Follow Us

Log in

Copyright The Military Museums Foundation

4520 Crowchild Trail SW , Calgary, AB, T2T 5J4

Vimy Ridge: Snapshot of a Fledgling Nation

2021-04-12 12:00 | Deleted user
 Longstaff, Will. Ghosts of Vimy Ridge. 1931Oil on canvas. 138.0 x 270.2 cm. House of Commons Heritage Collection.

From 9 to 12 April 1917, the Battle of Vimy Ridge raged in the north of France. For the first time in the Great War, the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together, employing new tactics, rigorous planning, and technological innovation in what was quite literally an up-hill battle against the German 6th Army. For a nation not quite 50 years old with little control over its own foreign policy, victory in the battle was unexpected, and even moving.

Many today consider the Battle of Vimy Ridge to be one of Canada’s important national myths, if not our foundational myth. Scrappy, determined Canadians shrugged off our reputation as Britain’s dependent offspring by doing the seemingly impossible; all the better that it happened with snow flying in the face of the German defenders, the Canadian weather almost a mythological character unto itself. Others feel that this is a played-out narrative that pushes aside more meaningful moments in our history. The mythological overtone of Vimy Ridge did not even spring up until many of its participants had passed away, in part because by the time its harshest aspects had softened in collective memory, a more modern, technological war was occupying our thoughts.

Wherever your beliefs sit on this spectrum, there is something to be said for the “small man” history of Vimy. With the glorious trappings of legend stripped away, the biographies of its ordinary participants offer a fascinating snapshot of Canada, 1917. United under a colonial flag (we would not get our own flag for another 50 years) the stories of these men tie into seemingly disparate scenes from Canadian history. While we often break the historical narrative up into distinct moments for book chapters and digestibility, everything is, of course, connected.

Mike Mountain Horse, Alberta, Glenbow Archives NB-44-92
One man present on those snowy April mornings was Mike Mountain Horse. He had joined the CEF to avenge the death of his brother Albert, who had been gassed twice early in the war, and died on his way home. They were from the Kainai Nation near what is now Lethbridge and grew up in St. Paul's Residential School and the Calgary Indian Industrial School. Few people would associate the culture built up around Vimy Ridge with Canada’s residential school system--but here we find a link. In fact, Mountain Horse’s mother lamented that it was residential school that planted the idea of enlisting in her sons’ heads in the first place. Still, it was unlikely that Mountain Horse joined the military to devote himself fully to the ideals of Anglo-Canada. As he himself wrote, “The war proved that the fighting spirit of my tribe was not squelched through reservation life. When duty called, we were there, and when we were called forth to fight for the cause of civilization, our people showed all the bravery of our warriors of old.” His motivations in joining the CEF were nuanced and complicated but informed at their core by Kainai warrior values. Mountain Horse wrote a history of his people in book form, and a war memoir in the form of a traditional story robe, which is currently on display here in the Army Museum of Alberta.

 Filip Konowal, VC
Consider also the biography of Filip Konowal. While he is better known for his actions at Hill 70 (where he was awarded a Victoria Cross), he was also an acting corporal at Vimy Ridge. Konowal was Ukrainian, having only moved to Canada in 1913 like so many others from the region. Most people with an interest in Canadian WWI history will recall that Ukrainian Canadians were shunned during the war, with many being sent to internment camps and the rest being required to report regularly to their local police. So how did Konowal end up fighting for Canada at the Ridge instead doing unpaid physical labour in Banff? It comes down to his family’s farm in the old country, which was situated on the Zbruch River. This river formed the border between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires; had the farm been on the west of the river, Konowal would have been an Austro-Hungarian subject, and therefore an “enemy alien” in Canada. Rather, he was a Russian subject, and therefore an ally. The distinction was not in ethnicity or language, but in which empire happened to occupy one’s birthplace. Through Konowal, Vimy is now linked to internment policies as well.

Of course, there are as many biographies adding nuance to the narrative of “Vimy Ridge: Snapshot of a Fledgeling Nation” as there were individuals who fought there. What of the men of the 22nd Battalion CEF, the only unit of the CEF whose official language was French? Remember that 1917 was the year of the Conscription Crisis, when French Canadians expressed their discontent that they were being forced into service for what they saw as a British (read: not Canadian) obligation. Yet these men were at Vimy, fighting with the fiercest of them. 

 Photo of Henry Louis Norwest- Photo taken while as a member of 3rd Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1915

Or what of Henry Louis Norwest, Métis marksman with a battalion sniping record? He had to enlist a second time under another name, discharged the first time for what the government calls "misbehaviour." Known for his patience and unique use of camouflage, the ex-rodeo performer received the Military Medal for his actions at Vimy Ridge. 

One blog post cannot contain all of these stories, as much as I would like it to. Instead, I hope that it can be a starting-off point to inspire your own research. Who else was at the Ridge? And what do their stories tell us about Canada, about our history, and about us as people? This unorthodox approach to history, looking for connections that no textbook would have time to cover, has driven my interests for years. I hope during this period of remembrance that it has driven your interests too. 

Post by Bridget Melnyk


Dagenais, Maxime. “The ‘Van Doos’ and the Great War,” August 19, 2015.

Dempsey, L. James. "A Warrior's Robe." Alberta History 51, no. 4 (2003): 18+. Accessed March 20, 2021.

Mountain Horse, Mike, and Hugh Aylmer Dempsey. My People, the Bloods. Calgary, Alberta: Glenbow-Alberta Institute, 1989.

Sorobey, Ron. “Filip Konowal, VC: The Rebirth of a Canadian Hero.” Canadian Military History 5, no. 2 (1996): 44-56. Accessed March 20, 2021.

Summerby, Janice. Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields. Ottawa, ON: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2005. Accessed March 20, 2021.


The military Museums Foundation

Call Us
Office: +1 (403) 410-2340

4520 Crowchild Trail SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2T 5J4

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software