4.01.2007

vimy

This week the Battle of Vimy Ridge has been in the Canadian media on a daily basis. It's the 90th anniversary of that World War I slaughter, which, according to legend or myth or possibly fact, forged Canada's identity as a nation. From the Canadian War Museum:
Many historians and writers consider the Canadian victory at Vimy a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness. Canadian troops also earned a reputation as formidable, effective troops because of the stunning success. But it was a victory at a terrible cost, with more than 10,000 killed and wounded.

The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize Vimy Ridge in April 1917. [Map] Situated in northern France, the heavily-fortified seven-kilometre ridge held a commanding view over the Allied lines. The Canadians would be assaulting over an open graveyard since previous French attacks had failed with over 100,000 casualties. ...

Although I know a fair amount about World War I -era Canada and the US, I know (and care) very little about the details of any specific battle of that terrible, useless war. The Canadian commemoration of Vimy seems most analogous, in US terms, to events surrounding the invasion of Normandy, known as D-Day.

What's interesting to me is the idea that a World War I battle helped create Canada's identity as a separate nation. In 1917, Canada already was a nation from separate Great Britain, not a colony. Clearly this battle is seen as a defining moment, but I always wonder about defining moments. They may be more products of the media than reality. Would an entire generation of Americans feel that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was their defining moment if they hadn't constantly seen, heard and read that it was? Maybe, maybe not. Culture is what we see reflected around us.

I wonder, too, how many present-day Canadians relate to a 1917 battle at all. Older folks of British descent, sure. And possibly the millions of Canadians descended from the mass influx of immigrants just prior to World War I, from many Eastern European countries, from Scandinavia, from the US, and from elsewhere. But what of the huge influx of Canadians who came here, or whose parents came here, after 1950? Or 1970? Or in the last 10 years? It would be interesting to know.

In our first months here, I saw how Remembrance Day (November 11) is a much more important holiday in Canada than in the US. Canada was involved in World War I on the same level as Britain, while the US just popped in for a quick kill at the end. (Some Canadians like to crow about that, but why was the US there at all?) In the US, what was originally called Armistice Day is now Veterans Day, and has very little connection to the Great War.

Did Vimy really mean what it is said to mean? Is World War I as much a part of Canadian culture as we are told? What does it mean to you?

I know at least two wmtc readers who'll have something interesting to say about this. I look forward to their comments.

36 comments:

James said...

What's interesting to me is the idea that a World War I battle helped create Canada's identity as a separate nation. In 1917, Canada already was a nation from separate Great Britain, not a colony.

It's even odder than that, since Newfoundland was still a colony and not part of Canada, but had many young men fighting in WWI. A number of the Newfoundland songs I gave you when you arrived ("The Recruiting Sergeant", for example) are about WWI from Newfoundland's PoV.

Not having lived much in the US (just one year), most of my impression of US culture comes from TV and friends, but I generally get the impression that Canadians don't talk about military history as much as Americans do. As far as I know, we don't have the equivalent of Civil War Re-enactment Clubs (but then, we didn't have the equivalent of the Civil War...). Still, Vimy Ridge, Ypres, and the Somme were names I knew well growing up. My grandfather was at one of those three (though I can never remember which). Though, in my family at least, they were always remembered as part of one of the most senseless wastes of life in history.

L-girl said...

It's even odder than that

Just to be clear, I don't find it odd that a national identity could have still been missing or imperfectly formed in 1917. Canada was certainly still very young then, and could have been more a collection of parts than a nation.

That's interesting about Newfoundland. Was Australia an independent country at the time? Because Gallopoli certainly looms large in their national identity.

In Ireland (and among the Irish in North America), many people refused to fight for Britain, feeling that they were little more than cannon fodder to the crown. (And they were right.)

L-girl said...

I generally get the impression that Canadians don't talk about military history as much as Americans do.

I have the opposite impression. :)

Other than D-Day, you don't hear much in the US. I see WWI-related things constantly here.

