While the British Empire may or may not have won the Battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton, the de facto (as opposed to de jure) independence of its Dominions was arguably won on much harsher terrain during the First World War. As if to make the struggle all the more poignant, the terrain in question was thousands of miles away from the countries concerned. What Australian and New Zealand soldiers experienced at Gallipoli in 1915, and South African troops went through at Delville Wood in 1916, so Canadian forces endured at Vimy Ridge, in a desperate mud-caked battle (as were most operations on the Western Front) that concluded exactly a century ago. It was a national baptism of fire, an occasion in which Canada was seen to have proved herself as a nation that could hold her own against others.
Opening on 9 April 1917, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was part of a British-directed operation in the Arras section of the Front to make further (and hopefully more successful) inroads into the German lines after the desperate and costly Somme campaign of the previous year. Practically every account of the Battle describes the Canadian Corps as acting with incredible bravery, as well as taking the Ridge. They also captured around 10,000 enemy troops. The Corps’ commanding officer, Major-General Sir Arthur Currie, was described in the official German history of the War as “the greatest general the war produced”. Some German officers went so far as to call the Canadians “the best troops the British had”.
Like most campaigns of this conflict, however, the battle was also won through paying what A J P Taylor termed “a butcher’s bill”. This particular bill cost the Canadians over 10,000 casualties, and at a time when the average enlistment rate back home was around 5,000 volunteers per month. It was a crisis that would then be followed by a bitter domestic struggle over conscription, and yet more tensions between anglophone and francophone Canadians. Ultimately, more than 60,000 Canadian servicemen would never come home.
The First World War was a transformative event in the history of most of the participating nations, and Canada was no exception to this rule. She automatically entered the conflict at the same time as Britain, in a wave of patriotic fervour as thousands of young Canadian men lined up to join the army and do their bit for the Mother Country. She came out of the war having secured a place at the Paris Peace Conference (and later, the League of Nations) as an independent nation, not a mere appendage of Britain. She joined the war with her volunteer army full of idealism and romance about a great overseas adventure. She emerged from the experience a more sober power, more distrustful of London and more determined to strike out alone. As if to underline the symbolism, one of Currie’s superiors, Lt-Gen Sir Julian Byng (later elevated to the peerage as Baron Byng of Vimy) would in the years after the war serve as Canada’s Governor-General (head of state) – a job from which he was forced to resign in 1926 after he had dared to defy his elected prime minister Mackenzie King’s request for a dissolution of Parliament (the “King-Byng Affair”). If that had happened before 1914 the prime minister would have been the fall guy.
Commenting on the war experience, the writer Will Ferguson puts it perfectly:
The Glory of Imperialism died in the mud of Flanders. The Oedipal lure of a glorious, sexy Motherland was gone forever.
As for the Canadian soldiers who saw action whether they had wanted to or not, Private George Hancox, of Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry in the Canadian army, spoke for many of his comrades thus:
On the whole we found it more depressing and disillusioning than frightening. We weren’t so much frightened of being killed and wounded as we were depressed by the conditions. We had thought we were going to fight a glorious war, but the reality was so different.