For the past century, politicians, soldiers, authors, and journalists have argued that that country of Canada was not truly born at Confederation in 1867, but during the First World War, at Vimy Ridge. That April 1917 battle marked the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought as one, succeeding where France and its European allies had failed by ousting the Germans from a key strategic point along the Western front. But does that victory – which cost the lives of some 3,600 Canadians – really deserve to be called “the birth of a nation?” This is the question Tim Cook, a Canadian War Museum military historian and prolific author, addresses in his latest book. His detailed, well-reasoned answer runs contrary to popular belief and may startle readers who have bought into the “myth” of Vimy.
The mythology developed, Cook writes, out of deliberate massaging of public perception over the past hundred years, starting with the federal government’s decision to choose Vimy as the site for its largest First World War memorial. The ensuing refrain from politicians and opinion makers transformed the battle into a unifying, nation-building event that saw Canadians from coast to coast working in tandem to achieve an important military victory. Cook analyzes the politics and propaganda that unfolded in the battle’s aftermath, the creation of the Vimy Memorial and its moving dedication in 1936 by King Edward VIII, state-organized pilgrimages to the site, and the influence of books such as Pierre Berton’s Vimy, which in its first two years alone sold 70,000 copies in hardcover and 100,000 in paperback.
As an author, Cook is usually at his best describing battlefield scenes, such as the first moments of the April 9 assault on Vimy: “With shells soaring overhead, along with enemy machine-gun bullets snapping along the front, throwing up bits of slime and sparking off barbed wire, never did these 15,000 Canadians feel so naked.” The cinematic writing plunks the reader in the midst of the actual battle, and a judicious use of quotes from soldiers’ diaries and letters helps provide a ground-level perspective. This resembles the approach in Cook’s previous eight books, including Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917–1918, Volume Two, which won the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.
Overall, Cook adopts a contrarian stance in his new book. The narrative of Vimy as a symbol of Canada as a warrior nation may work in English Canada, Cook contends, but it doesn’t fly in Quebec, where the First World War is remembered as a time of domestic upheaval over conscription. The sharpest wartime memory for Quebecers is not Vimy, but the 1918 shooting of dozens of protestors in Quebec City. And Walter Allward, who sculpted the Vimy Memorial, hoped his work would encourage people “to hate war instead of being proud of it.” Contrary to the dominant notion, Cook suggests, Vimy did not create the Canadian nation. The nation created Vimy.