|Montréal, April 13, 2002 / No 102||
by Martin Masse
On April 9, the 85th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge was marked again in Canada. This offensive by Canadian troops against key German positions that commanded the surrounding countryside took place on Easter Monday, 1917. The ridge had been held by Germans since the beginning of the war and British and French attempts to retake it had cost 200,000 casualties.
For the first time in the Great War, 35,000 troops consisting of the four
divisions of the Canadian Corps stood and fought as a national unit instead
of being parcelled out to support and reinforce British divisions: 3,600
were killed and 7,000 wounded, but the result was a clear victory. As British
historian John Keegan writes in The First World War, "The success
of the Canadians was sensational. In a single bound the awful bare, broken
slopes of Vimy Ridge, on which the French had bled to death in thousands
in 1915, was taken, the summit gained and, down the precipitous eastern
reverse slope, the whole Douai plain, crammed with German artillery and
reserve, laid open to the victor's gaze."
In other countries, this small breakthrough is remembered, if at all, as just one in an endless series of battles during the long years of the war. Keegan calls it simply "the first day of the battle of Arras." But here, and specifically in English-speaking Canada, this battle has taken on the character of a national myth.
Two days before the anniversary, the Montreal English daily The Gazette had the usual report of students and veterans visiting the site of the battle, and the minister making his predictable speech about "remembering our rich military history and heritage," under the title "The birth of a nation." The day after the anniversary, there it was again in the same paper: "Vimy veteran recalls battle that made us a real nation." These platitudes about a nation being born while thousands of young men were killing each other in ferocious combat come from the famous quote of Brigadier-General Alexander Ross, who commanded the 28th battalion at Vimy and is reported to have said: "It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then, and I think today, that in those few minutes
This is collectivist nonsense in its purest form, a combination of nationalist mythology and militaristic propaganda.
Somebody who doesn't know the history of WW1 and who reads about the battle as described by Canadian commentators might get the impression the tide was turned for the Allies when Canadian troops reached the crest of Vimy Ridge. We learn that it "marked the first major Allied victory in more than two and a half years of fighting. The war was on its way to being over thanks to the valiant efforts of Canada." Yes yes, don't laugh, our boys did it! The Boches were repelled and finally defeated thanks to us; the French and the English and the Americans, they were just peeling the potatoes.
The reality is of course a bit different. One reason why the Germans suffered such a setback at Vimy was not so much the superhuman quality and endurance of Canadian flesh as, in the words of Keegan again, "an absolute deficiency in divisions on the Vimy-Arras sector. The compensation for that was to be felt by the French at the Chemin des Dames, where fifteen German counterattack divisions had been assembled behind the twenty-one in line. If the Germans had been surprised at Vimy-Arras, it was to be the other way about on the Aisne [...]." On that other front where battle took place on the following days, 29,000 Frenchmen were killed, a defeat which finally broke the spirit of the French army and led to the so-called mutinies of the summer of 1917.
The history of this war is an endless, mind-boggling and profoundly disheartening series of massive assaults where tens of thousands of men get killed, sometimes in a matter of hours, most of the time with no discernable results. All in all, ten million people, soldiers and civilians, died during WW1. Despite this, many believed then, and still believe today, that participating in this massacre brought about "the birth of our nation."
The historical logic behind this idea mostly makes sense for English-Canadians who conceive of their country as growing and developing as a part of the British Empire, and finally coming of age as a full-fledged and for all practical purposes independent nation after WW1. Canada was an autonomous Dominion in the early 20th century and as soon as the mother country went to war, the colonies also were immediately at war and were expected to contribute to the Empire's war effort. But then Canada earned the right to a separate seat at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and became a respected voice on the international stage. It was also given a seat at the League of Nations. It finally became totally independent in 1931. Vimy Ridge was considered the catalyst for this transformation.
Here are a few gems of Canadian nationalist mythology one can find on the web:"Vimy came exactly 50 years after Confederation. But until then, Canadians always fought as British. This time they went in as Canadians." "For the first time, Canadians from coast to coast stood shoulder to shoulder commanded by Canadian officers in every rank save the highest." "For the Canadian troops who fought at Vimy, it was one of those rare moments of truth – for the first time they recognized who they were. They went up the ridge regionals and came down nationals." "Its effects on Canadian nationalism can be attested by the thousands of Canadians who fought the bitter battle and in those bleak days understood for the first time the concept of Canadian nationhood as opposed to British colonialism."
