the Canadian perspective to understand the horrific, self-generated catastrophe that engulfed the European nations, their empires and colonies.  While Canada officially recognizes Vimy as a significant and largely positive event on the slow road to true independence from Great Britain, Canadians are perhaps not so sure.


Even while tens of thousands of Canadians, young and old, flocked to the site for the commemorations accompanied by their French counterparts, who remain steadfastly appreciative of the Canadian sacrifice, old arguments and criticisms resurfaced once again in national news media: “Vimy was not that important strategically”, “there were more important battles for Canadians”, “it was nothing but Canada doing what it was told”, “it wasn’t really a Canadian victory because there wasn’t a Canadian in command”, “it more split than unified the country – look at the conscription crisis” and even “Chanak, when Canada said ‘no’ (sort of) to the UK, was the true birth of our nation as an independent entity”.  Lacking a substantive, inclusive and widely accepted core narrative, these differing perspectives endure as isolated and discordant elements.  Mustered to argue against Vimy as the most deserving point of remembrance for Canadians in honouring the sacrifices of the Great War, they have a collective weight and logic, but alternative options are not individually any more compelling nor resistant to the same weight of criticism when applied against them in turn.


The truth of the matter is that Canada and Canadians have no intimate, compelling and visceral memories of the Great War. This was unlike the European nations where intense fighting was daily life, or death, for not only the soldiers and sailors thrown into battle in unheard of numbers, but their citizens and communities as well.  It is our blessing as a nation that we dodged this intimate knowledge of the war – we suffered other difficulties to be sure as well as significant casualties for our size of population –  and it changes the quality of our recollection of the events when compared to Europe.  Canadians, like Australians, South Africans and many others outside of Europe collectively struggle to recall individual details from the great sweep of the conflict, except for one or two that come to encapsulate all the suffering, heartache and loss that their nations experienced, distant from the battle sites.  Names like Gallipoli, Beaumont-Hamel, Vimy and Belleau Wood invoke memories of not just those battles, but become the lens through which the entire war is recalled.


Vimy, for many reasons well documented by Tim Cook in his recent book “Vimy: The Battle and the Legend”, has become that lens through which most Canadians view the Great War when it is not Remembrance Day (most, as Newfoundland and Labrador having already developed a comparable relationship with Beaumont-Hamel).  It may not have been the most strategically important victory won by the Canadian Corps, but it was the first. With he capstone success provided by the Corps at Passchendaele for the British/Imperial army several months later, Canada provided glimmers of hope in a year of unmitigated suffering for the Anglo-French forces.  It might not have been a truly independent statement by Canada in opposition to the desires of the UK, but it set Canada upon the path where such an option could be exercised not so many years later.  It may not have provided the solid point about which all Canadians could rally during the war – the political and community divisions across the country were far too deep and complex to be swept away so easily – but it has over time provided Canadians with all that is required to remember with pride and humility the commitment, sacrifice and humanity of so many men and women in the service of their nation – that day and for the entire conflict.


The iconic Vimy monument and the dozens of young women and men that each year, guide visitors through the site and speak to the Canadian contribution to success not just at Vimy, but for 1918, are the envy of every other nation, Great War participant or no, something that we scarcely acknowledge. Vimy the battle is not the full story of Canada in the Great War, but Vimy the memorial can provide the point from which to tell that story – from trench to Main Street, from desperate battles and mounting military success to domestic crisis and ongoing doubts.  This past 9th of April 2017, listening and watching as Canadian Forces members, artists, national leaders and others played their part in focusing our remembrance on the momentous events of Vimy and the Great War as known by Canadians, it seemed that perhaps after 100 years, it was not too early to accept that full story a little more fully.


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