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DND photo SU2007-0156-07 by Master Corporal Jill Cooper.
Vimy, April 1917: The Birth of Which Nation?
by Jean Martin
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In 2007, Canada celebrated its 90th birthday. At any rate, that was what was written and said in English Canada throughout that year: the famous battle of Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917, had marked what some called “the birth of a nation.” The Canadian War Museum spoke more reservedly of “… a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness.”1 But others unhesitatingly adopted the “birth of a nation” idea, which had first been suggested by General Alexander Ross a few years after the war.2 Yet, the idea that, at Vimy, Canada had passed through a crucial stage of defining itself, though widespread in English Canada, was almost unheard of in Quebec. In that case, which Canada was meant?
What is a Canadian?
If Canada did not suddenly come into existence on the evening of the victory at Vimy Ridge, when did it appear? The territories occupied by the various Aboriginal peoples before the
arrival of the Europeans will not be discussed here; sources are vague on that subject, making it next to impossible to investigate. This article will focus on the country, or the idea of the country, constructed by the peoples of European origin who have settled on this continent since the 16th century. From the earliest days of those settlements, we are told, the French colonists who settled along the St. Lawrence valley felt that they were living in a country called Canada or Kanata.3 Jacques Cartier is said to have been told by the two sons of Chief Donnacona, when he was bringing them back from France and they recognized the familiar surroundings of their birthplace, that they were approaching the country of Canada.
Michel Brunet, in his 1954 book Canadians et Canadiens,4 traces the origin and history of the word within the history of the country. We all know that it was the French colonists in the St. Lawrence valley who were first called “Canadians” and that the name was later recognized by the conquering British, whose allegiance was to the British Crown. The name was quickly released from its geographic limits and was soon applied to all Francophones in North America. West of the Great Lakes, for example, a distinction was made between voyageurs of Scottish origin and Canadians, the latter term generally being used to refer to those who came from Lower Canada and spoke French. How many picturesque descriptions have we read of the “Canadian race”? Many of them were written by renowned voyageurs or members of the local British aristocracy.
However, since the passing of the Quebec Act in 1791, the country had been divided into two parts: Upper Canada and Lower Canada. It was becoming inevitable that all of the country’s inhabitants, regardless of language, would be called Canadians. However, it was not until Confederation in 1867 that French-speaking Canadians lost the exclusive use of their
demonym [Reference to people from a specific region – Ed.]. Brunet reminds us that other names had been suggested for the new confederation, among them “Boréalie.”5 “If that suggestion had been accepted,” Brunet adds, “it would have done away with the source of numerous misunderstandings …” [translation]. The term “Canadian” would henceforth be applied to all the country’s inhabitants, from Atlantic to Pacific—at least officially. In actual fact, they all remained British subjects.
The Canadians at Vimy
Fifty years after Confederation, who were the Canadians who carried out the attack on Vimy Ridge? They were still loyal subjects of His Majesty the King. Canadian citizenship did not exist at that time, and the approximately 100,000 men who made up the four Canadian divisions were simply part of a colonial corps of the British Army, in the same way as the Australia–New Zealand or Indian corps. Most of them did indeed come from Canada, but it would fly in the
face of reality to claim that that they represented “all of Canada’s diversity.”6 Francophones were greatly underrepresented, but that had nothing to do with the fact that French
Canadians were not “good Canadians.” Indeed, when examined closely, the Canadian Corps
at Vimy may not appear very Canadian in its composition.