Civil War re-enacters are a separate culture - not at all mainstream. But yes, the Civil War still looms very large in American consciousness, for obvious reasons.

Though, in my family at least, they were always remembered as part of one of the most senseless wastes of life in history.

Mine too.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

I have the opposite impression.

Yeah, me too. James mentions Civil War reenactment clubs, but really that's a very tiny fraction of society. I mean, I vaguely know of the existence of such clubs, but neither I nor any American I know is at all involved with them. Whereas Remembrance Day and now this Vimy remembrance are huge things with big ceremonies and events that ordinary Canadians are encouraged to attend. And the media coverage of such things is mind-boggling to an immigrant from the U.S.

My impression is that while a small group of Americans may talk about it more than Canadians do, Canadians on the whole talk about it much more.

M@ said...

That's absolutely fascinating, that Canada does more to celebrate (if that's an apt term) our military history, especially since our military seems much less in the public consciousness here than in the USA.

But while Canada was an independent nation by WWI (as was Australia), they were still very much part of the British Empire. We were a self-governing colony (as opposed to a crown colony), and the country was in fact the Dominion of Canada. We did not actually make the decision to go to war in 1914; that decision was made for us by the king, because when the Empire declared war, we were automatically at war. (It was, however, left to Canada to decide what their participation would be. We could have been at war and not sent troops -- coalition of the willing, I suppose.)

What was special about Vimy Ridge was that the Canadians alone (well, relatively alone, I'm sure some British troops or artillery must have been involved somewhere) won a major victory, of a kind that had been rare in the meat-grinder war that was being fought. The Canadians already had a reputation as crack troops (we and the Australians were the Green Berets of WWI). For example, where the Canadians and Aussies were going was kept in the highest secrecy, because the Germans knew that wherever they were was where the next big push would come.

And the Canadians were fighting in Europe under a Canadian commander, not as British troops (I'm almost certain this wasn't the case for any other dominion in the empire). We had begun to insist on a less junior role in the war, certainly a step forward.

So with all these factors in play, Vimy Ridge does seem a legitimate milestone in our national history, but only one of many milestones. I think our declaration of war in WWII (which we made independent of Britain, and a week after Britain went to war) was an equal milestone, and that really is more about the 1931 Statute of Westminster than about the war. The patriation of our constitution in 1982, while it only formalized what our relationship with Britain had already become, is another one.

Anyhow, short answer, yes with an if; long answer, no with a but. :)

Btw, I'm far from an expert on Canadian history, and I tend to paint with a broad brush. Please, anyone, feel free to correct me on any of my facts or conclusions if they seem wrong.

L-girl said...

That's absolutely fascinating, that Canada does more to celebrate (if that's an apt term) our military history, especially since our military seems much less in the public consciousness here than in the USA.

American culture is very ahistorical. That could factor in. Would you describe Canada that way? So far, based on what I've seen around me this 1.5 years, I would say it's not - not to the extent the US is, anyway. Canada seems more connected to its past than the US does.

I don't know if that explains it or not. But I do agree with Ideal-Prag, that the extent of the celebrations and coverage is astonishing.

But while Canada was an independent nation by WWI (as was Australia), they were still very much part of the British Empire. . . . .We did not actually make the decision to go to war in 1914; that decision was made for us by the king, because when the Empire declared war, we were automatically at war.

Right. That much is clear.

What was special about Vimy Ridge was that the Canadians alone

That's the part that comes through in all the media hoopla.

Thanks for your thoughts, M@. I hope it's obvious you are one of the people I was referring to.

In his two books about the building of the railroad, Pierre Berton makes a case that that - connecting the country by rail that would only be in Canada, without going through the US at all [which made it incredibly more difficult and expensive to build] - was an early step towards a national consciousness. Just thought I'd throw that in, since it's a little thing about Canadian history that I know. :)

Sarah O. said...

I apologize for the long response:

American culture is very ahistorical. That could factor in... Canada seems more connected to its past than the US does.

