Pierre Berton's Vimy
is a riveting and very accessible study of the World War I victory that gave Canadians their first real taste of nationhood. But even though it's a work that contains a considerable amount of patriotic fervour, Vimy
does not spare any of the nightmarish details of trench warfare. The barrage that signalled the first moments of the battle for Vimy Ridge, a muddy stretch of the front in the north of France, began exactly at 5:30 a.m. on April 9, 1917. In the hours that followed, the meticulously well-trained Canadian Corps would complete the first British victory in 32 months. This was the ridge where the French had sustained 150,000 casualties between 1914 and 1916; Canadian casualties numbered 10,000 through five months. No one expected this from the Canadians. By all rights, a Canadian Corps should never have existed. These four divisions of young men from across the country were not dispersed into British units only because Sam Hughes, Ottawa's hotheaded minister of militia and an infamous bully, refused to have it any other way. The other major factor that transformed the young Canadians into a cohesive force was the presence of two unusually innovative and sensible military leaders, Lieutenant-General Julian Byng and Major General Arthur Currie. Berton states that their "refusal to conform to outworn rules" meant that the Canadians learned from past mistakes on the front, unlike their haughty superiors, who failed to understand the nature of the first modern war and went on needlessly sacrificing soldiers whom they regarded as social inferiors. Instead, the Canadian leaders were in the thick of it and cared about the welfare of every man.
Berton's forte as a historian and writer is his ability to balance narrative details with big-picture events. Thus are the strategies of generals juxtaposed with anecdotes by and about the fighting men. Witness William Pecover, a Manitoba schoolteacher who, like many young Canadian men, signed up for war because he couldn't resist the lure of adventure--only to realize that his fantasy had nothing to do with trenchfoot, exhaustion, and German snipers. Of the day of the battle he wrote that "the conquered area through which we passed seemed strangely quiet. Here death reigned, and the agony of pain." Concise and well organized, considering the daunting complexity of the battle, Berton's book celebrates the achievement of the Canadians at Vimy without forgetting the appalling human toll. --Jason Anderson
"Among the most important and vital accounts of war that we have…it is inexcusable not to read it."
is Berton at his best and that's the best there is."
—Peter C. Newman
"A book to make us proud, to make us week."