On April 2, 1917, the Canadian Corps, deployed as part of the British Army on Vimy Ridge in France in the First World War, initiated the largest artillery barrage in history up to that point. They shelled the German trenches for a week, using more than one million shells. The German artillery pieces were hidden behind the ridge, but by observing the sound and light from their firing, the Canadians were able to locate and destroy about 83 per cent of the German guns.
To Canadians, the name Vimy Ridge acquired a certain historic significance. It was the first time in Canada’s history that a corps-sized formation fought as a unit – the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion. The success of the attack, resulting from detailed planning and a variety of innovative tactics standing in stark contrast to what had happened at the Somme during the spring and summer of 1916, sealed the reputation of the Canadians as among the finest troops on the western front.
How did Canadian troops suddenly and unexpectedly become so important? Entire allied troop formations had been almost destroyed by the First and Second Battles of the Somme. On certain days of these battles, troop casualties of more than 10,000 on each side were not unusual.
As war weariness was increasingly openly expressed, the governments of Britain and France retained power and authority by only a hair’s breadth. Neither the British-led Allies nor the German-commanded Triple Alliance could find any diplomatic way out of the morass in which, in an immobile stalemate, they had entrenched more than five million troops along with the very future of their respective countries.
In March 1917, the Russian front against the Triple Alliance completely collapsed. Tsar Nicholas II (“The Bloody”) abdicated his authority to a coalition in the Duma (Parliament). What had been scores of Russian troops deserting the front now became entire divisions.
On April 6, as the Vimy assault itself was under way, the U.S. declared war on Imperial Germany. Entering the war on the side of the Allies, it quickly became evident how decisively this was going to tip the balance of the war’s outcome. Indeed, a rapidly-expanding flotilla of aid and supplies for the entire Allied cause began flowing immediately from the United States to Britain and U.S. troops reached France in June.
In the altered circumstances, the British government set a new priority to repatriate maximum numbers of its own troops and wounded, leaving the bulk of the remaining fighting and dying to Canadian, Australian and other colonial cannon-fodder. Indeed, while the British used the U.S. arrival as a cover for its withdrawal of its own men and materiel, Canada’s political cohesion came under enormous strain as a huge debate over conscription was imposed on the country. Quebeckers’ opposition to fight for the British Empire, their own colonizers, was impugned as “disloyalty to the Empire.”
These conditions and the rising casualty figures increasingly impressed on the Canadian people the bitter and awful truth about the imperialist and ruthlessly self-serving nature of Britain as the so-called “mother country.” Beneath the placid surface of a more broadly asserted sense of Canadian national identity, there roiled a deep and burning anger with the criminal mentality and readiness of the British and their “Imperial War Council” to initiate the grabbing or stealing of the territory and wealth of others and then to retain it, fighting down to the last colonial soldier.
Although it is often repeated that “Canada became a nation” under the fire of Triple Alliance guns in the battlefields of Vimy, a moment’s thought raises immediate doubts. By what previously unheard-of process does fighting and dying as cannon fodder for a foreign imperial power make a people into a “nation”? Canadians’ military participation did not even include being commanded in the field by their own officers.
The fact is that during the First World War Canadians were never actually under the full authority of Canadian officers on or off the battlefield. As unforgettably memorialized in the powerful Australian film Breaker Morant, it was British military courts-martial that executed Canadian, Australian and other colonials for “desertion” even if they were disoriented as a result of mustard poisoning or post-traumatic disorders.
Canadian officers actually spent an inordinate amount of time fighting with the Imperial British commanders over how many Canadian troops should be expended in this or that phase of battle. The capture of Vimy Ridge itself by the Canadian Corps took place under the command of British General Julian H.G. Byng. Canadian General Sir Arthur Currie was assigned a post as his chief-of-staff (responsible for tactics and planning). Gen. Currie rejected his superior’s hurling his troops endlessly into this maw, but he was impotent to change the course. For example, Canadian troops also made many night trench raids during the week-long Vimy assault, although Gen. Currie thought this was a stupid risk and a waste of men. Underlying the “national” assertion of Canadians in WWI was dissatisfaction with pecking orders precisely of this sort.
Canada’s “birth” as a new nation was for purposes of having another yes-man among the victorious powers at the Versailles Peace Conference – no less part of a process of subordinating the many to the privileged few. Nations that were former territories of the Austro-Hungarian and Czarist Empires were promised self-determination in words on territories drawn so as to incorporate feuding national minorities that would render self-determination all but null and void in deeds. Nations that were formerly pieces of the Ottoman Empire were converted into “Mandates” of the leading victor powers (most notably: Palestine going to the British, Syria and Lebanon to France, and so on.
As for Canada, the vaunted “national” recognition that it received in practice from the other powers was little more than a right to be consulted before the British government announced the dispatch of colonial troops to some future trouble spot in its Empire. At home in Canada, however, this alignment with the victor powers meant redoubling the denial of the right of Quebeckers to self-determination, not to mention keeping the Six Nations out of the League of Nations and the like.
The ruling elite ensconced in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa sacrificed 60,000 Canadians killed and 170,000 wounded in the First World War without skipping a beat. This total casualty figure represented about one Canadian out of 50 from the country’s population of that time. The calculations of the rich were that this was but an entry fee to play at the great casino of international finance. In this way, they could garner sources of foreign investment and sell off access to precious natural resources to interested investment combines in exchange for being another yes vote in the Anglo-American united front.
Canadians’ level of carnage was certainly on a par with other countries. In the battles at Vimy Ridge alone, there was a staggering cost in dead and wounded on both sides. Across 16 kilometres of ridge, approximately 200,000 men perished: French, British, Canadian, and German. Considering that typically there were three wounded to every man killed, the total casualties at Vimy during the War can be estimated at 800,000.
