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Vimy, by Pierre Berton, (Penguin 1987).

Vimy Ridge is one of those epic western front battles that I have known about for as a long as I can remember, without actually learning very much about it. In a effort to plug the gap I followed the suggestion of several friends and acquired a copy of Vimy, by the acclaimed Canadian author Pierre Berton.

Berton writes that his purpose is ‘to tell not just what happened but also what it was like from the point of view of the man in the mud as well as from the senior planners.’1 Using a combination of interviews with survivors (both his own and from the Public Archives of Canada), the papers of participants, newspapers and a variety of archive and published sources, he achieves this in style.

The result is not only a coherent account of the battle but also a document of intense human experience. For all Berton’s military understanding, Vimy is essentially a chronicle of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. In a style similar to that of Lynn MacDonald, he builds his narrative around first person accounts from the men who were there. ‘It seems as if I had been born out here and have never known anything but everlasting mud and perpetual shellfire’, wrote Claude Williams, machine gunner.2 The point is more powerful for being made by the soldier’s pen, rather than the author’s.

Purists will argue that at times Berton’s style strays into that more appropriate for a screenwriter than a serious historian, rather in the manner of Cornelius Ryan.

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“‘She’s a great old war’, Breckenridge said. ‘That damn fool of Fritz almost got us.’ ‘It was close enough’ his companion replied. ‘The mud saved our necks’”3

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Arguably, the same effect could be achieved without such liberal use of reconstructed dialogue. That said, the style contributes to the book’s broad appeal, and perhaps a more strictly academic approach would be less evocative.

Alongside the dialogue, Vimy includes rather more military detail than most of MacDonald’s works. Amongst other things, Berton covers the creeping barrage, rifle grenades, indirect fire from machine guns and trench raids, without resorting to overly technical language. He explains the complicated science of counter-battery fire in accessible terms, rendering sound ranging and flash spotting comprehensible to the non specialist with a handful of well chosen sentences. Breton adds a human touch to even the most technical of topics, in this case by weaving the explanation around the personal story of Andrew McNaughton, the officer responsible for directing the Canadian Corps counter-battery work.

This is a technique Berton uses frequently and well: illuminating the overall picture with the stories of individuals. He makes particular studies of Byng, Currie and McNaughton that are both integral to the narrative and individually valuable. Before Vimy the facts of Currie’s financial difficulties – ‘to be blunt, Currie was an embezzler’4 – were not widely known. Breton’s exploration of this controversial issue demonstrates his tenacity in search of the truth. It also illustrates a major theme: that the Canadian Corps consisted of, and was largely officered by, working men that the reader can relate to. The lack of a national military tradition and tiny pre-war regular forces produced a far more egalitarian army than did the British system.

The distinctive national identity of the Canadian Corps is a salient theme of the book. Berton makes a powerful case that their very ‘Canadian-ness’ was fundamental to their success in capturing the Ridge. Canadian units were largely commanded by pre-war militia officers, less constrained by class than British Regulars. Men like Currie, McNaughton and countless others would have been far less likely to advance to senior positions in the British Army, in which the hierarchy of rank was made rigid by the class system. The Canadian way was much more open: ‘…ability won out over elitism. Neither birth nor marriage nor social position counted in the selection of Canadian officers.’5

This flexibility fostered better communication up and down the chain of command: ‘at 1st Army Headquarters, Canadian sergeants and brigadiers rubbed shoulders as they clustered around a plasticine model of the Vimy sector.’6 Officers were instructed to explain the plan to every soldier and to encourage them to ask questions. As a result individual soldiers understood their task more thoroughly than did their predecessors on the Somme less than one bloody year ago. When officers became casualties, NCOs and private soldiers were better equipped to take the initiative and carry on regardless. As such, Berton is right to argue that the Canadian approach contributed materially to the success at Vimy.

At times, however, I cannot help but think that Berton’s appreciation of all things Canadian blinds him to the contributions of others. For example, he rightly pays much attention to the creeping barrage, that ‘protective screen…a Niagara of steel’7 the skilful deployment of which was critical to the battle. Yet the Anglo-Irish officer who planned the barrage goes unmentioned. As this was the future Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff in World War Two, one might be forgiven for expecting him to be included.

These are questions of detail, about which all good books provoke debate and quibbles. In other respects Vimy is a magnificent piece of work. The men of Canada, supported by the British, achieved a marvel of organisation, dedication and courage. This was not simply a military victory: Vimy Ridge became a seminal milestone on the road to maturity for a new nation.

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It has become commonplace to say that Canada came of age at Vimy Ridge…in the minds of Canadians Vimy took on mythic quality in the post war years, and Canada was short of myths.8

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Berton renders justice to both the memory of the men who fought there and to Canada itself. Vimy is a triumph – a classic of its kind.

1 Author's note, p313

2 p294

3 p258

4 p106

5 p48

6 p162

7 20

8 p294/5

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Pierre Berton (note spelling) has long been known as a promoter of Canadian history. His books on the construction of the railroad in the west, the Great Depression, and the two on the War of 1812 (Flames Across The Border and The Invasion of Canada) have been great examples of "popular history". They may not be historically 100% all the time, but they do make great reading.

Vimy is one of my favourites. His writing style is excellent, and he certainly is familiar with war (he is a WW2 vet).

Berton is what Canada needs. As a nation, we have little comprehension of our history, and nine out of ten Canadians probably have no clue as to where Vimy Ridge is. Writers like Berton, and for more recent military topics, Jack Granatstein, are vital for any understanding and appreciation of Canadian military history.

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Derek Robertson

"Vimy" is a classic.

I have read it on more than one occassion and I find Pierre Berton's writing style very easy to read but also very illuminating.

I can't recommend it highly enough to the "Pals" :D

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  • 4 months later...

Thought I'd bring this thread back to the top so that hopefully a few new people could read STE summary. Also because I just finished Vimy on my flight today and thought it was by far one of the best books I have read in a while. Knowing only very little about the battle before had, Berton brings it all to life in an easy to read and follow manner.

I can not recommend this book highly enough. Berton's style has also gotten me interested in his other books.

Andy

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Thanks Matt for the thread, I have read it, and contributed to it a couple of times. I just thought I'd add to this one, so others might also read STE's summary.

Andy

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In 2001 Pierre Berton published another book on the Canadian war experience from 1899 to 1953 period.

The prose is similar to his book Vimy, however, the scope of work is broadened to cover a wider range of battles and wars.

The book is entitled "Marching as to War" and is published by Double Day Canada.

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  • 3 weeks later...

At the recommendation of Andigger and others, I have aquired a copy and am in the midst of it. Wonderful.

For an American it gives me a sense of Canada more than I've recieved from other sources. We tend to take our neighbor to the north for granted and consider it some sort of lost cousin - "just like us except dressed for winter all year long" ... much like the link on Canadian rememberence published on this site ... it brings me to an new awareness of their Nation-hood and heritage

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