The Construction of a Battle

The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack

You may have heard this story at some point in your life. Whether it was from a parent, a teacher, a textbook, a relative or even the government! It was three years into the Great War, a war that many believe was supposed to have been over by Christmas in 1914. Yet, here they were three years into this war and things weren’t looking great.

In the early morning of Easter Monday, April 9th, 1917, the Canadian Corps faced off against the German army in a military engagement that would go on to last until April 12th. [1] The reason behind this engagement was to capture a ridge located at Vimy, France. The ridge itself was said to give whoever held it, a strategic advantage in battle.

Others had attempted to take the ridge prior, but ultimately failed. However, the outcome of this three-day engagement was a Canadian victory and quite an important one at that.


Memory and Myth

Vimy Ridge sparked a sense of nationalism in many Canadians, which is one of the reasons it is viewed as such a pinnacle moment for our country. However, the Canadian Corps fought in many other battles and engagements, so why do we cling to Vimy? Why do we refer to this engagement as the birth of our nation?

For me, I view Vimy Ridge as a constructed commemoration that has become mythological as a result of the emphasis placed on the battle. The battle’s “legacy” has shaped not only the collective memory of Canada and its citizens, but also how Canadians have come to view themselves in the grander scheme of the world wars.

What is a constructed memory/commemoration? What is collective memory?


What’s in a Name?

Just to help contextualize what I am talking about, here are some definitions and how they are being applied:

Collective Memory: the memory of a group or community that has become a part of their collective conscious, often passed down from generation to generation. This has been applied to Vimy ridge on multiple occasions. Canadians (specifically English speaking Canada) has collectively come to view and remember Vimy in a very specific way, a view that will likely continue to be passed down to the next generation of Canadians.

Constructed Memory: Often defined as a memory that has never actually happened or to fill in a gap. In the case of this blog post, refers to the construction of how we have come to view a historical event or person. The events and people were real, but their importance has been artificially constructed to fit into the agendas of those using the memories. Often these constructed memories become ingrained in the collective memory of groups.

Other ‘Constructed’ Memories

In this blog post, I am not interested in solving questions of whether constructed memories are beneficial or harmful, because I don’t think there is a right answer. I am way more curious to uncover these collective/constructed memories and myths and find out the reasoning for their supposed construction or subverting the traditional narrative that has allowed them to become the objective truth in collective memory. Now, I can’t go into great detail about the origins of some of these memories, because this blog post would easily hit 5,000 words! I’ll leave the experts in the field to go into those details (see further reading at the end!). In this blog post, I will introduce you to some of these memories and the problems associated with them.

By now, I know Vimy is probably one of the biggest memories that has prevailed for decades and has also become one of the most contested. There are numerous books, journal and newspaper articles and discussions on Vimy as a constructed memory/myth.

Tim Cook (my all-time favourite historian, currently tied with Timothy Winegard), a World War One historian, has a whole book that explores the contention that has surrounded Vimy. Vimy: The Battle and the Legend has served me well when I wrote about the collective memory of Vimy Ridge in my undergrad. It also opened my eyes to the possibilities of critically looking at a lot of other defining moments, while still recognizing their validity as memories. While both Cook and myself may see Vimy as we have come to understand it, as a myth, there is value to that myth. There is value in understanding how memory is utilized for political agendas, in nation building, in propaganda, in the creation of identities, and most important, in why and how the everyday person views themselves within that memory and narrative.

Let’s not point fingers though, Canada isn’t the only country that experiences this.

Have you heard of Joan of Arc? Yeah, it’s highly likely she didn’t militaristically plan the Siege of Orléans and maybe she didn’t hear the actual voices of saints. But, do you know what she concretely did? To some extent (we can debate about the extent at another time), she gave the soldiers she was with hope, she gave France hope that they could continue to fight and win against the British forces during the Hundreds Years War. She has been used as a political tool since her death, her story and heroism being used by every group imaginable.

Her image and story have been contested since she was alive, with the French seeing her as a martyr and the maid of Orléans and the British seeing her as a witch and potential threat to their advancement in the war.

While Joan was a person and Vimy was a battle, they have something in common…

Hope.