I'm surprised to hear this, although I suppose there are two sides to every story. Surprised, because I remember reading David Lowenthal's story about the British colleague who told him, "history really matters to you [Americans], doesn't it?" and Lowenthal found it very fitting. Maybe it's a matter of relativity or a sliding scale of 'historicity', where Americans surpass the English and Canadians surpass Americans?

It could also be a matter of defining "history." Maybe Canadians celebrate the events of our history, while Americans rely on the 'plot' of their history? I'm thinking about things like Frontier Thesis dialogue, which is still casually bandied about among American commentators/writers ("pilgrim spirit," "going west," and all that manifest destiny talk).

I also want to point out the idea you made in your post that the "birth of a nation" discussion may be a media invention. You write, Clearly this battle is seen as a defining moment, but I always wonder about defining moments. They may be more products of the media than reality.

I'd point you to Jonathan Vance's Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War especially the chapter "Safeguarding the Past." He writes about how the Canadian public set about writing the history of the war even while it was still being fought, which became the dominant story, since the official history was so long in coming (eg. still being written during the onset of WW2).

While it isn't in that chapter, I do know that the tendency to see Vimy as the "birth of the nation" was very shortly after the battle - perhaps among some of the first reports. I hope one of your readers can help me find a reference for this assertion. Private citizens were also integral in this first and ultimately only version of WW1 history, such as media baron Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and his Canadian War Records Office, founded in 1915.

All of this just to say, if it is a media creation, it's a media creation that is as old as the battle itself. And it is, believe it or not, the creation of private citizens, not just the wealthy ones, but of the veterans as well (Vance shows how the returned soldiers fiercely defended their collective actions in the war, it's really interesting). Seeing Vimy as our defining national moment, then, isn't an issue of authenticity (it's real, all right), but an issue of accuracy: should we rewrite it?

L-girl said...

David Lowenthal's story about the British colleague who told him, "history really matters to you [Americans], doesn't it?" and Lowenthal found it very fitting.

Oh good lord. Nothing could matter less. America is all about the next thing. Its attention span is about 5 minutes long, and by all evidence, it always has been.

I have no idea what Lowenthal or his colleague meant, but it doesn't reflect any US I've ever seen.

L-girl said...

if it is a media creation, it's a media creation that is as old as the battle itself. And it is, believe it or not, the creation of private citizens, not just the wealthy ones, but of the veterans as well

I have no problem believing that. Also that it could have been created immediately after the event, and stuck. The example I used above of the JFK assassination was that way.

Thanks for your thoughts, Sarah. And there's never any need to apologize for the length of such an interesting comment!

L-girl said...

I'm thinking about things like Frontier Thesis dialogue, which is still casually bandied about among American commentators/writers ("pilgrim spirit," "going west," and all that manifest destiny talk).

I meant the American people themselves, not people writing about the US. Naturally historians and cultural commenters are going to have a sense of history - that's their job, to interpret the present according to the past, so to speak. I was referring to the population and popular culture.

L-girl said...

To explain further... Obviously some Americans care about history. I am one of them! I can put it this way. To study and care about history in the US is to be outside the mainstream. Certainly there are war remembrances and the media picks up the anniversary of important dates. But they have little or no context, and very few Americans, in my opinion, care about them.

Sarah O. said...

Your comments put a fascinating spin on the sometimes-voiced concern that Canadians know more American history than about their own history; some Canadians look to the American Revolution and the Civil War as evidence that the U.S. has "more" history than us. It makes it seem like the average Canadian may care more about American history than Americans do!

I've obviously been absorbed by "the academy," otherwise I would have remembered to make the distinction that you do.

impudent strumpet said...

I wonder, too, how many present-day Canadians relate to a 1917 battle at all.

I wonder how many present-day Canadians relate to any battle, at all? I don't think we've had clearly-defined battles with clearly-defined victories since WWII. I'd imagine most of us have never been in a situation where you read in the morning paper about a victorious battle and feel patriotic victory. Any military news we get seems to be either tragic or complex.

redsock said...