We have a report on the make-up of the Canadian Corps in October 1917, before the addition of conscripts but already six months after Vimy Ridge.7 More than 55 percent of the soldiers had been born outside of Canada, the vast majority of them in Great Britain. And no doubt a large number of those who were born in Canada had uncles or aunts, a grandfather or grandmother, or even a brother or sister still living in Great Britain. It is not surprising that these men, who were still English and Scottish at heart, if not by birth, heeded their country’s call in August 1914 and enlisted in large numbers. It is no more surprising that the province of Quebec provided only 9 percent of the Canadian soldiers who served overseas during the war, far below Quebec’s 28 percent of Canada’s entire population. The reason was that the sons of England and Scotland were much less numerous in Quebec than in the other provinces. When we look only at the volunteers born in Canada, it becomes clear that French Canadians must have represented about 21% of the total, a respectable contribution under the circumstances.8
CEC in October 1917
After all, it is normal for young men with close relatives in Great Britain to feel more involved when that country calls upon them to take up arms in its defence. It has often been said in English Canada that the Québécois should have felt involved too, since France was under an even more direct threat. But that is to misunderstand French-Canadian history and culture. For French Canadians, France is the country of their ancestors, not that of their close relatives. In 1917, most French Canadians were descended from people who had been in Canada for many generations. They did not feel the connection to France that an English immigrant or the son of an English immigrant might have with Great Britain. By analogy, the English may well have had distant ancestors who came from Lower Saxony or the Frisian coast, but I doubt that many of them would have wanted to fight for Germany in 1914 because it was the country of their ancestors. What many English Canadians do not realize is that, by 1917, most French Canadians longer felt any connection with France. On the other hand, most English Canadians were—whether in their hearts, according to their official status, or still very often by birth—British. One might be tempted to think that in 1914 Anglophone and Francophone Canadians were equally disposed to take up arms in defence of their country, the country of their fathers and grandfathers, but the fact is that for the former, that country was Great Britain, and for the latter, it was Canada.
Compiled and drawn by Historical Section G.S., Map 7, Vimy Ridge, Library and Archives Canada.
The Meaning of Vimy
Vimy was indeed a great victory for the Canadian Corps. The objective was important, the preparation was painstaking, and the operation was almost a total success. The death toll
was high, but close to what had been predicted. Was it one of the great battles of the war? Not in the sense in which historians generally understand it, but all the same it was an important, and certainly the most successful, phase of the Battle of Arras. Was it the greatest victory ever achieved by Canadian troops? At the time, very probably, but the Canadians would have many other successes after it, some of which had at least as important an influence on the outcome of the war. Vimy occurred at a turning point in the war: the retreat of the Russians, which was more than made up for by the arrival of the Americans, and the beginning of a more offensive strategy on the part of the Allies, supported by their superior equipment, that would become more and more overwhelming. But the fact that the tide began to turn at around the time of Vimy was almost a coincidence, and it does not explain why the battle acquired such importance in Canadians’ memory.
At the end of the war, Vimy was still far from acquiring the weighty symbolic value it has today. It was not forgotten, but it was somewhat eclipsed by the virtually uninterrupted series of victories achieved by the Canadians in the final three months of the war as they pressed on toward Germany. In his 1920 article “The Growth of Canadian National Feeling,” W.S. Wallace wrote: “In the Great War the maple leaf badge came to be recognized as the symbol of a strong national spirit which never failed before any task with which it was confronted, and which contributed in a substantial measure to the breaking down of the German defences in the latter half of 1918.”9 The importance of the military contribution in defining national feeling was underlined, but the emphasis was placed on the final push to victory in 1918, not on the April 1917 victory at Vimy.
The four years spent sharing suffering and honour in the trenches of Belgium and northern France undoubtedly contributed to creating a very solid esprit de corps among the Canadian soldiers. Surely, during those four years, a very large number of those young men who had enlisted to serve in the British Army gradually began to feel more and more Canadian. But esprit de corps is not the same thing as a new citizenship. The two are not mutually exclusive, however. Just as a contemporary soldier who develops a strong sense of belonging to the Royal 22e Régiment does not stop seeing himself or herself as a member of the Canadian Forces, a Canadian soldier in 1918 remained a loyal subject of His Majesty the King, but his newfound pride in being Canadian did not lead him to contest his status as a British subject.
In fact, the two went very well together in many people’s minds, and it may even be that the hope of finally being recognized as the equal of soldiers from the old country often trumped the pride of belonging to one of its colonies.
