NATIONAL DREAMS The Big Bang Theory of Canadian History
One hundred years after it ended, the meaning of World War I remains unresolved. Was it the birth of a nation, or a tragic debacle?
Back in November, just before Remembrance Day, my local newspaper published a full-page advertisement from the Vimy Foundation offering schoolteachers an opportunity to commemorate with their students the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. That World War I battle, which took place in April 1917, has long been considered a foundational event in Canadian history. For the first time all four Canadian infantry divisions fought together, 15,000 men leaving their trenches to attack the ridge, a strongly defended high point on the front lines in northern France. French and British forces both had failed in previous attempts to take the ridge, considered one of the most impregnable German positions along the entire front, but the Canadians succeeded. It was a stunning victory and despite the cost—3,598 Canadians dead, 7,000 wounded—it has been memorialized over the years as a place and a moment when Canada “came of age.” Because of the valiant showing by Canadian soldiers at Vimy, and in other battles, World War I itself came to be celebrated as an experience in which the country found its legs as an independent nation. The Vimy Foundation, whose work is aimed at promoting the legacy of Canada’s role in the war, and at Vimy Ridge in particular, promotes both these notions. “The message of Vimy,” declares the foundation’s website, “is one of bravery and sacrifice.” The battle “paved the way to an Allied victory and solidified Canada as a sovereign nation.” Canada “came of age” at Vimy.
As the 100th anniversary of Vimy approaches we can expect to hear more
of what the historians Ian Mckay and Jamie Swift characterize as the High Diction of war: lofty rhetoric that seeks to romanticize or spiritualize the experience of conflict. In an earlier book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (2012), Mckay and Swift, both professors at Queen’s University, criticized attempts by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to militarize Canadian society. Their new book, The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (Between the Lines), narrows the focus to World War I and examines how attitudes toward that conflict have changed over the years. It is also a critique of what they call Vimyism, “a network of ideas and symbols that centre on how Canada’s Great War experience somehow represents the country’s supreme triumph… and affirm that the war itself and anyone who fought and died in it should be unconditionally revered and commemorated—and not least because it marked the country’s birth.” Central to Vimyism is the notion that by carrying the day on the battlefield our soldiers fostered a new awareness of Canadian nationality, what Mckay and Swift call the “big bang theory of Canadian history.” Just as the universe begins in an instant, the product of a cosmic explosion, so Canada begins at a moment in time when “our boys” proved themselves in battle and allowed the country to take its independent place alongside the heavyweights of the world. From colony to nation in the explosion of a mortar shell.
During and soon after the war, many veterans recognized that the High Diction so often used to describe their experience was contradicted by the Low Reality of life in the trenches, though for the most part the conviction that the war was a noble crusade held firm. Mckay and Swift show that by the late 1920s, however, disillusionment was setting in. Books like Generals Die in Bed (1928) by Charles Yale Harrison and And We Go On (1930) by Will Bird articulated a less heroic vision of the war, told by men who had seen action on the front lines. For the two historians, this attitude is prefigured in the classic war painting by Frederick Varley, For What?, completed in 1918 and shown at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto the next year. Varley’s canvas depicts gravediggers in a shattered, war-torn landscape, preparing the ground to receive a cartload of corpses, a sombre expression of the pointlessness of war. The artist wrote to his wife: “You in Canada … cannot realize at all what war is like. You must see it and live it. You must see the barren deserts war has made of once fertile country… see the turned up graves, see the dead on the field, freakishly mutilated.”
Another anti-romantic view of the war was embodied in the great Vimy Memorial that now commemorates the battle. Mckay and Swift remind us that the monument was conceived, in the words of its designer, the sculptor Walter Allward, to be a “sermon against the futility of war.” Unveiled at the site of the battle in 1936, it is inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadians killed on French soil but without known graves. Allward eschewed the heroic motifs of conventional memorials—angels ascending with dead soldiers in their arms, that sort of thing—in favour of a series of mourning figures expressing grief and suffering. In fact Mckay and Swift wonder whether the monument is a war memorial at all. “Allward himself,” they write, “thought his monumental sermon against war had little to do with celebrating Canadian martial valour.”
According to Mckay and Swift the view that the war was a tragic mistake remained the dominant narrative until the 1980s, when the popular historian Pierre Berton published his history of the battle in a book titled, simply, Vimy (1986). No one, they claim, did more than Berton to reinvigorate the “big bang” theory, the idea that Vimy was “the country’s real birthday.” Mckay and Swift point out that Berton got many things wrong about the battle, but thanks to his stirring account it reclaimed its role as our “national fable.” Whereas just a few years earlier battles such as Vimy Ridge were seen as pointless bloodbaths, after Berton and right down to the present day they are venerated as important milestones in national development. Even the hockey commentator Don Cherry says so. (Mckay and Swift describe Cherry as “a flamboyant clown”; nonetheless he once topped a newspaper poll asking readers to name Canada’s leading public intellectual!) Ignoring the fact that the battle did not actually accomplish much and that World War I was a deeply divisive event back in Canada, Vimyism nonetheless finds in military valour an origin story that supposedly unites all Canadians.
Mckay and Swift argue that Vimyism encourages us to lose sight of the fact that there were/are two wars, the actual one and the imaginary one. The actual one was a disaster and a tragedy, hugely costly in terms of lives, money, national unity and long-term world peace. The imaginary one is a heroic crusade against a corrupt and vicious enemy. The Vimy Trap warns us not to confuse the two, not to allow our natural respect for and gratitude toward the veterans to blind us to the fact that war is about sacrifice and loss, not fables of identity.
For What? by Frederick Varley, 1917–1919. Oil on canvas. 58" x 71.1".