A prolific and much loved writer, the late Pierre Berton’s passion for Canadian history resounded through his long career as a journalist and broadcaster. A good friend of mine recalls reading his stuff on the War of 1812 (though not always willingly), of which there is a fair deal; much of it aimed at the young. The writer placed a particular emphasis on the pioneer spirit of the people who went out west and built the modern Canada we know today. He had a huge respect and affection for them and was deeply affected by the tragedy that befell so many of them on the Western Front.
The taking of Vimy Ridge represents a landmark as much for the Canadian Army as for the country itself. It was there the nation is seen by many to have come of age. It is the place where many immigrants stopped being British and truly became Canadians. The significance of it was felt as immense in post Great War Canada, but the writer could see how the impact of the battle had diminished during his twilight years. First published in 1986, this wonderful book relates the story from an often bullish perspective. Berton uses a fast flowing prose that befits the mood of optimism in a proud, young nation. He is an excellent user of first-hand accounts and sets the scene beautifully. His writing style is addictive.
History tells us the Canadian Corps was one of the finest bodies of men in the Allied Army. Unlike the British, Canadian divisions were kept together and pretty much always at full strength. By the 100 Days in1918 they were seen as shock troops because so many British formations lacked the numbers and some of the cohesion to take on such a role. But this does not mean they were ever unable to fight. Unfortunately there was a period at the end of the last century when a degree of hubris entered some histories and nationalistic attitudes prevailed to paint a picture that particular Commonwealth forces were dominant. There is a whiff of How Canada won World War 1 in this book at times and it highlights that however good it is, it was primarily written for a domestic audience. But this whiff is not the full stench to be found in the work of others and is balanced out by an emotional and entirely eloquent final analysis that really hits home to any sensible soul, Canadian born or otherwise.
On the downside, the British are seen as stereotypically rigid, class ridden, callous and unadventurous. We know that this could apply to some people some of the time – but never universally. The author falls into the trap of relying on the integrity of Lloyd George to colour his view of the British high command. But this has much to do with the available sources of the time as anything. Douglas Haig is Marmite without a doubt, but to say “the slaughter of thousands didn’t bother him because he rarely saw a corpse” is patently wrong. Haig settled for a war of attrition but this does not mean he didn’t care about casualties, as his diaries show. This sort of stuff really annoys me because it spoils the overall result of a really enjoyable read.
Sadly this edition is afflicted by some niggling typos, the worst of which is the misspelling of the author’s name on the jacket. Pierre Berton was fond of the whacky baccy, so maybe the typesetters found his stash? There are no photographs but the text often refers to pictures of the men involved and I would love to see their faces.
Visit the wonderful monument on Vimy Ridge and look out across the Douai Plain and wonder at the amazing feat of the men who took it on that amazing Easter Monday in 1917. I think of the place as being nothing short of spiritual with the great pylons reaching into the sky and the wonderful sculptures by the genius Walter Allward that just blow you away. Best of all is the huge thirteen feet high figure, cut from a single stone, Mother Canada looking down tearfully on a soldier’s grave. I defy any visitor not to be moved by her. She has other names and one is The Spirit of Canada Weeps for Her Lost Sons.
Nearly a century has past and Canada no longer weeps but continues to remember. Walter Allward’s masterpiece has been restored at the cost of many millions and looks magnificent. When he wrote his description of the Memorial in 1985, Pierre recognised that the grassed over craters and concrete trenches of the memorial park bore little relation to the hell the men who fought for it knew. But it remains one of the most remarkable places on the Western Front. If you haven’t been, I urge you to visit.
I have a strong bias towards Canada forged by family and friends and I always stop to pay my respects at Canadian war graves. Even if you lack the bond I feel and setting aside the niggles with this particular reprint, this wonderful book brings to life the amazing men who came across the Atlantic nearly a century ago and won a famous victory which helped change a nation forever. It is one of the most important events in the history of Canada and you can walk on that spot and try to connect with them for the shortest of moments. Other books on Vimy have and will be written. But the wonderful prose of Pierre Berton is all from the heart and you should share in it.
By Pierre Berton
Published in softback by Pen & Sword Military £12.99
ISBN:978 1 84884 862 7