I know I remember learning about Joan as a sign of hope, that according to God (and Joan), the Dauphin of France was to be the rightful king and France would win the war. Joan was this walking symbol of hope for the French people (and king!).

Nowadays, Vimy is often viewed in the same day, a symbol of hope. That these courageous men fought for something greater than themselves, that Canada can effectively and militaristically be on the same level as its international counterparts, and that Canada has a strong military history. All those points are points of contention and can easily be debated on their validity, but underlying all of them is hope. I remember in grade school being taught that Canada was a peacekeeping nation, our role on the world stage was to help other countries and then all of a sudden in high school, we are now a proud military-strong country. Vimy was and still is, a sign of hope for many Canadians, that even against all odds and despite previous failures, Canada can do it!

I don’t personally believe in that narrative, but, I know many people close to me who do. While we should recognize the validity of people’s memories constructed or not, these memories can become problematic.


The Problems

What’s the problem with these collective memories? For one thing… blind hope and nationalism. National pride in your country is one thing, wave that red and white flag, wear your maple leaf themed clothing and eat Beavertails till your sick! But, we’ve seen the problems that can come from intense nationalism and the slope can be pretty slippery.

This is why its really odd that Canadians have moved from promoting ourselves as peacekeepers to promoting our long and strong military history. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that move, but, let’s not ignore why we are doing the switch. The switch is likely due to the two reasons: one being the 100th anniversary of Vimy and likely due in part to the political climate. Canada fought in Afghanistan, our first war in over 50 years and this constructed memory as a country with a strong military history likely helped cement our standing within the war. [2]

Joan poses its own problems as she is being used by both those on the left and the right to promote their own political agendas. It is very easy to take these myths/constructed/collective memories and use them for good or bad.

They also can discredit other narratives and histories. By now we all know there is no way anyone will ever reach a fully objective truth, but as historians, it is our job to try our best to do so.

But continuously perpetuating that Vimy was the birth of our nation, we forget the other nations that were here long before or the resistance to the war. The Vimy memory sometimes simplifies the complexities of the war and overlooks the non-Anglo-Saxon perspectives on the war effort. The Indigenous nations were here long before Canada and Vimy certainly wasn’t the birth of their nations, nor was it the birth of the French nation in Canada. Even if its a superficial connection, the loss of Vimy was immense and it made sense why a few months later Robert Borden introduced the Military Service Act (MSA). (pg. 160) [3] As tensions began to grow between French and English Canada, riots broke out in Montreal in the summer of 1917, opposing conscription as the French didn’t see the Great War as a war they should be forced to fight in. As historian and professor Serge Durflinger states, “… [the riots] were an indirect outcome of Canada’s losses at Vimy … a potentially nation-destroying event.” (pg. 162) [4]

If we simply accept the Vimy memory/myth as our objective truth, we lose the complexities of the Great War and the narratives of the French and Indigenous people.

So what do we do?


Final Remarks

I am critical of constructed memories and myths, I find that they can become quite problematic and feed easily into propaganda machines and nationalism. BUT! There is value in constructed memory and myths.

I will say the same thing to my readers as I have to my students in my tutorials. Myths and constructed memories happened for a reason, they took hold for a reason, people are protective of them for a reason and as historians, our job should not be to brush it aside, but rather examine it. There is value in understanding how a community or country uses the myth within their broader collective memory, value in understanding its impact and value in its creation.

When I was teaching my students about myth and history, we used Joan of Arc as a reference. Sure, she might not have been this all commanding powerful leader as some stories have told us, but there is value to that myth. It gave the French people hope, hope that they could win these battles, take back their possessions from England and surely much more.

Vimy is the exact same way, it gives Canadians a sense of hope and a sense of pride. There is historical value in seeing why Vimy was created and why it continues to penetrate and be prominent to our understanding of the creation of our country (or the birth in this matter!).

So, no, I don’t think Vimy is the birth of a nation, but I think there is value in understanding, historically, why it is propped up as such.

What do you think?

~ Kat


Further Reading

Cook, Tim. Vimy: The Battle and The Legend. Toronto: Penguin, 2017.

McKay, Ian, and Jamie Swift. The Vimy Trap, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War. Toronto, Ontario Canada: Between the Lines, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s