Book Reviews

Book Cover: ‘Vimy: The Battle and the Legend’

The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War

by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016
372 pages, $22.93.

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Reviewed by Michael Peterson

The Vimy Trap is an extended critique of the place of the 1917 battle of Vimy Ridge in Canadian identity. McKay, an academic, and Swift, a journalist, have spent their careers examining Canadian history and institutions from a left-wing perspective. As their book’s snarky title suggests, they reject the idea that Vimy was a foundational moment when a true Canadian identity and nation were born. This provocative book is intended for a general audience, and is clearly intended to be iconoclastic.

McKay and Swift are at their best when describing the process by which Vimy Ridge became an iconic battle for Canada. While tactically successful, Vimy Ridge did not have a strategic result. In fact, Vimy was the sole bright spot in the failed Anglo-French Arras offensive of April 1917. Other Canadian actions, such as the Hundred Days of 1918, had far more effect upon the outcome of the war. However, Vimy was the first time that the Canadian Corps had fought together, (albeit with significant British support), a point of pride for the Corps’ members.

Immediately after the war, there was disagreement as to whether Vimy should be selected over other Canadian battlefields (Hill 62 in the Ypres Salient was a candidate) to be the site of a national memorial. By 1922, Vimy had been selected, in part because of the scenic view, and the contract for the design of a monument was awarded to Walter Allward. The driving force for the Vimy memorial came from William Mackenzie King, who first became Prime Minister in 1921. As McKay and Swift note, King was a pacifist, and saw the Vimy monument as a way to condemn the “futility of war” while acknowledging the coming together of all Canadians in a great common cause. Allward, the designer, wanted the Vimy monument to be a “sermon” for peace.

McKay and Swift’s main thesis is that this ideal of a monument to peace was hijacked by a militaristic, nationalistic view of Canadian history that ignored the horrors of the First World War. The authors describe this view as “Vimyism,” meaning a glorification and simplification of war, a desire to see Canada as always being on the side of right, and to see the battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth of a nation that was, in fact, far from unified. This idea of “Vimyism,” which becomes a long screed against militarism, is where McKay and Swift overplay their hand while pointing at some important truths.

McKay and Swift are right to remind us that Canada had no common or romanticised understanding of war in the decades after 1918. There was a sizeable peace movement, fueled by trade unions, unemployment, social issues, pacifist clergy, and anti-war soldier writers such as Charles Yale Harrison, whose novel Generals Die in Bed (1928) is often hailed as the Canadian version of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. However, in the late-1930s, Canadian pacifism largely gave way to a grudging belief that a war against Nazi Germany was necessary. “Vimyism,” claim the authors, developed in the last fifty years as a whitewashed version of Canada’s military history, so that Vimy is portrayed by everyone from Pierre Berton to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a glorification of Canada’s military history and a celebration of a common Canadian resolve to fight tyranny and win.

In a rambling second half, the authors argue that for Vimyism to succeed as the myth of Canada’s birth in fire, much has to be forgotten, from the horrors of war as described by Harrison, to French Canada’s alienation from the war, the segregation of black Canadian soldiers in construction units, and the poor treatment of indigenous soldiers who did not receive proper pensions. Vimyism for Swift and McKay also means forgetting the injustice of shooting of twenty-two Canadian soldiers, many of them young and psychologically wounded, for cowardice. From the sales of war toys in the gift shop of the Canadian War Museum, to Vimy tours for school children, the authors look for evidence of Vimyism as a false but “uplifting and sacred story of [Canadian] origins” that betrays the true horror of war. To prosecute their case, McKay and Swift often use “what about” arguments, like supposedly noble Canadian soldiers executing prisoners or employing poison gas, or snide dismissals, such as the comment that military intelligence and martial music are contradictions in terms. All these arguments are intended to expose Vimyism as a lie, although one can ask whether it is fair to judge the Canada of 1917 by today’s standards.

It is hard to imagine any members of the Canadian Armed Force embracing The Vimy Trap, although I suspect that this would not bother McKay and Swift, who seem to see militaries as part of the problem. Contrary to McKay and Swift, it is possible to see Vimy in a way that is free of myth and romanticism, while still recognizing it as an important battle. Indeed, that was how its participants saw it. Sergeant Percy Wilmot of Nova Scotia, who died of wounds after the battle, wrote: “Canada may well be proud of [our] achievement.”1

The Vimy Trap is nevertheless useful as an opportunity to reflect upon how the CAF uses military history to perpetuate its values. Young NCMs are frequently taken on tours of Vimy Ridge and other First World War battlefields. In my experience, when our members see cemeteries full of Canadians as young people, or even younger than themselves, they are not moved to militaristic zeal. In fact, quite the reverse. Older members with combat experience immediately connect the war dead with their own friends and comrades lost or wounded in Afghanistan. Militarism for the CAF is not the problem. Perhaps for our leadership, the challenge is to use places like Vimy Ridge honestly, as historical moments, stripped of myth and full of pain and horror, yet still capable of teaching the military ethos of courage, self-sacrifice, tactical skill, and aggressiveness.

Major (Padre) Michael Peterson, Ph.D., is the Course Research and Resource Development Officer at the Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre, at CFB Borden.

Note

  1. Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-18 (Toronto: Viking, 2008), p. 147.