Climbing Down from Vimy Ridge

One of Canada’s leading historians makes a different case for military success

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, and efforts to reflect on the Canadian wartime experience are well under way across the country. The government of Canada is committing tens of millions of dollars to remember our national achievements and sacrifices, and countless new books will undoubtedly be released to do the same.

Some Canadians, and even some historians, will find these commemorations excessive. Indeed, many have already suggested that the money Ottawa has allocated to memorialize Canadian participation in the First World War could be better spent on services for living veterans. Others, scanning the book shelves in their local bookstore, or the titles offered by their favourite online seller, will inevitably wonder how anything new could possibly be written about a conflict that has been the focus of such extensive historical scholarship for close to a century. (While writing this review, I entered “World War One and Canada” into the amazon.ca search engine and was offered 6,454 results.)

J.L. Granatstein’s latest work provides ample evidence that many of the latter concerns are misplaced. It is not necessarily that The Greatest Victory: Canada’s One Hundred Days, 1918 offers much that is new about the military battles that resulted in the German surrender; rather, it is that Granatstein has effectively reinterpreted the historical data through a lens that will resonate with 21st-century Canadians. His account of the Canadian contribution to the final 100 days of the First World War is both a celebration of the Canadian Armed Forces’ greatest military achievements and a subtle attack on the way in which the current federal government has sought to promote Canada’s history. Put simply, this book could not have been written even ten years ago, and the lessons that it imparts make it a valuable contribution to the national discussion of the Harper government’s alleged campaign to militarize the Canadian identity.

The book’s central message takes aim at those who use Vimy Ridge as a proxy for Canada’s entire First World War experience. Chief among the culprits is Paul Gessell, an Ottawa-based freelance journalist writing in 2013 for the National Post, whose interpretation of the Canadian contribution to western efforts at Vimy Ridge in 1917 Granatstein shuns as “almost completely wrong.” He could have just as easily singled out Canada’s former defence minister Peter MacKay, who has drawn parallels between Vimy and Afghanistan, or even Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself, who once implied that Vimy helped turn the war in the Allies’ favour. In reality, Granatstein explains in an introduction that establishes his argument, “Vimy did not change the course of the war and did not lead in a straight line to the Allied victory in November 1918.” The battle, planned by British staff officers, led by a British general and fought by a majority of British-born soldiers who had only recently immigrated to Canada, certainly established the Canadian Corps’ reputation and unleashed a wave of nationalist sentiment across the country, but it was not, as is so often implied, “Canada’s greatest victory.”

Indeed, even in the war’s immediate aftermath, Canada’s most accomplished general, Sir Arthur Currie, opposed the decision to erect a Canadian memorial at the top of the ridge, worrying that doing so would undermine other military achievements. It did not take long for Currie’s fear to be realized, a fact that seems to disturb Granatstein just as much as have previous governments’ efforts to all but ignore Canada’s military past. The rest of the book, therefore, seeks to combat the current government’s (and the popular) Vimy narrative and restore Canada’s more significant military achievements during “the one hundred days” to their proper place in the lore of the Great War. One gets a sense that Granatstein understands that his intended goal is unattainable—there simply is not enough interest in military history to overcome a mythology that has been propagated for decades. Nonetheless, one must applaud his effort.

That effort begins in dramatic fashion with the Allied attack on Amiens on August 8, 1918. By 1918, thanks in part to the victory at Vimy, now Lieutenant-General Currie had a significantly freer hand than ever before to lead the Canadian Corps, which had evolved to become the largest corps in the British Expeditionary Force. Granatstein’s description of the Canadian general reveals the author’s own patriotism as well as his exceptional understanding of the operational art: “[Currie’s] sense of the industrial scale of mechanized warfare, his ability to see the battlefield as a system where components at the front and in the rear had to mesh together to create an effective, synergistic whole, and his understanding of how men had to be prepared and supplied to fight had shaped the Canadian Corps into the most efficient, ferocious military organization in the British Expeditionary Force.” Amiens saw the Canadian Corps lead the British, the Australians and the French to an overwhelming victory over retreating German soldiers. The Allies advanced 13 kilometres on the first day of the attack, an incredible distance considering that just two years earlier it had taken them four months to move just 6.5 kilometres at the Battle of the Somme. The enemy lost 27,000 soldiers, almost ten times the number of Canadian casualties. Three days and six additional miles later, the Corps’ successful contribution to Amiens was complete. British general Douglas Haig praised the Canadian effort at Amiens as “the finest operation of the war.” The psychological impact of the loss on the German army was palpable, and a wider Allied victory was only months away.

Here, at what appears to be the peak of nationalist glory, Granatstein interrupts the narrative to trace the history leading up to Amiens. The background he provides covers familiar ground: Canada’s entry into the war was based on its legal obligation as part of the British Empire; initial efforts to organize the Canadian forces by Minister Sam Hughes were pathetic and embarrassing; the early battles of the war were particularly brutal (over 6,000 casualties at Ypres alone); national unity was always an issue, with English Canadians, and particularly the British born, doing most of the volunteering and the ultimate decision by Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden to impose conscription in 1917 dividing the country along linguistic lines for over two decades; women were extensively involved throughout a conflict that comprised far more than just guns and bombs; and the Canadian effort matured gradually as significant learning took place across every element of the national wartime machine. It is a story that Granatstein tells well, even if at greater length than he might have.

