The Battle of Vimy Ridge: History, Myth, Memorial and Remembrance

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the costliest and most successful military engagements in Canadian history. Due to the extraordinary bravery of thousands of Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was hard-won against great odds. Today Vimy Ridge is commemorated in Canada as the defining moment when we shed the cloak of the British Empire and defined our own identity on the world stage as a victorious nation.

But.

History really is not the same as remembrance, as I discovered last June when I visited the battlefield. The Vimy Ridge memorial, built in 1936 on land donated by France to “all Canadian people,” has become enshrined in a national narrative honouring Canada’s “coming of age” and “birth” as a nation. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, this memorial perpetuates this narrative, while reminding us both the astounding scale of the First World War, and Canada’s role in that international conflict.

Once the feelings of overwhelming awe towards the immense bravery of all soldiers fighting in the First World War passes, and once you dig deeper into Canada’s exact reasons in 1917 for attacking this dreadful graveyard in France, and once you actually question what the hell so many young men were doing in such a devastating conflict, you begin to realise that the way we remember battles has become more important than the reality of what actually happened.

 The “Facts” that Fuel Canada’s National Narrative

Vimy Ridge was a heavily fortified seven-kilometre ridge in northern France that held a commanding view over the Allied lines. Previous attempts by the French to secure the ridge resulted in over 100,000 causalities, who lay in the open graveyard between the lines.

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Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Canadian troops seen here advancing over no man’s land and through the German barbed wire whilst under fire. (Photo: Huffington Post).

The Canadian Corps spent weeks practising the attack. After the disaster at the Somme, British tactics were forced to change. Instead of relying on officers for leadership and strategy (many of whom had been slaughtered at the Somme), regular soldiers were now equipped with enough tactical details to adequately survive if their leader was killed in action.  For the first time, regular infantrymen were briefed on the terrain and maps, and encouraged to think for themselves. They were also armed with machine guns, rifle-men and grenade throwers, giving them more versatile tools to overcome obstacles.

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Prior to the Canadian attack on April 9th, 1917, the Canadian Corps had around 1,000 men working on 12 underground passageways. Each of the tunnels housed soldiers, ammunition, water, and communication lines, and most were lit by electricity.  See Valour Canada website for more details.

Elaborate tunnels in the rear lines (the longest being 1.2km in length) allowed for quick communication between rear and front line trenches. This also allowed for critical supplies to reach all the troops in the weeks leading to the attack.

But the chief reason for success was the devastating artillery barrage that isolated German trenches and forced German machine gunners to stay in their deep dug outs. A week before the attack, more than a million shells were fired at the German lines, and even targeted at the villages in the rear. The Germans called this “the week of suffering.”

The new artillery fuse (called 106) meant that shells detonated upon impact, rather than burying themselves in the ground, which meant that hard defences could be more easily destroyed. One Canadian observer recorded that the shells poured “over our heads like water from a hose, thousands and thousands a day.”

Julian Byng

British General Sir Julian Byng and the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, warned before the attack on Vimy Ridge, “Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated.”

On the morning of Monday, 9 April 1917 at 5.30am, four Canadian divisions, attacking together for the first time, overran the German line. Over 15,000 Canadians accompanied by one British division captured the highest part of the ridge (Hill 145) and within three days, the Canadians and British had won the ridge.

But Vimy Ridge was only victorious at a great cost. Nearly 4,000 Canadians were killed and 7,000 were injured.

The Facts Excluded from the Canadian Narrative

The Canadian War Museum website, the Vimy Foundation website, and the Veterans Affairs website of the Canadian government fail to mention German casualties or prisoners, or even recognise Britain’s involvement as anything but ancillary.

Exact figures for German casualties are unknown due to the destruction of records in the Second World War. But we know that 4,000 Germans were taken prisoner, while the Canadian Encyclopaedia estimates that 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded at Vimy Ridge.

One of the reasons for German defeat was the German Commanders’ failure to adequately use a newly introduced defensive tactic called “defence in depth.” Rather than stubbornly defending every foot of captured ground, German armies would allow attacking troops to probe into their territory just far enough to be beyond their supply lines — and then destroy them in a counterattack. The strategy was very effective, but the German defenders of Vimy were given the traditional order to “hold the line” at all costs. The German commander, Ludwig von Falkenhausen, was promptly reassigned after the defeat.

