Thunder Bay had a very special visitor on 17 March, and I’m not talking about St Uhru. I’m referring to Tim Cook, a military historian at the Canadian War Museum, who gave a presentation at the Port Arthur Armory on ‘Vimy: the birth of a notion’. Tim also launched his latest book Vimy: the battle and the legend.
Why does Vimy matter? How did a four day battle at the midpoint of the Great War, a clash that had little strategic impact on the larger Allied war effort, become elevated to a national symbol of Canadian identity? Tim Cook, Canada’s foremost military historian, examines the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the way the memory of it has evolved over 100 years. The operation that began April 9, 1917, was the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together. More than 10,000 Canadian soldiers were killed or injured over four days – twice the casualty rate of the Dieppe Raid in August 1942. The Corps’ victory solidified its reputation among allies and opponents as an elite fighting force. The Canadians succeeded where others had previously failed because they learned the lessons of the Somme in 1916 and applied them to the assault on Vimy Ridge. This attack was meticulously planned and made good use of aerial photographs. The men went forward under a creeping barrage and the Allied artillery knocked out the enemy guns. Amidst a sea of failure, Vimy was a stand-out victory, but at great human cost.
So that’s the battle, but what about the legacy and the legend? In the war’s aftermath, Vimy was chosen as the site for the country’s strikingly beautiful monument to mark Canadian sacrifice and service. There were plans to have eight Canadian war memorials in France and Flanders and a competition was held which drew a large number of entries. When the design by Walter Allward was chosen – with its twin pylons and allegorical figure of Mother Canada grieving for her lost sons – it was clear that this could not be replicated at eight sites. So which site should be used for this main monument? Some argued for the site where the Battle of Second Ypres was fought in April 1915. This was the Canadian’s first battle, and when the Germans used poison gas for the first time. Others argued for the Hill 62 site which represented the June 1916 Battle of Mount Sorrel. Vimy was chosen, in part, because of the support for this site given by Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
Thunder Bay’s local battalion, the 52nd, did not fight at Vimy but there is a local connection to the memorial. Allward had the critical role as architect and sculptor, but the chief engineer, Brigadier Henry Thresby Hughes, oversaw the eight overseas memorial sites. Before the war, Hughes had worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway company and laid out the terminals at Fort William.
Over time, the legend of Vimy took on new meaning with some calling it the ‘birth of the nation’.
The remarkable story of Vimy is a layered skein of facts, myths, wishful thinking, and conflicting narratives. Tim Cook explores why the battle continues to resonate with Canadians a century later. On the 100th anniversary of the event, and as Canada celebrates 150 years as a country (which is another contentious debate) Vimy: the battle and the legend is a fitting tribute to those who fought the country’s defining battle. It is also a stirring account of Canadian identity and memory, told by a master storyteller. Released earlier in March, this book is currently on order and will be available soon at your public library.
TBPL continues to remember the role that Thunder Bay played in the Great War via the Thunder Bay World War One Centennial Project. More information can be found at www.tbpl.ca/worldwarone