America is all about the next thing. Its attention span is about 5 minutes long, and by all evidence, it always has been.

Yet there is no shortage of documentaries/rehashings of WWII or crap like "Victory at Sea". Maybe that is because it is WWII.

As we know, the big H in the History Channel's logo asctually stands for Hitler.

redsock said...

But, yeah, I'll bet you could russle up a fair amount of Americans who think the US fought Canada in the Civil War.

L-girl said...

I'd imagine most of us have never been in a situation where you read in the morning paper about a victorious battle and feel patriotic victory. Any military news we get seems to be either tragic or complex.

Oh, good point.

Reporting in those days was so cut and dry, and strictly patriotic. All the newspapers, no matter what their political affilaition (and they all had one) were like CNN when it came to cheerleading a war.

What we see now is the post-Vietnam and post-nuclear era, where such blatant cheerleading and exulting over war victories is, at best, distasteful.

Unless you're Fox News or CNN, of course - or the National Post. (I'm sure we can list others, but you all know what I mean.)

redsock said...

As H. L. Mencken wrote in the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920:

"In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre -— the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

"The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

L-girl said...

Yet there is no shortage of documentaries/rehashings of WWII or crap like "Victory at Sea". Maybe that is because it is WWII.

That's why. It's "the good war", the war with clear good and evil, the last war where Americans can feel patriotic and proud, when the country wasn't divided, blah blah blah.

They tend not to show things like the incineration of Tokyo.

L-girl said...

Yet there is no shortage of documentaries/rehashings of WWII or crap like "Victory at Sea". Maybe that is because it is WWII.

It will be interesting to see if those programs continue when the baby boomers are the oldest Americans and those who remember WWII firsthand are gone. I'll bet they don't.

L-girl said...

The Mencken quote is great, but I'm missing the connection to this thread....?

redsock said...

Americans are idiots?

L-girl said...

Oh that.

L-girl said...

some Canadians look to the American Revolution and the Civil War as evidence that the U.S. has "more" history than us.

Well, it's a little older. It's had more blood spilled. It wrested control of the land in a more violent way than happened in Canada. It had slavery.

But more history? (Other than because of age?) Just different history, I think.

No?

lexington said...

What's interesting to me is the idea that a World War I battle helped create Canada's identity as a separate nation. In 1917, Canada already was a nation from separate Great Britain, not a colony.

Well, yes and no.

Technically Canada was a separate country (constitutional quibbling about the distinction between a "dominion" and an independent country aside), but psychologically Canada was still a very "British" country in 1914, and in fact remained so until after World War II. The very fact that Canadians (outside of Quebec) supported participation in the war so enthusiastically is an index of how strongly pro British public opinion was.

I also think you need to consider how much of Canada's self identity in 1914 rested on identification with the British Empire. Canada was a small, very young country cohabiting with a much larger, rapidly growing and dynamic neighbor, and it compensated for natural feelings of inadequacy by assuring itself that it was a small part of something much bigger and grander. For many Canadians, and this is especially true of the anglophone elite, Canada, Britain and the Empire were all of a piece (you need to remember of course that in 1914 most red blooded subjects of His Majesty took for granted that the Empire was going to last forever).

It was because of the experience of World War I that Canadians gave themselves permission (so to speak) to start thinking of themselves as something other than British subjects inhabiting a province of the British Empire. In a sense I think you could say Canada got something out of World War I that "Americans" -who were equally British subjects until 1783- got from the Revolutionary War: the confidence, born out of the experience of shared sacrifice, to believe that they were capable of great things on their own. In 1914 Canada was constitutionally self governing, but it took the experience of the First World War for the country to psychologically emancipate itself from the idea that it was essentially a British imperial appendage.

Clearly this battle is seen as a defining moment, but I always wonder about defining moments. They may be more products of the media than reality.