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Captured German prisoners after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917. Photo credit: the National Post and Library and Archives Canada.

In the aftermath of Vimy Ridge, German soldiers were photographed smiling after being taken prisoner. This, despite the fact that Canadians had earned a grim reputation for killing those who surrendered. (For an excellent article on this, see Tim Cook’s The Politics of Surrender).  But smiling for the camera was no coincidence. A year previously, Germany had suffered through the “turnip winter”, when adults were living on just 1,200 calories a day. So, becoming a POW often meant receiving better rations. Also, the Germans had just undergone weeks of night attacks and raids on their trenches. They were obviously exhausted and relieved to be no longer fighting.

Despite Canadian proclamations of victory, Germans viewed Vimy Ridge as a draw rather than an outright defeat. Historians, such as Andrew Godefroy, admit that due to a lack of sources, it is difficult to fully reconstruct events on the German side. But he revealed that although General von Falkenhausen was assigned most of the blame for losing the ridge, other commanders including General Georg Karl Wichura and Oberstluetnant Wilhelme von Goerne, received medals for their leadership. Also, because the Canadians took the ridge but failed to break the German line, the Germany army recognized, to some degree, that Vimy Ridge had not entirely been a defeat.

Most importantly, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was strategically insignificant to the outcome of the war. Other battles, such as Amiens and Cambrai had far greater impact. As historian Andrew Godefroy writes in Vimy Ridge, a Canadian Reassessment: “To the German army the loss of a few kilometres of vital ground meant little in the grand scheme of things.” After Vimy Ridge, the repute of Canadian troops was certainly increased, especially as elite shock troops in 1918, but Vimy Ridge itself was not strategically important.

Commemorating Vimy Ridge: Let’s Build a Memorial!

After the First World War, nations devastated by conflict erected thousands of monuments (both large and small) to acknowledge those who died. France and Belgium donated sections of land to its allies for the purposes of commemoration. And Vimy Ridge was one of eight battle sites (five in France and three in Belgium) awarded to Canada.

In 1920, the newly established Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission organized a competition for a Canadian memorial to be erected on each site. Walter Allward, an experienced sculptor and a well-known designer of memorials, won the competition in 1921. Due to Vimy Ridge’s vantage point, accessibility and significance, the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission decided that Allward’s memorial would be built at Vimy Ridge (although it did take 2.5 years to clear the 100 hectare land of unexploded bombs, some of which still remain there today).

After ten years of construction (it took two years to find a suitable quarry for the limestone, which, ironically, was located in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife had started the First World War), the memorial was completed in July 1936. 6,000 Canadians were given “Special Vimy” passports by the Canadian government to make the “pilgrimage” to the unveiling.

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Over 100,000 spectators attended the unveiling. His Majesty King Edward VIII and various Canadian representatives met with mothers whose sons had died. One veteran remembers: “The service lasted only an hour but never had anyone experienced one more solemn or moving” (Saburo Shinobu, Japanese Branch of the Canadian Legion).

Adorned with twenty sculptures, Allward’s memorial is topped by figures representing the universal virtues of faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope. The Christian symbolism is obvious and clearly references “traditional images of the Mater Dolorosa (the Virgin Mary in mourning), while the figure spread-eagled on the altar below the two pylons resembles a Crucifixion scene.”

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“Between the pylons stands a figure holding a burning torch. Entitled ‘The Spirit of Sacrifice’, it is a reference to one of the most famous poems of the Great War, ‘In Flanders Fields,’ by the Canadian Army Medical Corps officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.” (Canada War Museum)

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Although not a part of the original design, over 11,000 names of all the Canadians who had died with no known grave are etched into the base of the monument. (Photo from Amerique Francaise)

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A maternal figure at the base of the memorial. Note the engraved names around the base.

In 1940, as German armies swept through western Europe, destroying many of the First World War monuments in its wake, Vimy Ridge was exempted. In fact, Hitler visited the monument and was so impressed that he apparently assigned Waffen SS guards to protect it. This prevented regular soldiers of the German army from defacing the monument.  As most of the Australian WWI graves and memorials had been destroyed by advancing German troops, this likely saved Vimy Ridge from a similar fate.

