One month from today – April 9th, 2017 – will mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. I will be there in France, along with my aunt and about 20,000 of our closest friends, to mark the centenary at a ceremony at the Canadian National Monument at Vimy Ridge. To prepare, I created a reading list that I hoped to get through before the trip. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t get through it.) Specifically, I wanted to share my impressions of Vimy by Pierre Berton.
“They hadn’t yet realized it wasn’t the kind of thing to be expected of men at war.” (p. 55)
I’ve not made much progress on the list, but this book was a definite standout. I usually make notes as I read books. As I read Vimy, I made so many notes, I just quit and started dog-earing and pencil-marking.
My Review of Vimy by Pierre Berton
I purchased my copy of Vimy at a used book store. Originally, I bought it as a gift for my dad but it (accidentally-on-purpose) found it’s way to my book shelf instead. Oops. It’s not the first time I’ve done that!
“As far as I could see, south, north along the miles of the ridge, there were the Canadians. And I experienced my first full sense of nationhood.” (epigraph)
My favourite military history books include a large amount of first hand material – excerpts from interviews, mission reports, letters, memoirs – interspersed with well-researched, well-written commentary on the battle/campaign/situation I’m reading about and it’s context in the politics, economics, and culture of its time and place. I enjoy a book where the author’s narrative reads almost like a novel, without trying to read like a novel.
In short, I want an author who is an amazing historian and researcher, and an amazing writer. I realize this is a tall order. That doesn’t stop me from reading military history books, but it does take a lot for a book to be ‘amazing’ for more than the information I learned from it.
Vimy is one of these books, because of lines like this:
At other times the weather turned balmy, and the mud, the dreadful clinging mud, reappeared. (p. 85)
Born in the Yukon, Pierre Berton was a prolific, award-winning author with over 50 works on all sorts of topics, mostly history. He started his career as a journalist in Vancouver. Berton has a poetic style that seems to not be contrived or forced, but simply the only way to attempt to describe the indescribable. For example:
A mile south of Hill 145 [the location of the National Memorial] was another hill near whose slopes was sprawled a farm that was no longer a farm…Two miles south of that… was a village that was no longer a village… high on the forward slope… a hamlet that was no longer a hamlet, clustered in a grove that was no longer a grove. (p. 74)
His transitions from narrative to quote and excerpt is seamless.
“Were you crazy? Yes, we were crazy, but we didn’t know it.” (p. 23)
The book opens with an overview of the Canadian Army leading up to the Arras campaign (of which Vimy Ridge was a part). It goes into the politics and strategies that marked the British Forces throughout the first half of the Great War, the failures in places like the Somme, and the struggles both the French and British had at Vimy leading up to the battle on April 9th, 1917. The “myth” of which (in Berton’s words) ultimately lead to Canada’s independence. Finally, we follow the boys (because they were boys) through the intense training, raids and the battle itself. A battle that was, for the most part, surprisingly – to anyone not Canadian – ‘easy’. That is, if ‘easy’ means 10,000 causalities (wounded, missing, killed). But compared to earlier campaigns, that number was a drop in the bucket.
At Vimy, Canada became a nation. Berton’s Vimy is a perfect tribute to that.
Let me finish this with letting Berton give you a summary of his book in his own words.
Do you have any history book recommendations?