By Chad Ingram
Published Nov. 9 2017
It was throwing the traditional war script out the proverbial window that allowed Canadian troops their time-honoured victory at Vimy Ridge during the First World War says journalist and historian Ted Barris.
Barris will be conducting a talk based on his latest book Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age April 9 – 12 1917 as part of the Yours Outdoors Telling Our Stories Speakers Series next month.
While the Battle of Vimy Ridge has been covered frequently and thoroughly Barris notes it has often been from the perspective of those with power with reputations to protect.
“It’s often been covered by officers or generals or people who were decision-makers” says Barris a professor of journalism at Toronto’s Centennial College. “The people I sourced in my research had nothing at stake.”
His work draws on journals and writings of artillery men ambulance drivers and everyday soldiers whose experience of war unfolded mostly in the few feet around them.
Barris’s presentation will reconstruct the four-day battle and also explore some of the not-so-common knowledge about just what happened during the famous battle against the Germans in northern France.
Canadian military commanders did not use the traditional training manual of the time the one that kept a strict hierarchical hold on information. Traditionally commanding officers knew the strategy knew the objective but that was kept from members of the infantry for security reasons. Spies might find out about it.
“So if the officer was wounded or killed the men running across the field behind him had absolutely no idea what the objective was” Barris says.
What the Canadian military commanders did at Vimy Ridge was decentralize this information so that instead of the strategy being held secret in the minds of a few objectives were shared with personnel from gunmen to trench-diggers.
“In other words letting everybody know what the objective was” Barris says.
Not only were objectives shared but soldiers were trained for various roles.
As Barris explains Canadian troops were divided into 50-man units including grenade launchers stretcher carriers pioneers – soldiers who performed engineering and construction-type work – and so on.
“Everybody learned everybody else’s job” says Barris. That way if a soldier was injured or killed his comrades could step into the role hopefully still able to carry out their task.
Not only that but Canadian strategists disguised the operation. While military uniforms vary with rank “they had all the officers dress as corporals” Barris says. “In other words everybody looked the same. None of the leaders would be recognized immediately.”
So Canadian soldiers coming at them in a creeping barrage German soldiers were unable to identify which ones were issuing the commands.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is often regarded as a landmark in the creation of the Canadian identity. In a still very colonial climate Canada entered the war immediately upon the involvement of Great Britain and it has been a dominant narrative in the century since that the victory at Vimy cemented a sense of national identity for Canadians.
In recent years some academics have challenged that notion suggesting that the importance of Vimy to Canadian identity has been overhyped.
However Barris believes the battle was indeed an important moment in the country’s development.
“If you look carefully at the literature it’s there” he says.
Barris refers to the writings of Harold Innis who during the First World War had just graduated from McMaster University and would later go on to become an economist and professor at the University of Toronto.
While Innis may have been the more intellectual among his more salt-of-the-earth battery mates rehearsing the battle in their minds and telling stories of their homes brought the men together.
They were no longer fighting for king and country for the old empire but fighting for Canada.
“Suddenly they realized they had more in common than just the emblem on their shoulder” Barris says.
Barris also references the story of Grace MacPherson the first woman in Vancouver to have a driver’s licence and own her car and who also became an ambulance driver for the Canadian military in Vimy.
After first being denied as an ambulance driver by the Red Cross offices in both Canada and Britain MacPherson made her way to England where she got a job looking after payroll for Canadians stationed at barracks in London. Eventually MacPherson would indeed end up driving an ambulance transporting injured soldiers.
While she was proud of her accomplishments during the war “she was most proud of the Canadian badge on her shoulder” Barris says adding that stories such as those from MacPherson and Innis speak volumes about the sense of Canadian pride that permeated the battlefield at Vimy Ridge.
Barris has written 18 books and is currently working on numbers 19 through 21. Many of them deal with Canadian military history and he has interviewed more than 6000 veterans throughout his career.
“You’re always looking for a story that’s never been told” he said. “And that’s what you find in the stories of those veterans.”
Barris adds they’re stories that need to be told.
Barris’s Victory at Vimy talk will take place at the Haliburton Fish Hatchery from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday Dec. 13. Admission is $10 per person. For more information call 705-754-3436 or 705-457-7557.