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Wrestling with war and peace at the Vimy Ridge memorial

By Jim Creskey      

What makes a good war memorial? Is it simply an admonition to go to war 'Never Again,' or can we the pay the peace message forward in some way that will actually stop us from slaughtering yet another generation?

For What? by the Group of Seven’s Fred Varley, who was an eyewitness to the First World War, can be seen at the Canadian War Museum. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Last week, I sat on a Via Rail train heading to Toronto, reading a copy of the timely and well-considered book, The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Great War, by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift.

About halfway through the trip, near Kingston, I felt a poke in the elbow and, looking over my shoulder, I saw a friendly whiskered man who was pushing another book in my direction.

The Vimy Trap: Or how we learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Great War By Ian McKay and Jamie Swift. Published by Between The Lines, Toronto 2016.

“Here,” he said. “Here’s my Vimy book. You can have this copy.”

I thanked the man, not knowing what else to say, and went back to reading The Vimy Trap.

Later in the trip, around Cobourg, I thumbed through the book that was given to me. It was called, Valour At Vimy Ridge, and the writer, seated behind me, was Tom Douglas. When I gathered up the presence of mind to talk with him, he told me that he was a former Canadian Press rewrite editor who once worked for then-Veterans Affairs minister Bennett Campbell in the Pierre Trudeau government.

Even 100 years after the First World War battle, and 6,000 kilometres away, Canada isn’t that far from Vimy.

The question that remains is what we do with that memory. Is it a memory that helps us forge new paths to peace, or one that we use to militarize Canada and create myths of the birth of some kind of warrior nation? Turns out it’s both, and The Vimy Trap does an admirable job of charting both courses, some of them mutually exclusive, some proceeding in tandem.

There is little doubt that many of the veterans who returned from the sickening ditches filled with rotting corpses during the world’s first industrialized killing spree brought home the message of “never again.”

But if you read Canada’s Citizenship Guide, first published in 2009—the booklet that new immigrants must study in order to pass the citizenship test—Vimy get a mention that strongly suggests it was somehow the birth of a nation.

In the section that mentions Vimy Ridge, the guide quotes an unnamed Canadian military officer who once said, “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

Are nations “born” like babies by a battle, or a stroke of the pen in a Confederation agreement or a repatriated Constitution? Or are they the sum total of a country’s collective deeds and misdeeds?

McKay and Swift help sort out this question with good writing and admirable research.

Then there is the Vimy memorial itself, 10 kilometres north of the French city of Arras, unveiled in 1936.

What makes a good war memorial? Is it simply an admonition to go to war “Never Again,” or can we the pay the peace message forward in some way that will actually stop us from slaughtering yet another generation?

Valour At Vimy Ridge By Tom Douglas. Published by James Lorimer, Toronto, 2007.

“[Prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King], who orchestrated the Vimy memorial, recoiled from the notion that Canada was born on Vimy Ridge,” writes McKay and Swift. “That the country had secured its independence and freedom through the exercise of military might.”

But he was not one of those one-sided peaceniks who were victims of “an instinctive loathing of military men.”

“King was intent on seeing the war as one in which self-sacrificing Canadians give of themselves so that war might be forever abolished,” continues McKay and Swift. Canada’s 10th prime minister made it clear that the Vimy memorial constructed on land ceded to Canada by France would place a special emphasis on “the futility of war”

“From his perspective the Canadian state should express its sympathies with ‘the fallen’ and their families—while conveying the principal message that war is ‘a miserable failure.'”

But that quest for peace in the years following the war began to change during successive generations along with different interpretations of the Vimy battle and the war itself. How that happened is presented in McKay and Swift’s Vimy Trap almost as if it were a smart crime, procedural with the clues along the trail. Some clues lead from militaristic churchmen who become pacifists; others to popular writers like Pierre Berton and Timothy Findley, to respected historians like Tim Cook, to Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum, to the “bellicose” Harper government.

History, especially military history, is often rewritten to bolster sagging public opinion and open the public purse to military spending. Incredible though it is, peace is a harder political sell.

What makes a good war memorial if peace is again the goal? It’s not so much the architecture—although both Vimy and Canada’s National War Memorial, also conceived and built in Mackenzie King’s time—are admirable in that respect. Compared to the recent toy-soldier contraption that is supposed to commemorate the war of 1812 from a knoll in front of the East Block, they both inspire rather than pander.

But critical questions of war and peace press on us today even more than they did in 1917.

Ian McKay and Jamie Swift are authors of The Vimy Trap. Photographs courtesy of Ian McKay, Jamie Swift

If ever there was the idea of a just war, that time is over. Modern war memorials will now have to commemorate the fallen civilians, noncombatants, women, children and the elderly who die in appalling numbers. From Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Syria, civilians are on the front lines.

“For What?” is the title of Fred Varley’s famous painting of the WWI trenches. It was a fair question in 1917. It is even more meaningful today.

It is worth mentioning that the book given to me on the train—Tom Douglas’ Valour at Vimy Ridge—ends with a compelling collection of letters sent home during the war from Private Ronald MacKinnon to his sister and father.

Wounded at Ypres, Private MacKinnon is first sent back to a “rotten camp” in Sussex, England where he points out that “Our officers seem to be afraid of the Imperial Authorities and nearly all the towns around here are “out-of-bounds” to us.”

Returned to France when he is healed, MacKinnon’s last letter is dated April 6, 1917.

“This is Good Friday so I had a good feed of eggs,” he wrote, “as I will not be in a place where I can get them on Sunday.”

A letter that Private MacKinnon’s father sent from Canada the day before April 5, 1917 “was returned unopened in June. On the envelope was inscribed: ‘Deceased. Killed in Action  9-4-17.’ ”

Ronald MacKinnon was buried in the Bois Carré British Military Cemetery on the lower slope of Vimy Ridge.

The painting, For What? by the Group of Seven’s Fred Varley—who was an eyewitness to the war—can be still seen at the Canada War Museum. It’s worth a visit.

Jim Creskey is one of the publishers of The Hill Times.

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