The book then returns to the Canadian Corps and three more battles. Granatstein devotes a chapter to the successful effort to take the Drocourt-Quéant Line, another to the attack on the Canal du Nord and the conquering of Cambrai, and one more to the liberation of Mons. In each case, the military story is complemented by insight into another element of early 20th-century warfare. In his summary of the D-Q initiative, for example—an attack commanded entirely by Currie with Canadians in the lead—Granatstein covers more than just the dead, the wounded, and the general’s organizational skills and logistical acumen. He also dedicates a number of pages to how Canadians ate on the front lines, noting, for example, that the average soldier gained six pounds on his 4,300-calorie-per-day military diet, and how morale was often affected by the availability of fresh food. “The Canadian Corps,” Granatstein observes, “marched on its stomach.”

The experience at the D-Q Line was a difficult one. Canada lost almost 300 officers and more than 5,000 others, all drawn from less than 25,000 available infantry. “In truth,” Granatstein concedes, “the ten battalions that had spearheaded the attack were almost annihilated.” In spite of the losses, however, Currie and his men were designated as the “shock troops” for the next battle over the Canal du Nord and through Cambrai. Here, Granatstein is realistic, noting that it was more than just military excellence that put the Canadians on the front lines. The British had suffered overwhelming casualties over the previous four years, and London hesitated to explain even greater losses to the British public. British politicians had fewer qualms about sending Canadian soldiers to their deaths. Once again, then, Currie developed a complicated, innovative plan that depended on the cooperation and coordination of the infantry, the engineers, the artillery, the armour, and an extensive supply and transport system. (Maps of the path that the Corps took during each battle are included at relevant points throughout the text. The publisher has also generously included a number of black-and-white and full-colour photographs of war art.) It was, in Granatstein’s eyes, “the finest example of [Canadian] professionalism in the Great War”: a successful, two-week series of battles that, regrettably, saw Currie’s men suffer seven times the casualties of their British allies, with over 13,000 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Whether the losses were excessive—some contemporary readers might struggle to reconcile these numbers with the fewer than 200 men and women who were killed over ten years in Afghanistan—Granatstein leaves for his readers to decide.

The Cambrai chapter also takes time away from the front lines to discuss the social lives of the soldiers. Granatstein recounts the importance of receiving letters from home and the ever-growing gap between the worldly understandings of the troops in Europe and of Canadians who never went overseas. The wartime environment abroad was what today would be called misogynistic, characterized by young men spewing crude language and rude comments about women. Moreover, soldiers who faced indescribable working conditions in Europe had little sympathy for workers’ grievances at home, and largely opposed the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 when they returned.

Within just weeks of their victory at Cambrai, the Canadian Corps was on its way to Mont Houy, which it took relatively easily but which also resulted in what today, Granatstein notes, would have been a public outcry. Currie’s soldiers, apparently incensed by the way that the Germans had treated the French civilians whose land they had conquered, chose to kill large numbers of the enemy as they tried to surrender peacefully. Granatstein does not forgive these actions, calling them “an appalling breakdown in discipline at every level.” He also criticizes the troops for contracting the highest rates of venereal disease among their western partners, once again noting their lack of discipline. Neither issue, however, causes him to depart from his contention that, on the whole, the Canadian achievements during the war merit significant respect when understood in the context of the time. That Currie called on his troops to use chemical weapons without regret was less a character flaw, for example, than a reflection of the utter brutality of the conditions that all soldiers faced in early 20th-century warfare.

Mont Houy was followed in short order by the final pre-arranged attack by Canadians at Valenciennes and the concluding battles at Mons. Granatstein’s coverage of this last conflict balances details of the military victory—which saw Canadians sustain nearly 500 casualties in the final four days of combat, and during which soldiers struggled with the need to risk their lives when rumours of an impending armistice spread quickly across the front lines—with a moving description of shellshock. Mental illness at the time was stigmatized more than it was looked upon sympathetically, and while there were exceptions, soldiers whose struggles were revealed physically through shaking, crying or worse were often labelled cowards and shunned. Granatstein also intermixes provocative data on the effect of influenza on Canadian soldiers and citizens at home. The flu pandemic of 1918 took between 50 and 100 million lives, he notes, including those of 50,000 generally young and healthy Canadian men and women, or nearly as many as the 68,000 who died in combat.

In just 100 days in the summer and fall of 1918, Granatstein concludes, 45,835 members of the Canadian Corps were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. These losses, he points out, are greater than the total casualties sustained by the First Canadian Army over the last eleven months of the Second World War in Europe. They also reflect what it took to lead the West to victory at a time when Canada’s British allies needed assistance and the country’s soldiers were at their peak in terms of skills, training and performance. Granatstein leaves it to the reader to decide whether the losses were worth it, writing only that “the Corps’ extraordinary victories in the last months of the Great War perhaps justified the price [my italics].” He is more definitive in making clear that if Canadians today wish to celebrate their First World War military achievements, it is the hundred days that they should remember, not just Vimy Ridge.