PLUS Unbuttoned: Mackenzie King's Secret Life by Christopher Dummitt, and A National Crime by John Milloy
Award-winning author, First World War historian, and Trent alumnus Dr. Tim Cook’s newest book Vimy: The Battle and the Legend examines the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and the way the memory of it has evolved over the past 100 years.
Examining Vimy Ridge as a cultural flashpoint, Dr. Cook ‘90 asks how a four-day campaign, somewhere near the middle of the Great War, become a defining moment for the Canadian identity.
The operation that began April 9, 1917, was the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together. More than 10,000 Canadian soldiers were killed or injured over four days—twice the casualty rate of the Dieppe Raid in August 1942. The Corps’ victory solidified its reputation among allies and opponents as an elite fighting force. In the wars’ aftermath, Vimy was chosen as the site for the country’s strikingly beautiful monument to mark Canadian sacrifice and service. Over time, the legend of Vimy took on new meaning, with some calling it the “birth of the nation.”
The remarkable story of Vimy is a layered skein of facts, myths, wishful thinking, and conflicting narratives. Award-winning writer Tim Cook explores why the battle continues to resonate with Canadians a century later. He has uncovered fresh material and photographs from official archives and private collections across Canada and from around the world.
On the 100th anniversary of the event, and as Canada celebrates 150 years as a country, Vimy is a fitting tribute to those who fought the country’s defining battle. It is also a stirring account of Canadian identity and memory, told by a masterful storyteller.
The Winnipeg Free Press calls Vimy “admirable, balanced and very readable” and states that Cook’s “broad strokes and ability to move from documentation to anecdote, from battle description to opposing viewpoints, will satisfy most critical readers.” You can read the review in full here.
He was the curator for the First World War permanent gallery at the Canadian War Museum (CWM), and has curated additional temporary, traveling, and digital exhibitions. He was also responsible for the historical content of For Crown and Country: The South African and First World Wars, as well as for two special exhibitions: Trench Life: A Survival Guide (2008) and War and Medicine (2011). He is currently the Director of Research for the CWM.
In 2012, he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to Canadian history and in 2013 he received the Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media: The Pierre Burton Award. The award was given to Cook for his work making military history "more accessible, vivid and factual", both in his role as an author and as the First World War Historian at the Canadian War Museum. In 2014, Tim Cook was named a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his contributions to promoting Canada’s military history as an author, researcher and curator.
An excerpt from Vimy:
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the most carefully planned operation the Canadians fought during the First World War. The ridge was the site of several titanic battles, starting in October 1914, and a place where hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers had been killed or maimed in attempting to capture or hold the critically important geographical position. The 7-kilometre Vimy Ridge protected the coal-rich area around Lens that the Germans occupied and desperately needed to retain to supply their war effort. When the Canadians arrived at the foot of the western side of the ridge in October 1916, Vimy was a vast desert of shell craters and rotting corpses. The Canadians faced one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front. Under the command of British general Sir Julian Byng, the four Canadian divisions, with significant support from British engineers, gunners, and soldiers, prepared for the battle in April 1917. The assault on Vimy was part of a larger British push, the Arras offensive, which was, in turn, a supporting attack for the French Artois offensive to the south. Through meticulous preparation, training, determination, and sacrifice, the Canadians succeeded where the French armies had failed in the past. The Corps’ victory solidified its reputation among allies and opponents as an elite fighting force.
But Vimy is more than a battle. The unanswered question of Vimy is how the battle became a focal point of remembrance and an icon of Canadian identity. Why do Canadians remember Vimy instead of the 1915 Battle of Second Ypres or the 1918 Hundred Days campaign? The former was the first major engagement where the Canadians faced chlorine gas and stopped the overwhelming German forces; the latter was hailed at the time as the most important series of battles by the Canadian Corps. To pull back the gaze further, why do Canadians celebrate Vimy more intensely than they mark battles of the Second World War, such as the Battle of the Atlantic, D-Day, or the liberation of the Dutch in 1945? How do we make sense of the proud Canadians in 2007 who returned to Vimy Ridge wearing hats and T-shirts that proclaimed “Vimy: Birth of the Nation.” No one would attribute that origin story to the battles of Ridgeway, Paardeberg, or Ortona, to Normandy, Kapyong, or the Medak Pocket. Vimy is unique.