The Legend of Vimy
It was only a few years after the war that Vimy began to acquire the symbolic value it has today. That value would be defined slowly over a long evolution in time, and a few of the steps in that evolution are worthy of mention. The first step was taken in the early 1920s, when the decision was made to construct a memorial in Europe to honour the memory of Canadian soldiers killed during the Great War. Four locations were considered for the monument: (1) the area around Ypres, Belgium, where Canadian troops had fought some of their most difficult battles, (2) the Somme, the theatre where the Canadians achieved their first real successes, (3) Vimy, where the four Canadian divisions had come together to launch their first victorious attack, and (4) the Canal du Nord, the central point of the push to victory known as the “hundred days” at the end of the war. Vimy was chosen for a number of reasons; some are well known, and with respect to others, we can only guess.
Prime Minister Mackenzie King seems to have played an important role in the choice. He mentioned several times in his diary that the French government would never have ceded the 250 acres of land without his personal efforts, and in 1935, he was still hoping that someday the value of those efforts would be recognized.10 How was Vimy chosen as the location for the monument? It has been said that Vimy was a “unanimous” choice because it was the site of “the most important battle fought by the Canadian Corps.”11 However, the choice was probably not so obvious. Although Vimy represented an important event in the history of the Canadian Corps, it was far from being the only one. The process leading up to the selection of Vimy as the memorial site is quite well known, but the reasons behind the choice are less known.
In 1919, the Imperial War Graves Commission granted Canada eight sites to honour the memory of its soldiers. Five of the sites are in northern France: Vimy, Dury, Bourlon Wood, Courcelette, and Bois de l’Hôpital. Three are in Belgium: Saint-Julien, Passchendaele, and Sanctuary Wood (Hill 62) near Ypres. The French and Belgian governments granted Canada some form of rights over the land in question, and a competition was held to produce a model for a monument to be erected on seven of the sites, with the eighth to be reserved for a national memorial, much more imposing than the others, that would bear the names of the missing Canadian soldiers who were presumed to have died during the conflict. This grand monument was originally supposed to be built on the site of Hill 62, near the town of Ypres, in Belgium, but it was finally decided that “Vimy would be a more suitable point.”12
Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen, Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, CWM 19710261-0539, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, © Canadian War Museum.
Reasons other than the importance of the battle could have been behind the choice. For one thing, the British had already decided that the Menin Gate, at the entrance to the town of Ypres, would be the site of a major memorial for their soldiers who had been killed in Belgium and had no known grave. They had invited the other Commonwealth countries to participate, and all except New Zealand accepted. Canada was to inscribe on the monument the names of some 5000 Canadians who had died in Belgium during the war. It then seemed logical to build another monument in France on which to inscribe the names of the 11,000 Canadians who had died in that country but had no known grave. When that idea was suggested, the Vimy site immediately attracted all the attention because of its physical characteristics as well as its location. The mass of the ridge itself would make the scale of the planned monument even more impressive; there was no other location where the Canadian memorial would have so overwhelmingly dominated the landscape.
In addition, Vimy was conveniently located in an area with relatively easy access compared to the other above-mentioned Canadian memorial sites: it was only an hour’s drive from Ypres, and less than an hour away from any of the other sites. On the other hand, Ypres, where the Canadians had fought long and hard, and where they had experienced some of their most glorious and most difficult hours, was farther north and more isolated. Vimy was also about halfway between Lens and Arras, two towns where visitors could find accommodations close
to the centre of their pilgrimage. Last, but not least, Prime Minister Mackenzie King spoke very enthusiastically of Vimy as “one of earth’s altars”13 and stated that it was thanks to “my suggestion & my efforts”14 that France had ceded the land at Vimy to Canada.
