It is one hundred years since the battle of Vimy Ridge, much celebrated here in Canada. Today in particular there will be commemorations and a great deal said and written about it all. Since I studied history, teach it, and write about it from time to time, I feel as though I should have something to say as well, although it’s a more difficult question for me than it appears to be for some.
I think there are a lot of valid questions to be asked about the reasons why the First World War was fought, and about Canada’s involvement in it in particular. The loss of life was such that the numbers sometimes fail to make an impression; they’re just too big to make sense. Vimy Ridge was a typically bloody engagement; the assaulting forces lost 3,598 soldiers killed and 7,004 more wounded, in three days fighting. Bloodshed on that scale demands an answer: was it necessary, was the cause just and right, and I think it is a very difficult answer to give. If we look for a ‘just war’ it is hard to make World War One fit that mould, but Canada was asked to fight, and Canadians were asked to fight, and so they went and fought as they were asked to do. By all accounts they did it well.
Vimy was the first battle where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a formation. As a result it is labelled by some the time when Canada ‘became a nation’, although this seems to me deeply problematic, not least for its dismissal of the thousands of years worth of people who lived in this place we call home up until that point. Significant politically and militarily the battle may perhaps have been, but there was surely a nation, and nations, here before that. The military, and military history, has often been an interest of mine, but still I am uncomfortable with the idea that our nation, or any nation, is defined by its battles. I like to think that Canada has different roots than that. In any case there was already a Canada that the men who ended up on Vimy Ridge felt strongly enough about to go off to war, so I wonder whether they would have agreed that there was no nation until after that battle.
However that all may be, the battle has been much mythologized in Canada, and like most myths a healthy dose of fiction is added to the story. Vimy becomes, it seems, more glorious the further we get away from the bloody quagmired truth of the battlefield which far too many would never leave. However we may embroider the events of those days, the military historians tell us that the Canadian success was part of an overall strategy that failed, that the 10,000 lives and more shattered taking the ridge did not lead to a stunning breakthrough, and the war ground remorselessly on. Does that make the courage and sacrifice of the men who went and fought the slightest bit less? I feel it does not, and yet in taking the battle and making it part of our national myth I suppose we insist upon more gilded version.
The main thing I am left with regarding Vimy, and World War One in general, is that these young men went where their country asked them to go and went into the worst kind of peril as a result of that. They did the job they were asked to do and, in the case of Vimy Ridge, did it successfully and well. We can, then and more recently, question the motives of the men who asked those things of them, but not, I think, the response. They made that choice for many reasons, as soldiers I suppose always do, and even if I wonder whether they needed to go and fight, when their country asked something of them their answer was ‘yes’ and that is an answer I will always honour deeply.
It seems to me important for leaders today to remember that there are men and women who, when their country asks them to do something, will go and give their heart’s blood trying to do it. If the cause be just, then both the decision and the results may be a thing that we can look upon and know that it was necessary and right. Even if we cannot take satisfaction in it, exactly, we can know that it was important and that our young people did what needed to be done. But our leaders must not ask these things of them lightly because if history is any guide, when the country asks those young people to go into danger on its behalf there will always be a courageous number who will answer ‘yes’ and we cannot take that answer unless we are absolutely certain of its dire necessity. It is too tragic to contemplate that sacrifice if it is not absolutely unavoidable.
One hundred years ago, young Canadians made their assault on Vimy Ridge. They fought well, they did what was asked of them, and all too many spilled their blood because of it.
We shall remember them.