"Canadians and their Queen today are commemorating the 90th anniversary of one of the country's most enduring pieces of mythology - a minor battle for a French hill, transformed by alchemy into Canada's defining moment of nationhood," Michael Valpy wrote Saturday in his article Vimy Ridge: The making of a myth
"Canadians, and only Canadians, call it the Battle of Vimy Ridge . . . In everyone else's historical lexicons, it was a limited tactical victory in the First World War's horrendous Battle of Arras, which the British and their allies lost.
"It had a negligible effect on the war's outcome. The Canadians had equal casualties and more strategic successes in other battles, such as Amiens and Passchendaele. If French or British rather than Canadian troops had driven the German enemy off Vimy Ridge, history probably would have forgotten about it."
The victory at Vimy has become inseparable from the Canadian identity. But how it got that status is a murkier matter, and a more interesting one.
Mr. Valpy has kindly agreed to take questions about his article and about the facts and myths of Vimy. Your questions and his answers appear at the bottom of this page.
Mr. Valpy is a senior writer for The Globe and Mail.
He began his journalistic career on The Vancouver Sun and became that newspaper's associate editor and national political columnist. For The Globe and Mail, he has been a member of the editorial board, Ottawa political columnist, Africa correspondent, deputy managing editor and columnist on social and political issues.
He has produced public affairs documentaries for CBC Radio, written for Maclean's, Elm Street, Policy Options and Time (Canada) magazines, won three national newspaper awards, co-authored two books on Canada's Constitution -- The National Deal (1982) and To Match A Dream (1998) -- and one on Canada's emerging generation of adults (New Canada (2003). Trent University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1997.
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Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: Michael, thanks very much for coming online today to answer questions from the readers of globeandmail.com about your excellent article Saturday on the myth-making - and the facts - that surround the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
As you predicted last week before the article was published, it drew a huge response from our readers.
Given that the reality doesn't quite match the traditional interpretation, why do you think Vimy remains such an emotional symbol for so many Canadians?
Michael Valpy: Jim, if I may, I want to begin with a reference to the nearly 300 comments on the article posted on the Globe's website over the weekend and the letters to the editor published in this morning's paper.
The article was not a denigration of Canadians' sacrifice in the First World War. Quite the contrary.
It wasn't a vituperative attack on Christianity as one poster alleged. It wasn't permeated with Marxist analysis (for heaven's sake!) It wasn't aimed at eviscerating pride in Canadian accomplishments. It wasn't cynical. I am one of the least cynical people I know.
But I am fascinated by mythology, and the article quite simply was an attempt to unpack the mythology around the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
I perhaps should have been more explicit in defining "myth" and "mythology" - the words don't mean "fabrication," "false" or "untrue." Myth is an alternative way to history of looking at the past. Myth is what we believe to be true at some profound level of our beings whether or not the belief is supported by history (which in itself is always contingent upon interpretation or re-interpretation from the present).
What I explored in the article was why Vimy had been invested with the mythology of being the defining moment of Canadian national consciousness, when history tells us that Canadian troops fought and won more strategically impressive battles elsewhere - as indicated not only by historians but by Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, Canada's senior wartime general - and when Vimy led directly to conscription which, rather than forging the nation, almost fractured it.
That is all the article did.
The exaltation of Vimy is a very anglocentric view of Canada. The victory was linked to an awakening anglo-Canadian nationalism that had begun to stir before the war began.
It was linked to the intense grief felt in Canada by the war's human carnage and it was linked to the Christian symbolism of Easter and the resurrection. Last, but certainly not least, it was linked to Walter Allward's powerful, evocative monument which was located at Vimy as Canada's national memorial in Europe, but only after considerable debate.
Marg Macdonell: Mr. Valpy, thank you for setting the record straight. It took great intestinal fortitude to challenge the enduring myth of Vimy Ridge. My question: Why expose it now?
Michael Valpy: Ms. McDonnell, I'm a little uncomfortable with the word "expose."
I mean, 27,000 Canadian soldiers fought there, 3,598 died and 7,104 were wounded. One battalion alone suffered 50 per cent casualties. All that is fact.
But, as I said above, I wanted to look at the mythology invested in Vimy. And the rededication of Allward's monument - which Canadian governments over 40 years had allowed to crumble - on the battle's 90th anniversary seemed a perfect time to look more closely at it. Plus Wilfrid Laurier University Press just published a brilliant new collection of essays on the battle by Canadian and British historians, Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment.
Allen Martel: Commentator after commentator has called Vimy the birth of this nation. I hope history dismisses this notion.
I believe that the actions of Lester B. Pearson in the Suez crisis is what really gave birth to Canada as we now know it . . . We now lead much of the world by example - peacekeeping, multiculturalism, etc.
None of these great traits finds its roots in Vimy. Imagine, 3,600 dead just to capture one hill so that more could be killed capturing the next one in a senseless conflict to no purpose. This is not to denigrate the superb tacticians of that day, nor the bravery of Canadian troops.
Honourable? Yes. But not the definition of Canada that I am so proud of. [Can you comment?]/p>
Michael Valpy: Mr. Martel, you're right. Vimy was not the birth of the nation.