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Although saving the memorial was also a propaganda stunt to demonstrate Hitler’s goodwill to the conquered French people, perhaps we should all be a little more in awe of a structure that even Hitler himself wouldn’t destroy.

Although the sculpted figures need repair throughout the years, and the monument undergoes regular cleaning, even today the Vimy Ridge memorial looks brand new. Its white stones contrast the blue skies and rolling hills in the large valley below. Just a kilometer away, a new visitor’s centre offers tours to over 700,000 people a year by real Canadian guides. They take groups through the trenches, preserved as they were a hundred years ago.

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After the war, the trenches were preserved by pouring concrete into the original sandbags.

Myth Making of a Nation

While I would never minimise the great cost of human life associated to any battle, Vimy Ridge, as a cornerstone of Canadian national identity, is perpetuated by this imposing memorial and its regular commemoration. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the choice to build this memorial at Vimy Ridge “was a less a result of the battle’s importance than of Vimy’s extraordinary geographic location – a high vantage point with a commanding view, visible from miles around.” And, to be fair to the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission in 1920, it really is a glorious view.

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Canadian historian, Tim Cook, claims that Vimy Ridge was elevated above other Canadian battles, at least partly, for political and national purposes. He addresses the divergence between history and mythmaking in his new book Vimy: the Battle and the Legend (2017):

“Canada is a country – like most – that places little stock in its history, teaching it badly, embracing it little, feeding it only episodically. As Canada developed over time, we cast aside much that grounded us in the past; yet there are some ideas, myths and icons that persistently carry the weight of nationhood. Vimy is one of them.”

The meaning behind Vimy Ridge – whether a bloody sacrifice of countless young men in a war forced upon them by an outmoded commitment to Empire, or perhaps a remarkable story of miraculous nation-forging against all odds – is evolving through a process of forgetting and remembering. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, and bewildered Americans, Vimy Ridge is reinterpreted and reconceptualised again and again to the waves of spectators in awe of its remarkable history.

But what I asked myself, one hundred years after the Canadians had won this beautiful vantage point in France, while standing under its majestic pillars on a sunny day in June 2017:

What would we remember of Vimy Ridge if it wasn’t for this impressive memorial?

Vimy Ridge is both a lesson in history and a lesson in remembrance. While Vimy Ridge might unify the two in one immaculate feat of human creation, they are not synonymous. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was an epic victory, where men from each corner of Canada joined together for the first time in a victorious campaign against their sworn enemy. But it wasn’t entirely Canadian – it was led by a British officer and supplied by British provisions. And it wasn’t entirely a victory – it had no decisive impact on the war and the German lines remained intact. Despite those important details, remembering Vimy Ridge at this grand memorial is a testament to a country mourning the great loss of its youngest citizens.

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Why Save the Children’s Graphic Photos Still Work Today

There is a massive famine and outbreak of cholera currently in Yemen. The United Nations recently calculated that over 20 million Yemenis are in need of immediate assistance. To put this in perspective, Yemen is a country with only 28 million people. That means that two thirds of an entire country are suffering to such a degree to require international assistance. Incredible.

In the background of this massive crisis is a civil war. In January 2015, decade-long tensions erupted between a separatist group named the Houthis (a Zaidi Shia Muslim minority) and the authoritarian president Mr. Hadi. After the Houthis surrounded the presidential palace and placed the government under house arrest, Saudi Arabia intervened and is now leading another eight Sunni Arab states in a bombing campaign to restore power back into the Yemeni government’s hands. And civil war continues to this day.

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The city of Taiz has been ravaged by two years of battles between forces loyal to President Hadi, Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda

Importantly, a major port in the south called Hodeidah was seized by the Houthis. This port supplies Yemen with over 80% of its food imports. The Saudis won’t let relief ships dock there because the supplies would fall into the Houthis’ hands. This has delayed life-saving supplies for months.  Currently, the UN Security Council is trying to intervene to claim the port as strictly neutral. Let’s hope they can succeed.

In the last two years, hospitals and clinics have been destroyed. Government health officials have not been paid in a year. The basic necessities of life, like clean water and food, are a daily struggle to obtain. Cholera, which is spread by contaminated water, can kill within hours if untreated. By August 2017, it has infected more than 425,000 Yemenis and killed 1,900. And the situation is growing so severe that Oxfam calculates those infected with cholera could rise to more than 600,000 (which would exceed Haiti in 2011). The situation is obviously very grim.