The second important step in the consecration of the Vimy site was the unveiling of the monument in July 1936. As soon as the date of the unveiling was announced, a campaign was launched by the national president of the Canadian Legion, Brigadier-General (retired) Alex Ross, to organize a massive pilgrimage for the veterans. Six thousand four hundred of them boarded five ships in the port of Montreal, and they were joined in France by almost 1,400 more from Great Britain. Therefore, about 18% of the Canadian veterans who attended the unveiling of the Vimy memorial in 1936 were probably still residents of Great Britain. “The pilgrims had travelled thousands of miles to attend a ceremony on Vimy Ridge, and to hundreds of them the deciding factor was the announcement that King Edward would preside.”15 The sense of belonging to Great Britain was apparently still an important factor in the new Canadian pride. The veterans’ pilgrimage included the sites of all their great battles, but with the unveiling of the gigantic monument, Vimy became the focal point of Canadians’ memory of the First World War.
The third stage in the process occurred in 1967, when Canada celebrated the 100th anniversary of Confederation and the 50th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge. The coincidence was too inviting, and it would be consecrated in the mind of the venerable General Ross, who was by then 86 years of age. In the preface to a book which attributed almost as much importance to the 1936 pilgrimage as to the story of the 1917 battle, the former president of the Canadian Legion wrote of the assault on the morning of April 9: “It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”16 The phrase had made its first appearance. As far as we know, the battle had never been so directly identified as the birth of a nation. All writers who repeat the phrase today are inevitably referring to Ross’s use of it, even if they do not always cite the source.17
Jonathan Vance, who recently published an interesting study of interwar poetry about Vimy Ridge, also takes up the theme of that battle being the birth of a nation, but he is unable to produce a single quotation to justify the assertion.18 The poems emphasize courage, suffering, victory and even national pride (sometimes local pride too), but a nation’s pride is not necessarily associated with its birth. In celebrating Vimy, we celebrate a great accomplishment of the Canadian nation, not its birth. The first reference to the birth of a new nation is actually found in the speech given by Cabinet minister Ernest Lapointe during the inauguration of the monument in 1936. However, Lapointe did not state that the Canadian nation was born at Vimy. Rather, he suggested that a new nation had already been formed from the marriage of the English and French peoples and that Vimy represented the zenith of its achievements.
Such achievements presupposed that Canada had passed through the birth stage long ago.
Lord Byng of Vimy, the commander of the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge, who later became Canada’s Governor General, merely stated that the nine provinces had launched the attack on the ridge “… side by side, animated and united by a common ideal.”19 The idea of a nation united in combat had not yet become that of the emerging nation that General Ross, carried away by the excitement of the 1967 Centennial, launched decades later.
Memory and Mythology
A fourth step, as well as a series of subsequent ones, was taken when the myth was kept
alive on each anniversary of the battle, such as the 90th in 2007. That year, English Canada saw a wave of ceremonies, newspaper articles, and television and radio programs related to Vimy, but there was barely a ripple in Quebec. A large pilgrimage like the one in 1936 was organized for a second inauguration of the monument, which had just been restored, and once again much was made of the theme of the defining moment for the Canadian nation. That theme, which, as we have seen, developed long after the battle, is becoming more and more firmly established with every passing year. Each time General Ross’s words are repeated, we become a bit more firmly convinced that they actually reflect the general state of mind on the day of the battle. The legend has become a myth, and it has become more and more difficult to question the battle itself.
Historians who have perpetuated the idea of the birth of a nation have generally supported it with a fairly careful logical argument. The Confederation created in 1867 was still considered a British colony and had no real existence internationally. It was the actions of the Canadians on the battlefields of Europe, magnificently illustrated by the victory at Vimy, that earned Canada the right to sit at the negotiating table with the Europeans and the Americans once the war ended, thus affirming for the first time its status as a nation on the international scene. Vimy had thus enabled Canada to be recognized as a nation by its peers. Despite the flaws in this reasoning, it at least has the merit of being limited to international recognition, emphasizing the emergence rather than the birth of a nation.
