A review of The Vimy Trap by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The Vimy Trap
Or How we Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War
by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift
Between the Lines
Paperback: 392 pages, November 1, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1771132756

The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place almost one hundred years ago, on April 9, 1917, as part of the Battle of Arras launched by British and French forces against those of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, to divert them from other fronts. The British and French had attempted to take the ridge and had failed. The Canadian Corps, part of the British Expeditionary Force, succeeded, with heavy casualties.

Since the 1990s, the Battle of Vimy Ridge has often been hailed as the birth of the Canadian nation. According to this view, the battle brought Canadian soldiers together as a fighting unit and proved to them and to the world what they could achieve. The follow-up part of the narrative holds that the heroes of World War I should be honoured for preserving Canada’s democratic institutions, rights and freedoms. According to this line of thinking, freedom is won in battle and war develops character and allows men to develop their potential. This founding story has been articulated by a number of influential Canadians, including Governor General David Johnston; former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his administration; popular historian Pierre Berton, and sportscaster Don Cherry (with reference to Canadian troops in Afghanistan.) An official handbook for newcomers includes this version of Canada’s birth as a nation.

Canadian historians Ian McKay and Jamie Swift consider this narrative “dubious.” In The Vimy Trap, they say that “Vimyism” is the “big bang theory of Canadian nationhood.”  Vimy Ridge is a trap, they say, because the over-emphasis of this one battle influences Canadians to overlook the big picture. The “Great War”, which operated on a number of fronts, introduced new and terrible killing techniques such as tanks, aircraft and poison gas, and killed about ten million soldiers and seven million civilians. (Out of a population of about 10 million, Canada lost about 61,700 soldiers.)

Through research the authors have found that “there never was one overwhelming predominant Canadian memory of the war.” After the Armistice, nobody hailed the Vimy victory as the moment when Canada coalesced as a nation. Indeed, the Great War was a divisive force in Canada, especially with the introduction of conscription in 1917. In the mid to late 1930s, as war loomed again, Canadians did not harken back to Vimy for inspiration; they regarded World War I, not as a “sacred struggle” but as a “cautionary tale”.

McKay and Swift remind readers that Vimy Ridge was not a decisive battle in the “Great War”, and that it was also more of a British victory than a Canadian one. The Canadian Corps was part of the British Expeditionary Force, and a British Lieutenant General, Julian Byng, moulded the Canadian soldiers into a cohesive unit. Furthermore, only a third of the soldiers who went overseas in 1914 were Canadian-born; two thirds were first generation British immigrants.

Pacifists during and after the war claimed, as most historians do, now, that the pre-war imperialist rivalry and arms race between Britain and Germany created a volatile situation in which war was easily triggered. Both countries were to blame. Swift and McKay bring to light the neglected story of the wartime and inter-war peace movement, with its “comprehensive vision of an all-embracing politics of peace.”

“The sympathetic treatment we accord interwar peace activists,” write McKay and Swift, “stands in sharp contrast to conventional treatments of them, in which they are treated as naive dreamers in quest of utopia.” In fact, it was the “idealists” at the 1932 International Disarmament Conference who insisted that governments should be held to standards of disarmament and arbitration of disputes, while the “realists” asserted that sovereign states should always behave in their own interests. Many of the “norms underpinning global international organizations” founded after 1945 originated with the inter-war peace movement.

The authors’ extensive and exhaustive research is indicated by their twenty-five pages of bibliography and chapter notes. The Vimy Trap is a balance to the “Vimyist” school of thought, which has lately dominated the discourse about Vimy Ridge. Perhaps, for the benefit of readers less-informed about history, the authors might have spelled out two things more clearly. Regarding the Vimyist notion that Canadians’ rights, freedoms and democratic institutions have been won on the battlefield, the authors might have pointed out that it would have been the hope of such things to come, rather than the defence of an existing reality, for which the Canadian soldiers in the Great War fought. At the time of the First World War years, the franchise was limited to half the population, and rights and freedoms were severely limited under the War Measures Act. Perhaps the authors could also have noted that the Great War wasn’t fought against the evils of fascism and Naziism; that was World War II.

The Vimy Trap is compelling and convincing. The authors’ research into letters, diaries and newspaper accounts of the day makes interesting reading. Some lesser-known but significant Canadians come alive, such as the feminist and peace activist Alice Chown.

If a country needs a central myth of nationhood, what should Canada’s be? The authors do not explicitly address this question, but possibilities spring to mind. A few years ago, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation invited the public to nominate the greatest Canadian, the winner was Tommy Douglas, former leader of the New Democratic Party (the democratic socialist party) who, as Premier of the Province of Saskatchewan, pioneered Canada’s health care system. Health care and other programs in Canada’s social safety net are key to Canadians’ sense of themselves as a caring people. Canada’s contributions to peace-keeping through the United Nations, starting with the Suez Crisis, is also an important part of the Canadian identity.

In 1922, when Canada was considering sites for a monument in France, eight locations were considered, with Vimy Ridge chosen primarily for its picturesque view. In 1936, when the monument was completed and unveiled, the sculptor, Walter Allward, told a London reporter that he had wanted to create “something beautiful” that was “worthy of the men who gave their lives, and, as a protest in a quiet way against the futility of war, may make men regret that humanity has to go to war, instead of being proud of it.”

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s latest book is the young adult historical novel, Grace and the Secret Vault  (info@baico.ca 978-1-7721-6095)