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These Yemeni women queue for clean water. Rowa Mohammed Assayaghi, a medical microbiologist at Yemen’s Sana’a University is teaching people how to wash their hands. “Focusing on health awareness is one of the most important measures to follow,” she says.

Calls for relief from various NGOs and charities are spreading throughout the West. I’ve noticed it more recently, even on my Facebook feed. But with more than one million malnourished children under the age of 5 living in areas with high levels of cholera, charities are getting desperate. Pictures of emaciated Yemeni children are now popping up repeatedly on news websites and social media everywhere. It’s heart-breaking to watch, and uncomfortable to see (especially after I Instagram my latest foodie pic).

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A mother carries her son Imran Faraj, 8 year-old, who is suffering from malnutrition at a hospital in the port city of Hodeidah. This photo is from an Independent article in June.

When inundated with these grim photos, it sadly echoes so many other previous campaigns we may remember from past: AIDS orphans, Rwandan genocide victims, displaced children in the Sudan, starving children in Somalia, and so many others. But it’s effective. By pushing the suffering and starvation of the world’s absolute poorest children upon the western world, charities are using a remarkable game-changing strategy first used by Save the Children in the early 1920s. It changed both how we perceive children, and how we perceive ourselves. But first, the history…

Immediately after the First World War began, the Allies/Entente Powers blockaded Germany and Austria, meaning they did not send supplies, exports or any traded goods to their enemy. Much like Saudi Arabia is doing to Yemen today, blockading supplies was an effective economic weapon, especially against countries (like Germany) that depended heavily upon imports to feed its citizens.

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A Berlin butcher’s shop is looted in 1919. A combination of bad harvests and incompetent regulation of food distribution, in addition to the British blockade, made the situation far worse.

The First World War was slow-moving, hard-fought and resulted in massive causalities. An estimated 10 million people were displaced during the war. And despite the Armistice in November 1918, the food blockade against Germany and Austria continued and did not end until Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. That eight month period between the “end of war” and the “start of peace” resulted in mass starvation among the children of Germany and Austria.

For example, a Swiss doctor of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Frédéric Ferrière, reported that out of nearly 60,000 children examined in 1918 in Vienna, only 4,637 had been in good health. In other words, 93% of children were in bad health. (For more, see André Durand’s History of the International Committee of the Red Cross from Sarajevo to Hiroshima).

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Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928) spent many years working for charities before founding Save the Children. Despite her good education and well-to-do British background, Jebb found that she was a poor teacher and not fond of children. Ironically, she became one of their chief champions in modern history.

Meanwhile, one of the first women educated at Oxford, Eglantyne Jebb, had worked for charities for years and was growing concerned about the fate of German and Austrian children under the blockade. We must remember that Germans (“the Huns”) were Britain’s national enemy for four long years. Thus, to overlook this and consider the suffering of the Germany and Austria’s children was quite remarkable. Jebb formed the Famine Council on 1 January 1919 with the direct desire to end the British blockade.

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The front page of the Detroit Sunday News on 29 June 1919

But Jebb soon discovered that her new council was not very effective. Numerous British charities were pleading for donations for various causes in 1919, such as for veterans returning home who were disabled and jobless, or countless families that fell into poverty after the war. Distributing leaflets with dense information, and by collaborating with churches and clubs to get members to donate, these various charities relentlessly campaigned for vulnerable groups. Jebb’s message was not only drowned out by the various other charities, but people were not rising above their national interests, their national prejudices, their national perspectives, to care for foreign children. Children, especially foreign ones, were often the last priority.

But Jebb and her sister, Dorothy Jebb Buxton, found a remarkable solution. They took to the streets of London and circulated a graphic “Starving Baby” leaflet. Instead of using dense text to explain her campaign to readers, Jebb plastered a large photo of a starving, desperate and pitiful 2-and-a-half-year-old Austrian baby on her leaflet. This image was haunting and even caught the attention of the local police. Although they were both arrested for spreading “unpatriotic propaganda,” Jebb (acting as her own attorney) argued the leaflets were not political, but humanitarian. The judge gave her a light fine of £5 and she reportedly felt victorious.