However, popular opinion is often oblivious to such subtleties, and in 2007, the image of Canadians of all origins, who had come from all parts of Canada, Atlantic to Pacific, who suddenly formed a great, united nation on 9 April 1917, was still widespread. But to state that the Canadian nation was born amidst the violence of battle in 1917 is to deny the existence of a Canadian nation that predated it. The Canadian nation said to have been born at Vimy could therefore not be that of the new arrivals, a reinvented nation that rose from the ashes of another that people wanted to forget. It is probably no accident that the individual who finally formalized that idea in the phrase he used in 1967 was himself an immigrant to this country whose history he did not acknowledge.
Brigadier-General Alexander Ross was born in Scotland in 1880 and immigrated to the future province of Saskatchewan with his family when he was six years old. When the war broke out in 1914, Ross, who was already serving in the militia, was appointed as a recruiting officer. At the time that the 28th Battalion, which he helped recruit in Saskatchewan and would later command in France, was formed, 80 percent of its soldiers were, like him, born in Great Britain. Given his background, it is easy to imagine that, in the immediate aftermath of the victory at Vimy, this native of Scotland who had grown up on the great northwestern plains would have considered himself the equal of the long-established Canadians back east. For new Canadians like him, it was the birth of a new nation.
And often it is still that new nation, created by the blending of the cultures of all the new Canadians, that is being presented today when Vimy is referred to as the birth of a nation.
The Ottawa Citizen, like many other major newspapers in English Canada, published a series of articles in the weeks leading up to the large-scale celebrations in April 2007. The paper had brought together a group of new Canadians which it described as being of all origins and had them reflect on and debate the importance and significance of the battle. They were taken to visit museums, met with historians and had discussions with senators, and their reactions
were published in the print edition of the Citizen and also on an impressive website created for the occasion. Naturally, no Francophone was included among those Canadians of all origins who had been invited to participate in the discussions. Even though Ottawa is just a bridge length away from Quebec, and thousands of Franco-Ontarians live in the region, it was not considered important to invite a single French Canadian to join the discussion of the Canadian nation whose great event was being celebrated.
Mr. Richard Jack, The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917, CWM 19710261-0160, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, © Canadian War Museum.
The battle of Vimy Ridge has nothing to do with the birth of the Canadian nation. A reasonable case could be made that it was an important event in Canada’s history, but to claim that the nation was born on 9 April 1917, on the Artois plains is to deny more than three centuries of history during which the ancestors of millions of Canadians devoted their lives to building this country. If Canada was born in the trenches of France and Belgium between 1915 and 1918, it was only in the minds of a few thousand soldiers who had very shallow roots there. In the minds of most of its inhabitants, Canada had already existed for a long time.
The myth that Vimy represents the birth of a nation is a relatively recent invention. Despite the battle’s importance, the choice of the site for the great Canadian memorial after the war was far from obvious. The myth sprang from the erection of that monument and the attraction it exerted later. One might wonder whether the battles of Passchendaele or Hill 62 would be regarded as more important as founding events of the Canadian nation if the principal
memorial had been built there, as had once been considered. It was the grand memorial erected at Vimy that served as a focal point for Canadians’ memories of the First World War.20 All the other Canadian monuments look insignificant by comparison, and the importance of the battle quickly came to be judged by that of the monument commemorating it. Yet, as we have seen, the choice of the Vimy site in 1922 was based as much upon practical concerns as on any historical foundation; Vimy was an important battle, but it was also more convenient and efficient to build the primary Canadian war memorial there.
Symbols can both unite and divide a nation. It is just as important to recognize their value as
to avoid distorting their meaning. The true intention behind the Vimy memorial was to honour the soldiers who fell defending their country. To perpetuate that memory is a duty, but to try
to turn it into a symbol of the birth of a nation is an affront to everyone who believes that the building of that nation had begun long before the First World War. Vimy is one of the rare important military monuments that does not exult in victory; it is there only to honour the memory of the victims of a conflict in which the death toll had been appallingly high and which it was hoped at the time would be the war to end all wars. As a symbol, Vimy has its importance in Canadian history. We heard new Canadians declare during the 2007 celebrations that they felt more Canadian after being told the story of Vimy or after visiting the monument on site. That is an honourable sentiment, but there are other national symbols that deserve attention. Why, for example, could we not hear more often from new Canadians who feel more Canadian once they learn to communicate in both of the country’s official languages?
