Scott Taylor – Chronicle Herald (Halifax) – April 16 2013

Vimy Ridge, Chanak Crisis and nation building

Last Tuesday, on the 96th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Sun News blew up its own storm of controversy by republishing a six-year-old blog post by Alexandre Boulerice, an NDP MP from Quebec.

In his post, Boulerice described the First World War as “a purely capitalist war on the backs of the workers and peasants.” Given the left-wing slant of the blog, Boulerice also praised the communist activists of the day who opposed the conflict. However, what invoked the ire of the drum-and-bugle historians, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself, was the fact that Boulerice took aim at the sacred Battle of Vimy Ridge.

His comment that “thousands of poor wretches were slaughtered to take possession of a hill” runs in stark contrast to the well-developed myth that Canada, as a nation, was forged in fire that day on the bloodstained battlefield at Vimy.

This significant nation-building event has long been taught to our schoolchildren and has become something of an annual pilgrimage for Canadian high school student groups who visit the monument each year on April 9.

The storyline runs that this was the first time Canadian troops had fought together as a single corps under the command of Canadian General Arthur Currie. The heavily defended ridge had resisted attacks by both the British and French forces on previous occasions, but on that fateful day of April 9, 1917, at a cost of approximately 3,600 Canadians killed, we proved that victory could be achieved.

This much is true, but the birth of a nation is purely fictional hyperbole. Vimy Ridge may have been a key German position, but its capture did not lead to any significant strategic breakthrough for the Allies.

The static, bloody stalemate on the Western Front continued for another 19 months, before the American entry into the war (also in April 1917) finally tipped the balance for the Allies. While General Currie may have had tactical command at Vimy Ridge, he still answered to the British Imperial Chief of Staff.

One could, however, argue that Canada’s enormous contribution to the overall war effort led to our international recognition as an independent state. Canada was subsequently granted its own seat at both the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations and at the fledging League of Nations.

Simply having independent status is, of course, meaningless until it is exercised. That said, I would argue that Canada, in fact, truly became a nation in September 1922, when Prime Minister Mackenzie King said “no” to Britain’s request for a Canadian military expeditionary force. This chapter in history is known as the Chanak Crisis and it stemmed directly from the chaotic, violent aftermath in Anatolia following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Greek troops had initially deployed to Anatolia to protect ethnic Greek civilians from possible Turkish retribution. Supported both politically and militarily by Britain, the Greeks made early headway against a disorganized Turkish defence force, and captured huge swaths of territory.

The fortunes of the war turned in August 1921, however, when Turkish General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defeated the Greeks at the gates of Ankara. By September 1922, the Greeks had been pushed back to just two small beachheads at Izmir and Chanak, and Kemal’s Turkish nationalist forces were threatening to drive them completely from the Anatolian mainland.

Given that this was essentially a British-sponsored Greek mission, there was intense pressure on Britain to intervene. Britain’s plea extended to the war-weary colonies and, while New Zealand readily agreed to the British request, Australia and South Africa were hesitant. In Ottawa, war-mongering Opposition leader Arthur Meighen shouted, “Ready, aye ready!” but Mackenzie King was firm in his immediate rejection.

Without colonial troops, Britain was forced to open negotiations with Kemal and the Armistice of Mudanya was signed on October 11, 1922. The terms of that agreement meant the mass expulsion of ethnic Greeks living in western Anatolia, as well as the territory of eastern Thrace on the European mainland.

The subsequent Treaty of Lausanne was signed in July 1923, ratifying the territorial boundaries as outlined in the Mudanya armistice and recognizing the new Republic of Turkey.

Had Canada not acted independently in responding to the Chanak Crisis, undoubtedly thousands more Canadian soldiers would have died in a British imperial endeavour to partition the Middle East.

Personally, when it comes to determining just when and where our nation was born, I would like to think that Canada’s political decision not to go to war in 1922 outweighs our army’s successful capture of a single German strongpoint.

Scott Taylor is editor of Esprit de Corps magazine.