Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Launching and Book and a Battle: The Story of Vimy in the Canadian Imagination

“It’s easy to go to war,” Tim Cook told a full house at the launch of his new book, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, “…it’s much harder to stop war   and pick up the pieces afterwards.”

Yet Cook has been doing precisely the hard work of making sense of war’s aftermath through much of his tenure as a historian at the Canadian War Museum. The result of that work is a book which chronicles the long history of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, from the actual events of 1917 to the much longer and more complex history of Vimy as a story Canadians have used to define their nation. In addition to summarizing the main argument of his new book, Cook also spoke about his work process; he completed the manuscript while maintaining a soldierly pace of 1,000 words a day through childrearing and chemotherapy. True to his reputation as an excellent public historian, Cook’s narrative was intelligent, timely and accessible.

Cook had the good fortune to be interviewed by Charlotte Gray (whose own book The Promise of Canada launched at last fall’s festival). Both authors commiserated about the occasionally-challenging task of being a historian in a determinedly forward-looking country. Led by Gray, Cook opened up about the relationship between his museum job and his after-hours job as a prolific historian, and the complex set of cultural and historical issues which began as a military conflict on a ridge between Lille and Amiens. Vimy has not always played a prominent role in Canadian history, Cook pointed out. Indeed, between the close of the Second World War and the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, Vimy was not particularly visible on the landscape of Canadian public history. Somehow, even Walter Allward’s massive monument, which had drawn 6,000 Canadians to France for its unveiling in 1936, failed to attract visitors during this period; the more than 10,000 casualties of the terrible four-day battle all but forgotten. Perhaps the horrors of the Second World War had overshadowed the heroism of the Great War. Perhaps everyday Canadians had other concerns.

Cook argues that the rebirth of Vimy in the popular imagination began in the mid-1960s, when Prime Minister Lester Pearson was among those seeking a powerful defining moment to serve as the “birth” of a new, modern Canada. The symbolic power of Vimy might easily have easily died after 1967, Cook pointed out. The fact that this single battle has endured as a symbol of Canada is perhaps the most interesting question raised by Cook’s research. Vimy brought the nation together, both symbolically and, in a military sense quite literally: it was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together. Yet Vimy could easily have come to stand only for senseless loss; for many in Quebec, the term “Vimy” is synonymous with conscription. The battle now seen as a crucial moment in binding Canada together nearly tore the country apart before bringing it together.

Many individuals in Cook and Gray’s audience had been drawn to the subject of Vimy well before the book launch. (When Cook asked the audience how many of them had visited Vimy Ridge, roughly a quarter of the room raised a hand). Yet others were skeptical of the continued pride of place given to a bloody, faraway battle. Cook handled his criticism deftly, arguing that it is as important as ever “to talk about war in all its complexity.” Political leaders frequently deploy historical events in their battles to define the present. If Canada is ever going to know what it wants from the future, Cook observed, it will have to fully understand its past.