Encore une fois, je vais reporter à plus tard mon prochain billet sur la séparation du Québec, car il y a encore une occasion que je ne dois pas rater. Suite à ce commentaire de Martin Masse dans le blogue du Québécois Libre concernant son billet sur le massacre de Vimy, voici un texte de Zoe Suche, une écolière albertaine qui a gagné l’an dernier un concours d’essais organisé par The Military Museums à Calgary à l’occasion du 90e anniversaire du massacre de Vimy. Même si je ne suis pas entièrement d’accord avec elle concernant le caractère « humanitaire » de la guerre en Afghanistan (quoique cette guerre est quand même moins pire que la Première Guerre Mondiale), son texte vaut la peine d’être lu. Je ferai une entorse au fait qu’il s’agit d’un blogue francophone pour vous permettre de lire ce texte dans sa version originale anglaise. Peut-être qu’un jour, je le traduirai. Félicitations à Zoe Suche! Bonne lecture!
10000 Casualties: Birth or Death?
The Duke of Wellington’s words were, upon seeing the dead and dying scattered across the battlefield of Waterloo, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” These famous words must be kept in mind as the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge approaches once again, on April 9th. More importantly, this year marks ninety years since the battle was fought, a tragic waste of lives ended far from home. Vimy Ridge is a famous battle in Canadian military history – 35000 Canadian troops, including all four divisions of the Canadian Corps, attacked the impregnable German stronghold that had cut down more than 200000 French and British soldiers in previous attacks. Canada fought for the first time as a nation, soldiers from every province working together to kill the Germans. As a result of the effective use of new trench warfare and artillery tactics, the Canadian troops took the ridge with a mere 3600 deaths and another 7000 wounded.
To commemorate this battle, the Vimy Memorial stands on top of the hill known as Hill 145 – two pillars and twice life-size figures hewn from limestone. Carved on the walls of the memorial are the names of 11285 Canadians missing in France from World War I, who have no known grave.
The fact that soldiers from all nine provinces fought in this famous victory gives some cause to claim that Vimy Ridge marked ‘the birth of Canada as a nation.’ This ideal doubtless stems from Brigadier-General Alexander Ross, who commanded the 28th Battalion at Vimy, and subsequently said: “It was Canada from Atlantic to Pacific on parade. I thought then, and I think today, that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” However, to examine whether this claim is fact or fiction, the implications of the phrase “birth of a nation” must themselves be considered. From the context of many who give Vimy Ridge this title, it appears to mean a defining moment in our history in which we ceased to think of ourselves as a British colony and began to understand that we were a distinct nation of our own. Many idealists and militaristic nationalists would have us believe that in this one period of less than two weeks, far from Canada, we somehow made a distinct change from a colony of Britain to a self-assured, patriotic nation – and it was all caused by the camaraderie that our soldiers felt as they slaughtered thousands of German soldiers. The image of Canadians from every province standing shoulder-to-shoulder beneath the Canadian flag and using their unfaltering skills in battle to honor their nation is a hard one to resist, and thus one of the reasons the “birth of a nation” concept has remained around for so long. However, clearer thinkers tend to wonder just why we consider that the deaths of nearly 3600 Canadians supposedly began the life of our country. How exactly can death create life? After all, wasn’t Vimy Ridge just one slaughter in a myriad of others that made up World War One? Nevertheless, we persist in claiming that our nation was born with this carnage. The Duke of Wellington was entirely correct in his statement. The Battle of Vimy Ridge could only have been more tragic if we had lost it.
There are various other legitimate reasons that Vimy Ridge cannot possibly be considered our nation’s birth. Firstly, an unfortunate truth is that, while Canadian history books claim that Vimy Ridge led the Allies to victory and led the way to ending the war, other countries tend to simply consider it as just another battle in an endless series of them. The Allies suffered over one million casualties in 1918, the year after Vimy Ridge was taken. An impressive success by Canada’s untested troops it may have been, but it certainly was not a turning point in the war. John Keegan, a British historian and author of The First World War, calls it “the first day of the Battle of Arras.” Keegan’s opinion of Vimy Ridge is that the Canadians’ luck there was also repaid heavily by the French in a separate battle. He has this to say on why the Germans were set back so far at Vimy – because of
“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 fifteenGerman counterattack divisions had been assembled behind the twenty-one in the line. If the Germans had been surprised at Vimy-Arras, it was to be the way about on the Aisne.”
