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book review

An aerial view shows Canadian National Vimy Memorial on Vimy Ridge, northern France, on Nov. 1, 2015.PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/Reuters

Published just in advance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge's 100th anniversary on April 9, award-winning Canadian historian Tim Cook's Vimy: The Battle and the Legend is an insightful new exploration of how Canadians have transformed the event into a national touchstone.

Unhappily, as Cook's text makes clear, the desire to use the battle, and the Armageddon-like site with its cratered surface – one still full of live ammunition, its underground warren of claustrophobic tunnels and the achingly beautiful anti-militaristic monument, designed by Walter Allward, reaching for heaven at its summit – as militaristic propaganda has been on the rise, along with renewed interest in the brutal battle. As Cook writes, "The battle had all the ingredients to fulfill a message of togetherness and nationalism."

But why is that? Whether it is Vimy Ridge, or Hill 70, another brutal battle of the Great War, there seems to be something in the Canadian collective psyche – something both bizarre and insecure – that wants to name a battle as the birthday of the nation. Better, I think, with all due respect, and in memory of the many unfortunate soldiers whose lives were sacrificed, to pay attention, as Cook does, to the political dynamics involved in the repeated rise and fall in the Canadian imagination of the "idea" of these iconic battles, and the war that they were a part of. Canada, after all, had a population of fewer than eight million in 1914, and 66,000, all of them more or less young by current standards, were killed in action in a war they barely understood – one that few of us fully understand all these years, myths, legends and histories later. The older and richer, on the other hand, remained at home thousands of miles from the fray. In an era that had never heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, those in power on the home front would never be able to fully understand the enormous psychic wounds carried back to Canada by those who had fought. Where is the togetherness in that?

Reading the book, and noting the respectful amount of attention being paid to the memorial in recent days, I couldn't help but recall an encounter I had more than 15 years ago with another Canadian historian.

In April, 2001, my novel The Stone Carvers, which focused on Walter Allward's construction of the Vimy Memorial, was launched at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. The organizers had arranged for me to be joined on stage by an eminent Canadian historian so that we could talk about the period during which my book was set. Almost immediately, the historian made his feelings about my subject matter clear to the audience and to me. The notion of visiting the memorial had once occurred to him, he told us, while he was travelling in that part of France with another eminent Canadian historian. But since they had made a luncheon reservation at a three-star Michelin restaurant up the road, they decided to give it a miss and drove on by.

I confess to being a little miffed at the time – and not only because of the laugh the historian's anecdote got from the crowd. Miffed, but not surprised. When I had begun the research for the novel in 1996, the number of people in Canada – beyond his immediate family – who knew the name of Walter Allward could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Each of them was an art historian and all had met with considerable resistance when attempting to submit papers concerning the artist's sculpture, or trying to mount exhibitions of his work. He was out of fashion, and no one in power in the institutions cared enough to find out whether or not he had ever been in fashion. As Cook points out, the intellectuals of the time "had begun to question all aspects of the war." Presumably, this included the making of memorials.

As for the popular historians, if they were interested in Vimy at all, they were interested in the battle, not in monumental sculpture. The name Walter Allward appeared only once in Pierre Berton's 1986 publication Vimy, even though he gave five or six pages to the 1936 pilgrimage taken by Canadian veterans and their families to the monument's unveiling. But even he, uninterested as he clearly was in the artist himself, was at least attentive to the deteriorating condition of the monument and to the fact that next to no Canadians were taking the trouble to visit the site on which it stood. "Some of the engraved names of the missing, whose only memorial was the vast wall of the plinth, were themselves missing," he states, adding that although half a million people visit the site every year, "only a few are Canadians."

How things have changed since then, and since that evening in 2001, when the celebrated Canadian historian made the quip about his fondness for French food. Happily, the monument was restored by the Canadian government in 2007 under the directorship of esteemed historical architect Julian Smith. The limestone is gleaming once again, the names of the 11,285 who have no known grave in France (those missing in Belgium are named on the Menin Gate in Ypres) are clearly and heart-wrenchingly etched on the forward wall, the central figures powerfully convey their various allegorical messages to many Canadian visitors, and the work of art endures along with the memory it honours.

It should be pointed out, however, that this is not the 100th anniversary of the Vimy memorial, which was not unveiled until 1936. Also worth noting is the fact Allward's monumental sculpture was intended to honour all Canadians who had lost their lives in the war, not just those who were killed at Vimy. As Cook reminds us, other Canadian battle sites in France were considered for the positioning of the monument. Vimy was chosen at least partly because France had granted use of the ridge and the surrounding battlefield, which was shelled beyond all hope of restoration, to Canada in perpetuity.

Allward's name appears frequently in Cook's book – more frequently in fact, than anyone else's. It was with a certain amount of satisfaction that I noted that, while Sir Julian Byng, the British general who led the Canadian assault on the previously unconquerable Vimy Ridge, and Sir Arthur Currie, the commander of one of the Vimy divisions, had only 23 and 19 subcategories, respectively, to their citations in the index of this book, Allward, the artist, had 26.

This is not to suggest the battle is overlooked in Cook's accomplished historical text. Both the clear-sightedness of the manoeuvres and the enormous losses that were sustained are carefully and horrifyingly described. But, thankfully, Cook looks beyond this iconic battle and into the more human aspects of waste, loss and suffering that such bloodbaths engender, while at the same time paying close attention to the emotion and artistic strength that combine to make a work of art as powerful as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

Jane Urquhart is the author of eight novels, among them The Stone Carvers, which was The Globe and Mail's No. 1 Fiction bestseller in 2001.