As I said, there was no real defining moment. There was a defining experience, and that was the war itself. However it's human nature to try to fix everything to a specific point in time, so we can say unequivocally before this point everything was one way, and after it everything was different. It seems to satisfy our need to impose order on disorder. Hence we date the modern state system to the Treaty of Westphalia, the start of the Industrial Revolution to the invention of Watt's steam engine, and the collapse of the Roman Empire to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, though these are all really post facto rationalizations. So it is with Vimy Ridge.

That’s not to say the whole Vimy Ridge legend is purely (or primarily) a media fabrication however, and it might be true (haven’t had a chance to research it, but it seems intuitively probable), as Sarah O. suggests, that the legend was born very soon after the event. Military victories have a way of stoking the public imagination –what would Britain be without Trafalgar, or the US without Yorktown and Gettysburg? Why should Canada be any different?

L-girl said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Lexington. Very interesting.

Military victories have a way of stoking the public imagination –what would Britain be without Trafalgar, or the US without Yorktown and Gettysburg? Why should Canada be any different?

Here's what I'm observing is different.

You don't read about Gettysburg in the US media. (I don't even know what Yorktown is. Lexington and Concord, perhaps, is what you're looking for.) If there are events commemorating those battles, they take place on a small scale. There's no US equivalent of what's going on this week about Vimy - except, as I mentioned, possibly D-Day.

James said...

In Ireland (and among the Irish in North America), many people refused to fight for Britain, feeling that they were little more than cannon fodder to the crown. (And they were right.)

And the Newfoundlanders were pretty much cannon fodder as well (not to mention mostly Irish). The Blue Puttees were the only North American regiment to fight at Gallipoli, and were decimated at the Somme (by the second day of the Battle of the Somme, only 64 of the 801 Blue Puttees were alive and uninjured).

I have the opposite impression. :)

Look at the History Channel, aka the "All WWII, All The Time" Channel. The Revolution, the Civil War, WWII, and Vietnam seem to be very prominent in US culture -- when viewed from up here, at least. How many US war movies are there? How many Canadian war movies are there?

Or maybe what I'm seeing is more a preoccupation with war stories than with military history...

As an aside: a while ago, a New Zealand beer company had a series of web ads that told stories about New Zealand for non-New Zealanders. One made mention of someone being like "that charming old great-uncle we'd have had all our great-uncles not been killed at Gallipoli". I thought that was a great line, one that makes you laugh at first but think once it sinks in.

In addition to Vimy, Ypres, and the Somme, the other big WWI thing in my personal history was watching All Quiet on the Western Front about 25 years ago. It made much more of an impression than all those heroic WWII adventure flicks.

L-girl said...

Look at the History Channel, aka the "All WWII, All The Time" Channel. The Revolution, the Civil War, WWII, and Vietnam seem to be very prominent in US culture -- when viewed from up here, at least. How many US war movies are there? How many Canadian war movies are there?

Allan mentioned the History Channel, too, and you're right, there are all those war movies. I think that's more of an obsession with war than an appreciation of history.

Or maybe what I'm seeing is more a preoccupation with war stories than with military history...

There ya go. I'd have to agree with that.

One made mention of someone being like "that charming old great-uncle we'd have had all our great-uncles not been killed at Gallipoli". I thought that was a great line, one that makes you laugh at first but think once it sinks in.

There's that heart-wrenching song, covered by the Pogues (that's how I first heard it), "And The Band Played Waltzing Malthilda,". It kills me every time. We heard some folks singing it in a pub in Ireland, I was all choked up.

the other big WWI thing in my personal history was watching All Quiet on the Western Front about 25 years ago.

That book made a huge impression on me. It's the ultimate anti-war novel, I think - and all the more poignant since it's told from the "enemy's" point of view. I blogged about it somewhere back there...

Wrye said...

I'm a History Buff, so my perspective is a little suspect, but I'm a bit puzzled by the focus on Vimy, myself. Why Vimy, and not, say, Chrysler's Farm or Juno Beach? There is a fairly martial streak in our history, and it didn't start or end on that ridge.

And if we want to invoke Gallipoli and colonial cannon fodder, I wonder how many Canadians know the name Dieppe. More than know Vimy? I wonder.