It is ludicrous of course to pretend that Canada was born at Vimy. French settlers, the first European occupants of the territory we today call Canada, arrived three centuries earlier, which is one good reason why this Vimy mythology never caught on among French Quebecers. One could say that Canada was officially born when Confederation came into effect in 1867. But why use the dates when states get founded or refounded? The people and the parasitic states that feed on them are not the same thing. Nations are not born all of a sudden when politicians sign some document, they are born and grow everyday when people work together, exchange goods and services, create a culture and develop common references, in short, build their lives and their communities peacefully.
What was born in April 1917 was not in fact the Canadian nation, but simply modern Canadian nationalism as an ideology, that ideology which has led to a growing centralization in Ottawa and growing interventionism of the federal state in the decades that followed, culminating in the Trudeau era. We would be better off today if that ideology had been still-born at Vimy.
Whatever one may think of this debate about the importance of the battle of Vimy Ridge and its role in the crystallisation of Canadian identity, there is another more important reason why giving so much importance to a battle, and in particular a battle in this war, is plain wrong. Canadians should not have been there in the first
The country was bitterly divided over the appropriate level of participation in the war. In the Boer War of 1899, most French Canadians were strongly opposed to becoming involved in what they saw as England's nasty little imperialistic wars of conquest on other continents. In 1914, there was more sympathy for the plight of France, Belgium and England, but still very little support for sending troops. Many thought Canada should limit its participation to supplying food and ammunition. And in the conscription crisis of 1917, just as in the conscription crisis that would come again during WW2, French Canadians were overwhelmingly opposed, while English speakers were overwhelmingly in favour. The French being the minority (only about a third of the population), the pro-conscription forces carried the day.
There is a kind of taboo today around this question of the lack of enthusiasm of French Canadians for participating in foreign wars. The consensus seems to be that we should be ashamed of this, that it shows how strong were for example the antisemite and pro-fascist sentiments during WW2. But in 1917, most French Canadians simply did not see what they had to gain in sending thousands of their sons to become cannon fodder at the whims of British generals, in units where they were being ordered to in English. They did not see how the interests of Canada, which was not directly threatened by the enemy, were served by sending more troops in this conflict. They had the instinctive reaction of a small people who do not want to get involved in the dangerous games of the big countries and the empires.
And they were right. It's something you will not find in the official history books of course, but noninterventionism in foreign conflicts, when applied consistently, is the best way to avoid major conflagrations and foster peace. And if only Canada and, much more crucially, the United States, had decided not to intervene in this silly European war, the world would be an infinitely better place today. Scholars of the Austrian School, the most uncompromising antistatist and pro-freedom school of thought in existence, are among the very few who understand this. Here is how Hans-Hermann Hoppe summarizes their revisionist perspective on this:
If the United States had followed a strict noninterventionist foreign policy, it is likely that the intra-European conflict would have ended in late 1916 or early 1917 as the result of several peace initiatives, most notably by the Austrian Emperor Charles 1. Moreover, the war would have been concluded with a mutually acceptable and face-saving compromise peace rather that the actual dictate. Consequently, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia would have remained traditional monarchies instead of being turned into short-lived democratic republics. With a Russian Czar and a German and Austrian Kaiser in place, it would have been almost impossible for the Bolsheviks to seize power in Russia, and in reaction to a growing communist threat in Western Europe, for the Fascists and National Socialists to do the same in Italy and Germany. Millions of victims of communism, national socialism, and World War II would have been saved. The extent of government interference with and control of the private economy in the United States and in Western Europe would never have reached the heights seen today. And rather than Central and Eastern Europe (and consequently half of the globe) falling into communist hands and for more than forty years being plundered, devastated, and forcibly insulated from Western markets, all of Europe (and the entire globe) would have remained integrated economically (as in the nineteenth century) in a world-wide system of division of labor and cooperation. World living standards would have grown immensely higher than they actually have. (Democracy: The God That Failed, p. xiii-xiv)So, Canada was "born," say the nationalist ideologues and neoconservative hawks of English Canada, when our boys mowed down other boys in the war that was responsible for making the 20th century the most bloody and destructive in human history. Thank God two thirds of Canadians, according to a recent poll, are so ignorant of history that they cannot even identify Vimy as Canada's most famous victory in the Great War. Ignorance is indeed sometimes bliss. Because more than all the separatist arguments offered by Quebec nationalists, it would be reason enough to kill this country if its population were so stupid as to accept this as its official founding myth.
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