Vimy: The Bat­tle and the Leg­end

Canada's History - - BOOKS -

by Tim Cook

Allen Lane, 512 pages, $38 The hun­dredth an­niver­sary in April 2017 of the Bat­tle of Vimy Ridge was marked by ma­jor com­mem­o­ra­tive events but also by con­tro­ver­sies. Even as a huge Cana­dian del­e­ga­tion com­mem­o­rated the bat­tle in France, some crit­ics at home ob­jected to what they called the val­oriza­tion of war and chal­lenged the le­git­i­macy of the na­tion-build­ing myth that sur­rounds Vimy.

All of this seems to have been pre­dicted by Tim Cook in Vimy: The

Bat­tle and the Leg­end, published shortly be­fore the brouhaha be­gan. In this his ninth book, Cook, a his­to­rian at the Cana­dian War Mu­seum, shows how

the mem­ory of bat­tle was con­tested from the very be­gin­ning. When, in the early 1920s, the de­ci­sion was made to com­mem­o­rate the Cana­di­ans’ ef­forts over­seas, it was by no means taken for granted that Vimy had been the Cana­dian Corps’ most sig­nif­i­cant bat­tle, nor that it would be the ob­vi­ous site for a planned na­tional war memorial.

In fact, the jury that chose Wal­ter All­ward’s now- iconic de­sign for the na­tional memorial had ini­tially pre­ferred Hill 62, the site of a now largely for­got­ten 1916 bat­tle called Mount Sor­rel. Mean­while, Cana­dian Corps commander Arthur Cur­rie pre­ferred that each of the corps’ ma­jor bat­tles be com­mem­o­rated equally, think­ing it quite im­proper to sin­gle out one. In the end, Vimy Ridge was se­lected in large part through the in­ter­ven­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King.

The de­ci­sion to place All­ward’s mas­ter­piece there helped to so­lid­ify Vimy in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion as the de­fin­i­tive Cana­dian bat­tle of the First World War. None­the­less, Cook ar­gues, Vimy was for­got­ten for a time in the wake of new vic­to­ries in the Sec­ond World War, only to re­turn to the pub­lic con­scious­ness in the dual com­mem­o­ra­tion of its fifti­eth an­niver­sary and Canada’s cen­te­nary in 1967. In the fifty years since, the mem­ory and re­lated un­der­stand­ings of the bat­tle have con­tin­ued to evolve. Re­cent events sug­gest that what Cook calls the Vimy myth will con­tinue to be a fo­cal point for ar­gu­ment about Canada’s past.

The book works on many lev­els: as a study of so­cial mem­ory, Cana­dian cul­ture, and na­tion-build­ing, but also as a mil­i­tary his­tory. Fully a third of the book is a de­tailed and of­ten-har­row­ing ac­count of the bat­tle it­self. It is here that Cook brings to bear his im­mense tal­ents as writer, as he moves ef­fort­lessly be­tween com­mand-level de­ci­sion-mak­ing and the ex­pe­ri­ences of in­di­vid­ual sol­diers dur­ing those four dread­ful days in April 1917.

In the past decade, Cook has emerged as Canada’s most pop­u­lar his­to­rian. His best­selling and award-win­ning works on Canada’s ex­pe­ri­ences in the world wars have cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of thou­sands of read­ers. In­evitably, how­ever, books such as Vimy, which is aimed at a mass au­di­ence, pro­voke some­times ac­ri­mo­nious and of­ten need­less dis­cus­sions about the mer­its of “pop­u­lar” ver­sus “aca­demic” his­tory. With Vimy, Cook once again demon­strates that there is no nec­es­sary di­vide be­tween the two. Vimy is at once a brac­ing read that can be en­joyed by the read­ing pub­lic at large and a se­ri­ous work of schol­ar­ship that makes ex­ten­sive use of archival sources. If the re­sult­ing book is a “Vimy trap,” I am a very happy cap­tive of it in­deed. Re­viewed by Gra­ham Broad, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at King’s Univer­sity Col­lege at West­ern Univer­sity.

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