But it did unquestionably contribute to anglo-Canadians' sense of their identity. And one of the interesting aspects to how the First World War was viewed in Canada - as a number of scholars have pointed out - is that the altered memory of it that took root in other countries after the war never acquired much substance here.
Canadians continued to link the war with the ideal of "sacrifice" and "national identity" and "national coming of age" whereas in countries like, for example, Australia (which lost a far higher percentage of its young men), the war came to be seen as an immoral slaughter.
S. Ives, Ottawa: I, for one, enjoyed the story immensely and would enjoy a much wider analysis. I wish to pose a question that I entered in the comments section. Might the problem that some people are having with Mr. Valpy's story have to do with the word "propaganda" and the twinning of it with "myth?"
Michael Valpy: Ah, good point, Mr. Ives. I guess the word "propaganda" has become so debased - it's association with the Nazis, for example - that one takes a risk today in using it.
The original sense was not pejorative. It comes from "propagation." The Roman Catholic Church still uses it, as in Congregatio de Propaganda Fide - Society for Propagating the Faith.
And, when you think of it, "propaganda" and "myth" are inseparable. But, you're right, they look a bit dodgy together.
Dana Cruickshank: What this article is saying is very true, but I don't think it is the whole truth. The tone of this article means to say that Vimy was a pointless battle and was useless . . .
Canada has two very separate identities built on myths. Those who want to get out of Afghanistan allude to peacekeeping all the time, while those who want to stay sometimes use Vimy Ridge. They are both myths in their own way . . .
Vimy Ridge did not have a great impact on the outcome of the war. But at the time it was being fought, the young men fighting up the slope did not know that.
The battle was a brilliant tactical victory for Canada . . . It should also be noted that both the British and French tried to take the Ridge but failed.
I'm not saying Vimy Ridge was the greatest thing to happen to Canada, but I think this article downplays dramatically the significance of Canada's role in WWI. The Canadian Corps, by the end of the war, were the "storm troopers" of the empire. That is a fact. There is no myth there. In the last 100 days of the war, the Canadian Corps was moved secretly to spearhead the assault on the German lines.
I'm just saying that Vimy Ridge is a little bit of a myth. But we should still be proud of it . . . [Can you comment?]/p>
Michael Valpy: But I did not write that Vimy was a pointless and useless battle. I said it had a negligible effect on the outcome of the war and Canadian troops achieved more strategic successes in other engagements.
I don't disagree with you that the Canadian Corps greatly distinguished itself in the war. But my objective in writing the article was to examine how the Battle of Vimy Ridge came to be cemented into the (anglo)Canadian psyche as the defining moment of national identity.
Gary Moore: I was totally disgusted with the article and more importantly the timing of the article. What is it about us as Canadians that we feel we have to eat our own and take away from glorious moments in our history by allowing this kind of article to appear in a newspaper that I usually respect? What is the purpose of demystifying Vimy?
Have you ever walked that battlefield and seen the craters that must have devastated the terrain and killed so many young men? Leave us to our recollections and fond memories of great Canadians.
Michael Valpy: Mr. Moore, I hope I now have addressed your concerns.
I also hope you'll agree with me that our national identity and our national values as Canadians are now secure enough to allow us to go back and examine the authoritativeness of some of our mythologies.
Let me give you an example. I was taught at school that early Canadian governments and settlers, unlike their counterparts in the United States, brought respect and justice to First Nations people. That was a Canadian mythology. Yet we know from still unfolding accounts of history that that is a false myth - and revealing it to be a false myth isn't beating up on ourselves.
I'm not suggesting that what we remember about Vimy is a false myth. I am suggesting, however, that it is not all what we have come to remember it as being.
Tom Langford, Montreal: This article really pissed me off.
I think you went out of your way in an effort to make our vets contribution at Vimy Ridge a myth! It is no myth that other armies failed to take Vimy Ridge but you, sir, seem to think that was a trivial feat . . . Our vets deserve better. We all owe them. You, on the other hand, seem to think their effort was trivial.
Michael Valpy: Mr. Langford, I'll begin my reply to you in the same way as I responded to Mr. Moore: I hope I now have addressed your concerns.
"Myth" does not mean "false."
And no one can morally trivialize the deaths of 3,598 young Canadian soldiers - or the death of one Canadian soldier.
What I tried to do was examine the mythology we have placed on Vimy Ridge, the stuff about "defining moment of the nation" and "Canada's greatest victory" that "altered the outcome of the war" etc. etc.
The comments from readers dumping on me indicates just how powerful mythology can be.
Garlick Toast, Mill Village, N.S.: Am I too cynical or is the current government using Vimy to ramp up enthusiasm for our current war?
I always thought the subtext to "Lest We Forget" was that war is a mistake to be avoided. Are we dishonouring their memory?
Michael Valpy: My understanding of "Lest We Forget" is that we're not to forget those who died for their country, not that we're not to forget that war is a mistake.
And while, like most Canadians, I have questions about our military presence in Afghanistan, I think the feeling that so many of our fellow citizens have about Vimy is genuine and is not something ramped up by government.
Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: Michael, thanks again for joining us today. I'm sure our readers appreciated your forthright responses.