This week, I will be writing about Vimy Ridge.
In June of this year, I had the good fortune of being able to visit the fabled French locale. For my girlfriend and I, it was part of a 2-month trip that took us from India and Nepal to Western Europe. The several days that we (along with her mom and her mom’s partner) spent in Belgium and France are what I’d like to talk about, and in doing so I will be using Vimy and the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a focus and jumping off point.
Prior to the planning of this trip, I knew about Vimy through the same means and lens that I suspect most Canadians do. Grade 10 history class, Remembrance Day speeches, Canadian Heritage Minutes, and CBC Documentaries. I’d been taught, like most of us, that Vimy was a foundational moment – perhaps the foundational moment – for Canada. The moment that we graduated from colony to country. In some ways, this is true. However, in doing some research and preparing for this trip, I gained an incredible appreciation for the breadth and depth of this long Canadian moment.
Off the top, I have to say that it is true that the Canadians were the ones who were able to take the ridge, following a multitude of previous attempts from the French, British, and Allies. As an indication of how instrumental Canadians were to the capture of the ridge, 250 acres of land on top of the ridge was ceded to Canada, and thus the territory is now Canadian land. This is one of two sites that were given such treatment by the French – I will discuss the other later this week.
In this discussion of some other aspects of Vimy, I do not mean to diminish the contributions of Canada to the War effort. Nor do I mean to attack any person or institution that touts the bravery and ingenuity of the Canadians at Vimy as central to their identity. My great-grandfather fought, and was wounded, at Vimy. I am grateful that he returned to Canada (as without that, the three most-recent generations of my family would never have existed), and ever-mindful of the sacrifice of so many. The sacrifice of those who lived a more-difficult life after having experienced the horrors of war, and the ultimate sacrifice of those who never even got the chance to do so. In discussing Vimy, I simply mean to bring up some of the subtleties about which I learned while there.
The main source of this deeper understanding was an excellent episode of Paul Kennedy’s “Ideas” on CBC Radio, entitled “Vimy at 100: Myth vs. Reality”. In the episode, historian Tim Cook discusses the historical evolution of the manner in which Vimy has been presented to Canadians and used to manipulate the passions of citizens. One example of the changing profile of Vimy in the minds of Canadians is the simple fact that the dramatic and stunning memorial monument that stands atop the ridge was originally meant to be built elsewhere. In the immediate years following the War, Vimy was not necessarily thought of as a place of such importance that it begged for a beautiful piece of art.
The other big point that made an impression on me was that once the ridge was won, the Battle of Arras of which it was a part continued on. And on. And on. This story was brand new to me. I had previously thought that this had been a win, full stop. But the Ridge was simply one objective in a long and bitter advance – a trait typical of most battles in The Great War. While this does not diminish the achievement of the objective, it does provide greater context to the overall horrific meaninglessness that soldiers may have felt while endlessly advancing into enemy fire.
That wraps things up for this week. I look forward to delving further into Vimy in the coming days.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
This post is the sixth installment in my month-long project, “500 in 28”. For the next 28 days, I’ll be spending 28 minutes a day writing 500 words. See here for my first post explaining the project #500in28.