James said...

I'm a History Buff, so my perspective is a little suspect, but I'm a bit puzzled by the focus on Vimy, myself. Why Vimy, and not, say, Chrysler's Farm or Juno Beach? There is a fairly martial streak in our history, and it didn't start or end on that ridge.

And if we want to invoke Gallipoli and colonial cannon fodder, I wonder how many Canadians know the name Dieppe. More than know Vimy? I wonder.


Dieppe and Juno Beach are also featured in our awareness of our military history, but not like the WWI battles. They were well established as historical touchstones before WWII rolled around.

As for Chrysler's Farm, that predates Canada's existence as Canada, and so doesn't have quite the same "nation building" effect. And, of course, with the faster communications of the early 20th century, it was easier for news of battles like Vimy Ridge to get to everyone to have that effect.

L-girl said...

Wrye, interesting questions. Will you take a stab at answers? What do you think?

Ferdzy said...

Okay, this is only crudely on topic, but this post inspired me to do some research on some numbers I have often wondered about, namely, how many Canadians versus Americans were killed in the world wars, and and how do the wars compare to each other?

Here's what I got:

WWI: Population of Canada, about 8 million. Number of Canadian soldiers killed, about 66,573, for a percentage of the population of .832%.

WWI: Population of the U.S., about 102.8 million. Number of American soldiers killed, about 116,708, for a percentage of the population of .113%.

WWII: Population of Canada, about 12 million. Number of Canadian soldiers killed, about 42,789 for a percentage of the population of .356%.

WWII: Population of the U.S., about 133.5 million. Number of American soldiers killed, about 407,316 for a percentage of the population of .305%.

This confirms my suspicion that WWI was a Big Thing for Canadians in a way that it wasn't for Americans and even more than WWII, for either Canadians or Americans. You can't go to any tiny town that existed then in Canada and not find the memorial to the local men killed in WWI.

I haven't even touched on the numbers maimed, which were huge in WWI, and cast a long, lingering shadow on society...

But why all this, and one battle in particular should be "nation forming" I have no idea.

L-girl said...

This confirms my suspicion that WWI was a Big Thing for Canadians in a way that it wasn't for Americans

Yes, exactly. That's what I meant by:

Canada was involved in World War I on the same level as Britain, while the US just popped in for a quick kill at the end.

Britain and all its dominion lost an entire generation in WWI. Naturally its a huge a part of those countries' history, in a way it's not in the US.

Thanks for quantifying it. The numbers are mind-boggling.

James said...

WWI: Population of Canada, about 8 million. Number of Canadian soldiers killed, about 66,573, for a percentage of the population of .832%.

Wikipedia has conflicting numbers for Newfoundland, depending on which page you look at: either 1204/200,000 killed, or 1500/250,000 (either way, about 0.6%). According to Wikipedia's Newfoundland page, 1/4 of military-age men in Newfoundland were killed.

loneprimate said...

Wow… I’m chiming in here really late. Probably no one will read this. But it’s just so interesting. :)

We did not actually make the decision to go to war in 1914; that decision was made for us by the king

Well, more correctly, the (Imperial) Parliament at Westminster. Even in the American Revolution, it wasn’t so much King George who was oppressing the colonists, but Parliament and its Intolerable Acts.

American culture is very ahistorical.

The sense of history in each country is very different, to my mind. Americans are not unhistorical. Far from it. They might be ignorant about the details, but they’re intensely aware of being part of a vast continuum of time that, from a Canadian perspective, is rather enviable. It’s the stated motivation for nearly everything they do; from how they do back flips arranging stars on a 200-year-old flag when a new state joins to defending and preserving the Rube Goldberg mechanics of the Electoral College; from having turkey in November to buying mattresses in February. Everything is epochal and stirring by default, even if they know nothing about it. On the other hand, for Canadians, there is the handful of almost-mutual touchstones that vaguely bind us together as sharing a history, and outside of them, anything much before the Second World War is dim, vague, and considered boring.