This was the beginning of a new type of campaigning. This was a new type of humanitarianism.

Starving Baby Leaflet

This leaflet was an unconventional way to provoke attention and revolutionised how charities campaigned for children. You may notice that Jebb does not identify the child as Austrian.

On 15 April 1919, Jebb founded the Save the Children Fund. This charity was the first to promote an abstract image of a “child.” It was the first charity to present children a symbol, an universal archetype, which were worthy of humanitarian relief, irrespective of race, nationality or creed.

Meanwhile, various noteworthy international organisations gathered in Switzerland.  They adopted neutrality and impartiality as a key strategy to facilitate relief and prevent further war. Even Save the Children moved its headquarters from London to Geneva symbolise its separation from political powers. Humanitarian historians Emily Baughan and Juliano Fiori claim that Save the Children’s apolitical approach meant that the “innate innocence and value of children (prevented) popular opposition to its humanitarian activities.” (“Save the Children, the humanitarian project, and the politics of solidarity,” in Disasters, 39 (S2): 132). For who, indeed, would oppose such humanitarian action for children?

Herbert Hoover’s relief programs, which had been incredibly successful in Belgium, also provided American food aid to Austrian children. However, relief was given in exchange for gold in 1919, which drained what little remained in Austria’s coffers in the aftermath of the war (see William E. Leuchtenburg’s Herbert Hoover). But Save the Children channelled its relief towards those same children without compensation or political gain.

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By 1921, when the Russian Civil War had produced countless refugees and starving children, the Save the Children Fund had found it’s stride. It campaigned on the big screen by showing films of the conditions children faced to British audiences. It was unlike anything else seen at the time.

By depoliticizing the Save the Children charity and the concept of suffering children, the response for famine relief for children was considerably successful, especially in Russia. Although no humanitarian organisation can ever be entirely apolitical (!!!), Jebb and Save the Children had found a way to overcome the nationalist and prejudiced perceptions of its donors. The archetypal child had been born.

The idea of the “universal child” was also strongly defined by the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924. Much like Moses descending from the mountain, the story goes that Eglantyne Jebb returned from a walk in the hills around Geneva and wrote five famous articles:

  1. The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
  2. The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
  3. The child must be first to receive relief in times of distress.
  4. The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
  5. The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.
Declaration of Rights of the Child

Jebb’s Declaration (1924), pictured here, also formed the basis of the ten-article Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations on 20 November 1959, some 40 years after the foundation of the Save the Children Fund.

On 26 November 1924, this Declaration was approved by the League of Nations. The members of the League were not obligated to integrate the Declaration into their own national legislation, so it did not guarantee any changes to national laws. But historian Bruno Cabanes (The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924) argues that the 1924 Declaration singled out the protection and welfare of children as priorities for the international community and, ultimately, was more significant for its moral import than for its legal weight.

So what?

The methods of Save the Children really has saved the children. Due to the Jebb’s honest, graphic but highly impartial approach, children from all over the world are valued, regardless of their race, class or religion. Although this may not guarantee that everyone generously donates to children’s charities, it does, at the very least, overcome many nationalist and racial prejudices. And, what’s incredible is that it’s still effective today! Whether it’s a starving Austrian child due to a blockade, a African orphan of AIDS,  a drowned Syrian child on a beach, a war-stricken bombed out boy in an ambulance in Aleppo, or now Yemeni children with cholera in the midst of civil war, we can go past many labels and prejudices to see them for what they are – children.

To a certain extent, this also changes how we perceive ourselves. By promoting the concept of the “universal child” it also simultaneously reinforces the concept of a “universal guardian.” Human cultures fundamentally protect and provide for society’s most vulnerable members.  By reacting to these images of starving children with dismay and shock, and by feeling a sense of injustice, then the viewers are also imparted with a sense of responsibility. Children cannot protect or provide for themselves so we – the guardians – must intervene.

Children’s rights today are still evolving world-wide. Over 100 million children work in hazardous conditions and have no access to education. Thousands are child soldiers. Some states imprison children as young as 12 years old. Over half of today’s 65 million refugees are children.

Although Eglantyne Jebb may have been discussing starving German and Austrian children, her words are still present in today’s campaigns for Yemeni children: “The only international language in the world is a child’s cry.”