In addition to this, American writer John Mosier calls Vimy Ridge “the graveyard of the Canadian force.” This is a brutally accurate summary of the battle – 3600 deaths is an enormous number, despite being small in comparison to the casualties sustained throughout the rest of the Great War. Despite the battle being a victory, it was not a turning point in the war from any point of view but Canada’s. National pride has the ability to blind us to the actual facts – victories of similar significance had been won by both sides in many other circumstances during the war.
If the fact that many other countries don’t acknowledge Vimy Ridge is not enough, most of Canada, when it comes right down to it, doesn’t either. In 2002, a poll conducted on behalf of the Dominion Institute revealed that only 36% of Canadians could name the Battle of Vimy Ridge as “the battle that captured a key ridge on the Western Front.” In Quebec, only 6% of people surveyed could name it. This could not have possibly been the birth of our nation if two-thirds of our population cannot even identify it.
A second major point against Vimy Ridge being “the birth of Canada as a nation” is the fact that Canadians were heavily divided in their opinions of whether they should have been fighting there in the first place. Most French-Canadians did not want to send their children to a war in a distant land where they would be ordered in English by English generals, while there was no real danger facing Canada at all. French-Canada vehemently opposed conscription into the Great War, and many people, French or not, thought Canada should limit its participation to sending food and ammunition. How can this be considered the birth, or any significant part of the life of our nation, when a third of our population disagreed with it and did their best not to participate? Quebec’s dismal results in the Vimy Ridge poll of 2002 only proves further that French Canada does not consider Vimy Ridge to be as hallowed or important as English Canada would like it to be.
Thirty-five thousand men united at Vimy Ridge – a tiny fraction of our population, and by no means representative, containing only one gender, and a certain age range. Perhaps the survivors of that battle somehow felt more like a nation when they returned, but how did this affect the people who merely read about the battle in the newspaper the following day? It is implausible that one moment they felt like British subjects and the next, every person in Canada realized that they were part of a unique nation. Calling Vimy Ridge the birth of our nation, where we learned who we really were and so on, somewhat implies that women, children and seniors are not part of our nation at all, or at least not the important part who needs to learn who they are.
Finally, our country should not be marking its ‘birth’ with a war massacre that included over 10000 casualties on our side alone. It’s a bizarre and somewhat perverse concept that thousands of young men killing each other and being killed in turn can constitute a nation being born. Martin Masse summarizes the views of many French-Canadians in his liberal webzine, Le Québécois Libre, “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.” Canada should not have a specific date when it psychologically became a nation; rather, this occurrence came over centuries of people living here, growing and building their own customs and traditions. In general, Canada’s military are known as peacemakers rather than warriors, plying their skills in countries such as Afghanistan and Bosnia, and this is an image that has stayed with us far more than the victory of Vimy Ridge. While it was a victory, success in battle is not one of the hallmarks of Canada, and rightly so. Is Vimy Ridge considered the ‘birth of Canada’ by so many simply because it is the only really significant military victory we have achieved?
The idea that slaughtering the other side is somehow helping our country grow as a nation is one that should be discouraged rather than encouraged. A letter from Donald Ross, a Canadian soldier in World War I, read: “I got a bullet from a German gun thru my foot, but never mind, that German won’t shoot anybody now and two or three more besides. We just killed them like pigs Easter Monday.” A war that provoked ordinary men to become ruthless killers for reasons that did not even involve our country should not be hallowed as something that made us into a nation. It’s doubtful that the men who died or were badly wounded on Vimy Ridge felt any more Canadian after, regardless of whether or not they were fighting with men from every province. A man in uniform is a man in uniform, whether he is from Alberta or British Columbia. Ninety years later, it is easy to speak of the symbolism of Canadians united, but there is no way of knowing that the Canadians soldiers of Vimy Ridge were even aware of the fact that they came from every province. Did the Canadians succeed because they were Canadian, and fought united, or did they in fact succeed, where the French and the British did not, because there had been superior planning on the part of their British commanding officer?