I seems to me to work this way. History, in the US context, is a broad, flat ocean in which one constantly swims. There aren’t many features but you know you’re in it. You’re part of something vast and all-encompassing; it is all around you. Great things were done and you are the result. There are islands that poke up out of the water; they’re huge and vast and if you consider them they seem to fill the horizon, islands named Washintgon and Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence and Pearl Harbor. They’re hard to get a sense of but they’re pretty and lush and they make you feel wonderful about the sea in which you float, and the sea itself connects you to them. You don’t feel you have to know that much about them because surely, it’s the same for everyone. Americans don’t care about history because they don’t have to; they live embedded in it.

History for Canadians strikes me as being like a bird flying over a world of mist-covered valleys. It’s self-evident there’s something down there, but it’s vague and since you can’t see it, you tend to imagine it must be uninteresting and not worth exploring. But here and there, towering majestic peaks jut up through the clouds, things so amazing you can’t quite believe you share the sky with them, and when they come to your attention you circle around and circle around until you know the most intricate details of them, and you want to tell everyone else about these surprising peaks in your part of the world. On these peaks, these rare commonalities, you can all pause and nest together and squawk. But the valleys you simply can’t be bothered to visit… penetrating all that mist? You might fall asleep. You know there’s a lot down there supporting all the rest, and maybe you’ll get to it someday if you have nothing else to do. For Canadians, history is a big, empty expanse of hidden supports for what one can see today, with a handful of intensely interesting features, but from which one is largely aloof.

And the Canadians were fighting in Europe under a Canadian commander, not as British troops

The (likely apocryphal) story goes that Sir Sam Hughes, when directed by a British authority to disperse the Canadian troops among the British regiments, responded “I’ll be damned if I will.” Regardless of whether he actually said that or not, the Canadians in the First World War served as Canadians.

To me, this puts just a bit of a lie to the whole notion that Vimy Ridge “made” Canada a nation. Obviously, if people like Hughes were already opposed to Canadian troops being robbed of that identity, then that identity was perforce already palpable. What can be said of Vimy Ridge and similar efforts is that they enhanced and helped cement that identity. To some extent, the mythology of Vimy puts the cart before the horse. That is to say, Canada’s victory at Vimy Ridge didn’t make Canada’s nationhood a reality; rather, Canada’s nationhood at Vimy Ridge made a Canadian victory there possible in the first place. What Vimy Ridge and battles like it did for Canada was put Canada on the world stage as such. They earned Canada its own place at the peace table, its own seat at the League of Nations, its own embassies in capitals around the world. It didn’t so much make us a nation as give us the pride to begin asserting ourselves as one, not just at home but before the world, and to be accepted as such by the rest of humanity. Vimy Ridge didn’t make us who we were; we already were that. But it did give us the voice to say so.

psychologically Canada was still a very "British" country in 1914, and in fact remained so until after World War II. The very fact that Canadians (outside of Quebec) supported participation in the war so enthusiastically is an index of how strongly pro British public opinion was.

Actually the First World War was not broadly popular with indigenous Canadians at any point; there were always problems in raising troops and the government finally had to turn to conscription. Since we won, since we got prizes like the aforementioned Vimy Ridge out of it, it tends to whispered in Canada that WWI was not a war the average Canadian got behind. Vast numbers of the troops who volunteered were in fact either the children of British immigrants or those immigrants themselves. Even by 1914, among Canadians landed for several generations, there was already a sense of it being someone else’s war; a needless one being fought on points of honour among European aristocrats. The Second World War was more broadly ‘acceptable’ to Canadians because a very real threat to our way of life was perceived; in its way, WWII was the “perfect” storybook war in a way WWI was not.

"And The Band Played Waltzing Malthilda,"

I remember hearing that one as a child in Charlottetown, performed by a warm-up act for John Allen Cameron, as I recall. Never forgot it; it brought tears to my mother’s eyes. That one’s popular in every Celtic corner of the globe, for obvious reasons.

