Second thought – Vimy and Canadian identity by Jonathan Hawkins
Posted on April 18, 2017 by Tia Lalani
The battle at Vimy Ridge prompted the development of a Canadian national identity, says past history instructor and current assistant registrar Jonathan Hawkins.
As we commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday, we also approach the anniversary of an event regarded as a milestone that helped define Canada—the battle of Vimy Ridge. While birthdays and anniversaries prompt celebrations, they equally provide an opportunity for critical consideration. Recently in this column, Daniel Sims offered insights into how Canada’s ‘birthday’ could be viewed from a different perspective. The 100th anniversary of Vimy likewise offers a chance to ponder that event and how it has been perceived since then.
On April 9, 1917, the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) totalling about 170,000 men launched an assault on the German-held position at Vimy Ridge in northeastern France. Part of a larger Allied offensive, the battle lasted until April 12, ending with the CEF in control of the Ridge, a position Allied forces never relinquished.
In the annals of World War One, it was not a hugely significant battle. The frontline moved 5km eastward, but there was no major breakthrough. Indeed, the CEF’s success surprised the British and French—the Canadian assault was the northernmost element of their broader attack and they were not prepared to follow up on the unexpected CEF achievement. Interestingly, Vimy was one of the few places where the greater offensive actually achieved its objectives.
What made this battle so important to ‘Canada’ was its implications for Canadian national identity. This occasion was notably the first where all four divisions of the CEF fought together in a specific combat role. The CEF’s success immediately became a source of martial pride, especially given that both British and French attempts to retake Vimy in previous years had failed abysmally. A significant portion of the ‘Canadian’ force was not Canadian-born—many were immigrants of British or North-European origins—but Vimy famously generated a distinct sense of being ‘Canadian’ for the soldiers involved, as opposed to being North America residents identifying more fondly with their previous country. Their pride was soon transmitted back across the Atlantic and travelled home with the CEF veterans…at least, those who made it—the casualty total over this 4-day battle alone was close to 11,000, with almost 3600 dead.
This developing “Canadian-ness’, combined with the staggering casualties, were quickly seized upon back in Canada—the sacrifices of the valiant men of the CEF should, so it was felt, prompt the rise of a greater Canada and sense of Canadian purpose. Yet, in the following years, the vision of Vimy drove political development but failed to realize its social potential. In spite of the diversity of the CEF (soldiers hailed from all nine provinces, from wide ethnic origins beyond the British homelands, and featured a proportionally high enlistment of Indigenous peoples), the promise of a greater Canada proved mostly accessible to middle/upper-class Anglo-Saxons—others were less welcome unless willing to assimilate into this particular identity, which many felt understandably reluctant to do. For those within the prevailing culture, such failure to assimilate was seen as a repudiation of those who fought in the ‘war to end all wars’. The tensions arising from this growing divide were, to some extent, overridden by the realization in 1939 that war had not become a mere historical artifact after 1918. The ‘Vimy-as-nation-building’ narrative then found new life and fervour later in the 20th century…and into the 21st.
So how can we, 100 years later, identify with Vimy Ridge? D.J. Goodspeed argued that “no matter what constitutional historians may say, it was on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, that Canada became a nation.” But the Canadian national identity is a complex thing that has long confounded people. At its root, it is profoundly reflective—its strength lies in its potential for diversity and a stubborn uneasiness at any attempt to define it too narrowly. For many, looking back on the valour, sacrifice and national pride generated by the CEF’s achievements helps inform their sense of Canadian identity, while for others, respect is present, but Vimy itself holds little meaning. Others still may resist basing national identity on military prowess and conflict, which seems contradictory, but the collective affirmation of uncertainty at the core of Canadian identity makes it possible. Vimy helps define us without wholly defining us, which makes this anniversary a noteworthy one for us all.
Jonathan Hawkins, Assistant Registrar and previous history instructor, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on April 4, 2017.
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