Mr. Georges Bertin Scott, Unveiling the Vimy Ridge Monument, CWM 19670070-014, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, © Canadian War Museum.
Jean Martin is a historian with the Directorate of History and Heritage at National Defence Headquarters and is responsible for the official history of Canada’s participation in the first United Nations Emergency Force (1956–1967) in Egypt. He also has an interest in military geography and the defence of Canada’s territory during World War II.
Mr. Martin is organizing a conference on military relations between Canada and France after 1760, to take place in 2011.
- Tim Cook, Canadian War Museum website.
- There is some confusion about the origin of the expression. Some sources attribute it to Brigadier-General Arthur Edward Ross, who commanded the Canadian medical service during the First World War, but it actually originated with Brigadier-General Alexander Ross, who commanded the 28th Battalion at Vimy Ridge before being promoted to command the 6th Infantry Brigade.
- It is not important to engage here in a debate on the origin, meaning or spelling of the word. The point is to recognize how old is the idea.
- Michel Brunet, Canadians et Canadiens (Paris: Fides, 1954).
- After all, the name “Australia” had been given to the large federation in the southern hemisphere.
- Some Americans and some British residents enlisted in Canadian units.
- Quoted in Desmond Morton, When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War, (Toronto: Random House, 1993).
- According to A.F. Duguid, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914–1919, Vol. 1: From the Outbreak of War to the Formation of the Canadian Corps, August 1914–September 1915, (Ottawa: King's Printer, 1947), more than 50,000 soldiers from Quebec served overseas during the First World War. If we assume that 10,000 to 15,000 of them were Anglophones, but that a few
thousand Francophones from other provinces also fought, that means that approximately 21 percent of members of Canadian origin (194,473) who were part of the Canadian Expeditionary Corps (436,806) up until October 1917 were “French Canadians.”
- W.S. Wallace, “The Growth of Canadian National Feeling,” in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 1920), p. 138.
- Various references in King’s diaries from 1922 and 1928, and this one from February 6, 1935: “…also was glad to see reference to purchase of Vimy Ridge property by the Govt. of France & given to Canada—my part in that too will be restored some day.”
- Debates of the House of Commons, First session of the Fourteenth Parliament, 12-13
George V, 1922, p. 2098, comment of the member from East Hamilton, Major-General Sidney Chelton Mewburn: “The unanimous opinion was that the large memorial ought to go to Vimy. Many of the army officers held that Vimy was by no means the most important battle fought by the Canadian Corps.”
- “Vimy would be a more suitable point.” Ibid., p. 2100.
- “[O]ne of earth’s altars.” Diary of Mackenzie King, 26 April 1922. He uses the phrase again in
the House one month later (Debates …, p. 2099, 22 May 1922), with a slight variation: “… one of the world’s greatest altars.”
- “[I]t was my suggestion & subsequently my effort which secured the plot of ground (six miles around) which is now the property of the Govt. of Canada in Europe.” Diary of Mackenzie King, 5 October 1928.
- D.E. Macintyre, Canada at Vimy (Toronto: Peter Martin & Associates, 1967), p. 187.
- Ibid., p. viii.
- It is often stated that the phrase was that of Brigadier-General Ross, who had been at Vimy, as
if the image had come to him on the day of the battle, when in fact he did not express it until half
a century later.
- Jonathan Vance, “Battle Verse: Poetry and Nationalism after Vimy Ridge,” in Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci and Mike Bechthold, (eds.), Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007), pp. 265–278.
- “[S]ide by side, animated and united by a common ideal.” Quoted in David C. Inglis, “Vimy Ridge, 1917–1992: A Canadian Myth over Seventy-Five Years” (Simon Fraser University, Master’s thesis, 1995), p. 55.
- For David Inglis, “Vimy Ridge seems to be a concentration of the war experience into a single, remarkable event and as such has become a powerful symbol or myth.” Inglis, p. 2.