To mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Centre of Military, Security and Strategic Studies (CMSS) is hosting an international conference April 20-22 at the University of Calgary's MacEwan Ballroom.
The three-day event, Vimy: From Both Sides of the Ridge will look at the landmark battle in Canadian history from both a Canadian and a German perspective, with academics from the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (ZMSBW) — a research institution that is part of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Defence — in attendance.
CMSS and ZMSBW are co-sponsoring the event, which was two years in the planning.
“We thought, with the 100th anniversary of Vimy coming up (on April 9), let’s try to do something that’s different and challenging,” says professor David Bercuson, director of the CMSS. “Let’s talk about the larger picture in 1917, when the battle occurred. What was it like for both Canada and Germany at that time? Let’s look at the tactical picture from both sides of the front. What were their objectives and motivations? What were ours?”
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought from April 9 to 12, 1917 in the Pas-de-Calais region of France, is rightly regarded as a defining moment in Canadian history.
It was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces sent to fight in the First World War joined together under one command, forming a united Canadian Corps. In the battle, the Canadian Corps successfully took control of the German-held high ground along an escarpment of an area known as the Arras Offensive. The victory is often considered to be Canada’s greatest feat of arms.
Many historians also regard the Battle of Vimy Ridge as the moment of Canada’s true birth as a nation.
“When the First World War broke out in 1914 Canada, was constitutionally bound to go to war, because Britain went to war and we were a part of the Commonwealth,” notes Bercuson. “At that time, both the Liberals and Conservatives knew Canada was going to break free of its colonial status and move towards greater autonomy and independence within the British Empire. The question was, how fast would we do it, and in what way?”
By winning the battle, Canada proved it was ready to stand on its own.
“When we joined the war, we barely knew what we were doing,” says Bercuson. “We were mostly militia soldiers. But by 1917 we were much more highly trained and our military strategists were a lot better. When we won the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the achievement became a symbol that Canada had surpassed requirements for national self-government. We fought shoulder to shoulder to defeat the Germans and we truly became a nation.”
But for the sake of historical accuracy, it’s also important to note that while Vimy Ridge is of the utmost importance to Canada’s national identity, it wasn’t “a breakout battle that won the west.”
“Certainly, the Germans didn’t want to lose that battle, because Vimy Ridge was a key observation point for a large section of the front,” Bercuson says. “Having that kind of high ground is always a major military advantage and the Germans fought hard to keep it.
“But today, they don’t view Vimy Ridge as a battle that led to their defeat. I think it’s important for us to understand that.”
Hearing the story of Vimy Ridge from the German perspective will add a uniqueness and historical value to the Vimy: From Both Sides of the Ridge conference.
“We’re going to get a sense as to the German morale at the time,” says Bercuson. “Having these German voices tell us their story and how they saw the Battle of Vimy Ridge is a special opportunity.”
See a full conference program and register for the event here.