a note on Vimy
Mar 30, 2017 · No Comments
Following an article in the Globe and Mail I have some reflections based on my work as a Great War scholar. Vimy was indeed a landmark for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but I believe that Canada was already a nation long before the battle and I challenge the narrative somewhat, as one can also read in the article. I have had the great fortune to visit Vimy several times, both above ground and underground in the extensive network of tunnels with modern conflict archeologists and bomb disposal experts. The monument is stunning and worthy, particularly in articulating the names of those whose earthly remains have never been found. To this end, I had the great fortune of being able to take some stems of long prairie grass from Canada and place them at the foot of the monument under the name of a young Albertan soldier who had disappeared in late September at the Somme in 1917. It was a profound feeling bringing a little piece of home to that lost soul.
But the narrative of Canada and the Great War is, I argue, far broader than trenches, mud, blood, and poppies. Certainly the success of the battle was significant, the casualties enormous, and strategic gains through the capture of the ridge were tremendous – a visit to the flatlands quickly illustrates the latter from this p.o.v. – Canadians, imagine trench warfare on the flattest prairie imaginable. But it is important to remember that the MAJORITY of soldiers returned (90% enlisted, 89% officer class). Thanks to the Durand Group who took me underground, I have read the ‘narrative’ of thousands of pieces of soldier graffiti in the souterrains and tunnels under Northern France. I can attest to the vitality of spirit expressed there. It is equally important to look at the support trades and the fantastic innovation of the engineers, the medicals (triage, x-ray, blood transfusion, reconstructive surgery, combat first aid, veterinarian medicine, etc. etc.) and many more professions that contributed to those percentiles of combatants RETURNING safely to Canada. Then let’s also remember the pacifists such as the Quakers who walked the walk and headed out into No Man’s Land UNARMED as ambulance stretcher bearers, and ambulance équipes, as carpenters and furniture makers who built homes for the MILLIONS of refugees, cooked and fed orphans etc. I have read the Quakers’ medical records in London and this cohort suffered PTSD, wounding, and illness in numbers that rival some army trades. So too did the nurses and VADs, proportionally. Disease was as potent an enemy to all as was bombardment and combat.
Yes, Vimy was very important to our country, but it’s important to remember the broader narrative too of voluntary citizenship, all the millions of women and even children who contributed, and to give credit where credit is due – certainly to our combatants, but also to the huge numbers, the tens of thousands that stood behind them and kept them going even on the darkest of days. We were Canadians long before Vimy Ridge and we did not need the approval of the BEF or anyone else to tell us this was so.
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