The Canadian people have spoken many times on the unacceptability of imperialist wars.
The youth must condemn attempts to equate the mass slaughter of Canadian youth with becoming a nation, or with freedom, democracy and human rights. History shows how these wars are in contempt of any idea of the people’s right to nation-building and to freedom, democracy, and human rights. For Canada’s ruling elite, the only vision for the nation which they can put forward is one where Canada’s resources and the blood of Canada’s youth are put at the disposal of the empire builders. It shows that we must elaborate our own nation-building project. To honour the dead of Vimy Ridge, we must say No More! We must turn Canada into a force for peace in the world, not a source of cannon fodder for empire builders. We must fight for an anti-war government!
For Your Information
War broke out in 1914 because of the crises in which the European colonial powers were mired. Their scramble for colonies had long since given rise to fierce striving for domination within a situation in which the anti-colonial struggle was also raging. The competition between European powers to redivide the world they had already divided between themselves led to war. The strongest of the powers was Britain which had the most extensive empire in world history. In 1921, one-quarter of the world’s population lived under British rule, most without anything resembling democratic self-government.
In Canada, the Conservatives who were in power at the time regarded this Empire as the embodiment of civilized values, and said that Canada’s future was as partners in the Empire. They said Canada, as a mature self-governing dominion, was ready to share power and responsibility with Britain in administration of the Empire. Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa might follow later on as those colonies developed further.
To prove the Dominion’s ability to contribute to the growth of the empire, Canada would make a direct financial contribution to the British navy, which was in the midst of an arms race with Germany. When the First World War broke out, Canada was automatically at war because Britain had not granted it control over its foreign policy. The Conservatives enthusiastically regarded the war as another opportunity for Canada to prove its maturity as a colony by making a strong contribution to the war effort. This is the context in which 60,000 Canadians perished in the filthy, disease-infested trenches of western Europe.
Britain, of course, never had any intention of actually sharing power in the Empire with the Canadian political and economic elite, but were all too happy to have Canada’s resources placed at the disposal of their imperialist war and to have Canadians as cannon fodder at the disposal of these British generals who paid for their positions.
The situation facing the working class in Canada was dire. In the years before the war, the country was gripped by economic recession. Social welfare programs, called “relief,” were not enough, and those who moved west trying to find work ended up homeless, living in tent cities and shacks. Many young men, told they would be home by Christmas, signed up for three meals a day and a paycheque to send back home. They certainly never expected four years of brutal trench warfare.
Even so, voluntary recruitment was not enough to satisfy the imperialist war machine, and in 1917 Prime Minister Robert Borden went back on his promise never to introduce conscription. Borden sought a mandate to introduce conscription and so the election that year was fought between a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals who supported conscription, and those who opposed conscription. Quebec especially recognized the war for what it was, a bloodbath in pursuit of British imperial interests, and with this in mind Wilfred Laurier organized candidates in opposition to conscription.
In the face of this opposition, Borden went to great lengths to secure re-election. First the franchise was extended to the wives, mothers and sisters of those men serving oversees, knowing that under the circumstances, the families of the soldiers would be very vulnerable to the propaganda in favour of conscription. No other women could vote. Soldiers’ votes from overseas were allocated to the ridings which needed a few more votes in favour of conscription. This required a change in the law so that overseas ballots did not have to go to the riding where the person originally lived. Conscientious objectors were deprived of the right to vote, along with anyone born in the German, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires who immigrated to Canada after 1902.
Another significant aspect was the internment of those deemed “enemy aliens,” who were those people originating from lands included in the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. The records show that Canadians of Ukrainian origin were disproportionately more likely to be interned, despite their hatred for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the home front there was a campaign of propaganda whereby the war was presented as a conflict between “western civilization” and “eastern barbarism” and the Germans were described as “bloodthirsty Huns” and generally portrayed as uncivilized and less than human.
Internment was carried out on the basis that those interned were likely to have loyalties to the enemy and were a threat to national security. It was a powerful threat to all who opposed the imperialist war and conscription. Internment also provided forced labour which served the war effort. Internment had declined and virtually fallen into disuse as the need for labour grew, but in 1917 it made an instant recovery. After the October Revolution in Russia, which constituted an anti-war government, workers of Russian and Finnish origin were added to the list of enemy alien nationalities.
1917 was a time of increased resistance and organization by the working class. 1917 saw a record number of strikes, amounting to more than a million days of labour lost. The courageous actions of the workers against their brutal exploitation were equated by the government with “sympathies for the enemy” and their political organizing as “seditious.”
The War Measures Act under which internment took place was maintained well after the war ended and was used to break up the strikes, for example of the United Mine Workers of Alberta who organized the coal miners in the Rockies. Participants in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 were interned as “enemy aliens” and the government changed the Immigration Act to permit deportation of British-born leaders of the strike. Under the War Measures Act, the foreign language press was censored, but exceptions were made for those papers which supported government policy.
Vimy Ridge is cited as an example of Canada emerging as a nation. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, under whose aegis the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge was commemorated in France, said that “the four divisions of the Canadian corps – serving together for the first time at Vimy — made a powerful statement in defence of our values, the timeless, universal values of all civilized nations, the values we still cherish today: freedom, democracy and human rights.”
As was the case with the war in 1917, the U.S./NATO wars in which Canada has participated are carried out under the guise of high ideals in contempt of democracy and human rights. The war against Afghanistan was portrayed as a conflict between western civilization and eastern barbarians or despotism. Then and now, opposition to the war is labelled as un-Canadian and criminalized. Further attacks on the workers and youth are justified in the name of national security.
Based on an original article by Nathan Freeman on the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge. Hardial Bains Resources Centre (HBRC)