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?

Geist - - Contents - Daniel Fran­cis

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".

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