Why Vimy Matters
In France, in the Préfecture du Pas-de-Calais, just north of Arras, stands a soaring monument to Canadians. The monument remembers four days in April 1917, when Canadian soldiers captured one of the most heavily fortified German positions on the Western Front.
At the time, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a long overdue good news story, despite the 10,602 Canadian casualties including 3,598 dead, and it has since assumed mythic dimensions. In fact, Canada was to fight and win far more important battles a year later — victories that are beginning to be recognized as the ones which finally led to Germany’s surrender.
But Vimy was hugely important as a nation-building event. For the first time in the Great War, the Canadian Corps’ four divisions had fought together, planned and executed an offensive, and achieved a victory which had eluded other allied forces. As Jack Granatstein relates in The Greatest Victory (Oxford University Press, 2014), “It gave Canadian soldiers the confidence that they could do anything … they were good and they knew it”.
“To the soldiers, no matter from where they came, no matter their origin, no matter how short a time they had lived in Canada, after Vimy they were all Canadians and bloody proud of the shoulder flashes and cap badges that proclaimed their allegiance. The April 1917 victory had much the same effect at home. Canada had arrived on the world stage. It was a British Dominion fighting under British Command as part of the British Expeditionary Force. But it was nonetheless truly Canadian … Vimy Ridge was the battle that became a symbol of nationhood almost at once … and it has remained so for a century, the proof that Canada counted.”
Vimy was a military victory achieved by citizen soldiers. The assault demonstrated a level of military professionalism unsurpassed in any previous allied operation. Yet few of those involved were professional soldiers, most being civilians who had volunteered at the outbreak of the war — beginning with arguably Canada’s greatest soldier, Arthur Currie, commander of the First Canadian Division (and later of the Canadian Corps) who was “merely” a militiaman. Overturning generations of British Army protocol, egalitarian relations between the ranks ensured officers and NCOs attended the same briefings, shared battle plans, and operated with a measure of unit independence which took advantage of opportunities on the battlefield and mitigated the costs of setbacks.
The Vimy Memorial stands as a reminder of the greatness of which Canada is capable — and of the Canadian way of achieving greatness.
The painting The Battle of Vimy Ridge is by Richard Jack, Canadian War Museum. (Public domain, via Wikimedia commons).