The value that Canadians attach to the battle and the memorial is forever linked to the Great War. For many English Canadians the war marked Canada’s coming of age, as its primary land formation, the Canadian Corps, spearheaded a number of Allied offensives and delivered hard-fought victories. The war was perceived differently in French Canada, which had a distinct culture and identity, and by many of the two million immigrants who had come to Canada since the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the war was an important transformative event for all. The enormous exertions on the home front saw millions of shells produced for the war effort, crops produced by farmers to feed the Allied nations, and unprecedented patriotic support of the war effort and the soldiers. Major social changes, from industrialization, income tax, and enfranchisement for women to deeper government intervention into the lives of Canadians, were ushered in by the war.
The Toronto Star also published an excerpt from Vimy. You can read it here.
Dr. Cook was the recipient of the 2016 Trent University Distinguished Alumni Award.
Dr. Christopher Dummitt
Christopher Dummitt's most recent book is Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King's Secret Life. A professor of history at Trent University's School for the Study of Canada, he is also the co-founder of the Canada 150 project www.canadiandifference.ca.
When Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King died in 1950, the public knew little about his eccentric private life. In his final will King ordered the destruction of his private diaries, seemingly securing his privacy for good. Yet twenty-five years after King’s death, the public was bombarded with stories about "Weird Willie," the prime minister who communed with ghosts and cavorted with prostitutes. Unbuttoned traces the transformation of the public’s knowledge and opinion of King’s character, offering a compelling look at the changing way Canadians saw themselves and measured the importance of their leaders’ personal lives.
Christopher Dummitt relates the strange posthumous tale of King’s diary and details the specific decisions of King’s literary executors. Along the way we learn about a thief in the public archives, stolen copies of King’s diaries being sold on the black market, and an RCMP hunt for a missing diary linked to the search for Russian spies at the highest levels of the Canadian government. Analyzing writing and reporting about King, Dummitt concludes that the increasingly irreverent views of King can be explained by a fundamental historical transformation that occurred in the era in which King’s diaries were released, when the rights revolution, Freud, 1960s activism, and investigative journalism were making self-revelation a cultural preoccupation.
Presenting extensive archival research in a captivating narrative, Unbuttoned traces the rise of a political culture that privileged the individual as the ultimate source of truth, and made Canadians rethink what they wanted to know about politicians.
Look for more on Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King's Secret Life in the next edition of TRENT Magazine.
John S. Milloy
The University of Manitoba Press has re-released John Milloy's insightful and powerful A National Crime. First published in 1999, the work is just as relevant today.
Professor Milloy specializes in history, particularly British Imperial policy toward aboriginal peoples and Plains Cree history as a member of Trent’s Department of Indigenous Studies. He is a recipient of the Symons Award for Excellence in Teaching.
With the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more Canadians than ever are aware of the ugly history of Canada’s residential schools. Nearly twenty years earlier, UMP published John Milloy’s A National Crime, a groundbreaking history of the schools that exposed details of the system to thousands of readers.
Using previously unreleased government documents accessed during his work for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, A National Crime was one of the first comprehensive studies of the history of residential schools, and it remains a powerful indictment of the racist and colonial policies that inspired and sustained them. A National Crime convincingly argues that, rather than bringing Indigenous children into what its planners called “the circle of civilization,” the schools more often provided an inferior education in an atmosphere of neglect, disease, and abuse.
As UMP marks its fifth decade, and Canada struggles towards truth and reconciliation, it is fitting to reissue A National Crime —one of our most influential publications and a cornerstone of our Indigenous studies list—with a new foreword by a scholar in the vanguard of Indigenous historians in Canada.