This confirms my suspicion that WWI was a Big Thing for Canadians in a way that it wasn't for Americans

There’s this sense that WWI is something almost funny to Americans… a lot Europeans flopping around in the mud for years till the doughboys finally arrive shaking their heads to show them how it’s done, Teddy Roosevelt-style, and put the boots to Kaiser Wilhelm. It was almost more an exercise in logistics to them than a war. For the US, the first really big foreign war was WWII. Everything else was about home: consolidating it or getting more of it. In a weird way, it was their big awakening to the world. Ironically, I don’t think that was the same in Canada because as part of a global empire, we’d always carried with us the sense of being connected to something much larger in scope.

L-girl said...

Probably no one will read this. But it’s just so interesting.

Well, I'm reading. :)

LP, thanks for this excellent comment. You are the other person I was hoping would weigh in.

they’re intensely aware of being part of a vast continuum of time

I have no idea where you get that from. Americans are barely aware that such a thing exists.

Everything is epochal and stirring by default, even if they know nothing about it.

But if they know nothing about it - which is true - how can they have a sense of history? They're just reacting as they are conditioned to, because that's what the culture asks of them.

History, in the US context, is a broad, flat ocean in which one constantly swims. There aren’t many features but you know you’re in it. You’re part of something vast and all-encompassing; it is all around you.

This is lovely, but does not describe any US I've ever known.

There’s this sense that WWI is something almost funny to Americans

No. Flat-out no. No one knows much about it, but I've never seen or heard any conception of WWI that resembles this.

They don't even know about the mud. :)

opit said...

Late to the party.
I lived on the international border for a few years. Cross border friends exchanging pleasantries tended to have a few conclusions about their different cultures. Americans tended to accept their government being involved in violence towards other nations. In the early 60's, Canada's Prime Minister won the Peace Prize. Kennedy won the hearts of the world : the ideas he claimed to espouse seemed to resonate at least as much north of the border as south.
Canadians studied history in school covering Britain, Europe, the U.S. and even the world - plus geography. Canadian history almost seemed an afterthought : often because, aside from the Riel Rebellion or the earlier conflicts between French and English in pre-Canada, the frontier was policed in a way the American west was not and violence was much less.
In contrast, kids of both nations watched American programming : Canadian shows seemed more interested in humour and civilian life than military/police/cowboy culture. British influence likely gave their programming more of an entree - though the Australians have come along in the last few years.
WW II's effects were not evenly felt. Small Ontario farming settlements died because their men had fallen, while neighbouring communities might be relatively untouched.
And of course, the tempo of war was much different. WW I - Flanders and death in the trenches. WW II - the merchant marine and the Battle of the Atlantic. Canada was the base of operations for replenishment of aircraft as well as ships. At the end of the war it had the largest Air Force in the world and an English/Canadian design crew in Trenton. They ended up at the cape working for NASA.
Korea was likely the last of a reasonably common experience. After that Canadian forces were used for civil emergencies and duty with the United Nations. Meanwhile the U.S. took up where the French left off in Vietnam, throwing manpower and resources at some strange concept of ideological threat to the U.S. way of life.
And that was pretty well it. The U.S. lowered the boom on Canadian aircraft superiority and 'sold' the PM non-functioning nuclear 'defence' missiles which were supposed not to have had warheads !( even though we were the ones who had been the contractors for supersonic air arms systems ) American airmen blew the whistle on nuclear ordnance being in place on these systems.
Most if not all of this was lost on people in the U.S. Despite being recognized as having perhaps the finest military training system around, forged in conflict, the Canadian armed services became a faint shadow of themselves - and were amalgamated into one department !
Vimy ? It was planned so that every soldier in every platoon knew what the objective was and what the group had to accomplish. It was the first assault behind a 'rolling barrage' where the forces followed artillery as it forced opposing forces to hunt cover until the Canadians were on top of them. Quite a change from the European practice of 'cannon fodder'.
The biggest cultural difference in the countries ? If you tried to sell the average Canadian on Communist or Islamic threat, he might well act as if you had lost your grip on reality.