Understanding the victory at Vimy

Why does the Battle of Vimy Ridge mean so much to Canadian history?

Jack Granatstein
Jack Granatstein, professor emeritus at York University, speaks about the importance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge at the S. Walter Stewart Library. (Ben Freeman Collins)

The Battle of Vimy Ridge is remembered as one of the pivotal points in Canadian history. It is often said that it was the moment Canada came of age.
But what’s the truth behind that statement? And why do we remember Vimy, but not the Hundred Days, or Kapyong, or Kandahar?

That is the question historian Jack Granatstein posed to his audience on April 3 at the S. Walter Stewart library.

Granatstein is a York University professor emeritus and the author of more than 60 books on Canadian military, political and diplomatic history. During his hour-long presentation, he talked about the importance of Vimy Ridge.
But to do that, he had to first correct the myths that surround Vimy — the legendary First World War battle that was fought in France exactly a century ago, on April 9, 1917.

The myths of Vimy

First, most of the soldiers who fought at Vimy Ridge weren’t born in Canada. Over half were newly arrived immigrants from Britain. They would have spoken with a British accent and thought of themselves as subjects of the British empire. As Granatstein said, “Vimy is a Canadian victory, but it’s not quite a Canadian-born victory.”

They also weren’t commanded by a Canadian. Instead, they were being led by British Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng. And the planning for the battle and the artillery assault, which was key to the victory, was done by his officers.
Vimy also led to one of the most divisive policies in Canadian history: conscription. Prime Minister Robert Borden, who was in England at the time of Vimy, was under immense pressure to supply more men.

But doing so threatened to divide the nation. As Granatstein said, it was a plan that pitted English against French, rural farmers against urban dwellers and labour against capitalists.

“So it’s not really a nation-builder in the sense of bringing people together,” Granatstein said. “Vimy leads to conscription which leads to ripping the national fabric apart.”

So why is Vimy so important?

They learned on the job

As Granatstein pointed out, when the Canadian Expeditionary Force entered the war, they were an untrained, ill-disciplined and ill-led force.

“But they had learned on the job,” he said. And despite heavy casualties at Ypres in 1915 and the Somme in 1916, “they were beginning to develop a good reputation.”

Also, Canadian officers began to distinguish themselves — officers like Maj.-Gen. Arthur Currie and Lt.-Col. Andrew McNaughton. It was Currie’s analysis of the French army and his recommendations that led to an overhaul in the way the Canadian Core was organized and trained.

And it was these changes that would play a vital part in Vimy’s success.
Finally, to appreciate Vimy, one should understand that the Western Front in 1917 was plagued by stalemate.

“Russia at this point was on the verge of leaving the war . . . The Italians were stumbling from defeat to defeat. The French troops had been bled white, and there were mutinies,” Granatstein said. And the British “had no tradition of victory in the Great War on the Western Front.”

They established a tradition of victory

But when the Canadians took Vimy, they “established that tradition for themselves, of victory, of being able to beat what was arguably the best army in the world, the German army in World War One.”

Not only that — “they had succeeded where the British and the French failed,” Granatstein said. It was “a tribute to the way the raw recruits of 1914 had become superb soldiers by Easter 1917.”

Throughout the Allied nations, the Canadians were praised for their victory, he added, and “it gives the Canadian core a sense of greatness, a sense of pride . . . Vimy was a Canadian victory. A battle won by soldiers who had begun to think of themselves as Canadians.”

As one veteran of Vimy Ridge aptly put it, “We went up the ridge as Albertans and Nova Scotians, we came down as
Canadians.”