On Tuesday 3 October 2017 Dr Ian Willis presented a talk to Narellan Rotary Club at Harrington Park Country Club, Harrington Park, NSW. The title of the presentation was ‘The Cowpastures, just like an English landscape’.
Summary of the presentation
The early colonial European settlers in the Cowpastures were the key players in the story of creating an English-style landscape along the Nepean River. The settlers took possession of the countryside from the Dharawal Aboriginal people and re-made it in their own vision of the world.
They constructed a cultural landscape made up of an idealised vision of what they had left behind in the ‘Old Country’. For the European settlers the new continent, and particularly the bush, had the elements of the Gothic with its grotesque and the demonic, and the English-style landscape aesthetic they created was one attempt to counter these forces.
Settlers used the aesthetic to assist the creation of a new story on an apparently blank slate and in the process dispossessed and displaced the Indigenous occupants. The new landscape was characterised by English placenames, English farming methods and English settlement patterns, with only cursory acknowledgement of Indigenous occupation.
The early settlers had such a profound impact on the countryside that their legacy is still clearly identifiable today even after 200 years.
I recently came across a post by Canadian blogger Andrea Eidinger in her Unwritten Histories that mentioned the battle of Vimy Ridge from the First World War. The author was reviewing a recently published book The Vimy Trap: or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War by Canadian historians Ian McKay and Jamie Swift as part of CHA Reads 2017.
Publicity from Amazon states that
The story of the bloody 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge is, according to many of today’s tellings, a heroic founding moment for Canada. This noble, birth-of-a-nation narrative is regularly applied to the Great War in general.
This heroic story has launched a mythical tale labelled as “Vimyism”.
Mary-Ellen Kelm defending The Vimy Trap, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War.
The Vimy memorial was on TV when Andrea Eidinger’s call for participants in #CHAreads went out on Twitter. Though the First World War is not my field, I have long been interested in how the past gets used to make or break community. So I signed up to participate in #CHAreads and to investigate the merits of The Vimy Trap: or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift – a nominee for the CHA’s Sir John A. Macdonald prize. The Vimy Trap is a book that all Canadian historians, whatever their interests, should read.
The reason is simple. Historians care about history. We care about people in the past and we want to represent their experience faithfully. We care about how history is written and used. What McKay and Swift are arguing is that Vimyism – “a network of ideas and symbols that centre on how Canada’s Great War experience somehow represents the country’s supreme triumph [and]… marked the country’s birth,” has flattened the complex, contradictory and terrifying reality of the First World War into a simplistic, militaristic ‘big bang theory’ of Canadian history.(p. 9)
What is lost in the process is astounding and much of the Vimy Trap explores the horror and ambiguity of modernized warfare and Canadians’ varied reactions to it. McKay and Swift eschew black-and-white portrayals. Canadian soldiers were neither heroes or villains: they used poison gas, killed prisoners and were torn apart by artillery fire while marching with fixed bayonet wearing kilts. They came to view the war and to write about it in ironic, scathing terms. At home, disunity turned to violence as conscription split the nation. The War was hardly a unifying, glorifying force.
McKay and Swift give voice to a spectrum of Canadian reactions to the War. Early enthusiasm waned quickly. From Arthur Meighan to William Lyon Mackenzie King to Walter Allward, the sculptor of the Vimy Memorial, and Charlotte Susan Wood, Canada’s first Silver Cross Mother, all called upon Canadians to remember the War not a righteous cause but as reminder of war’s futility. They grieved their dead and honoured them but not the war that caused their deaths. Canadians dreamed of peace and their leaders sought it too but failed to remake the social order into one that would recoil from war.
A culture of martial nationalism remains. Late twentieth century popular and scholarly histories recognize the contradictions and the complexities but have concluded that, in war, nations are strengthened, dreams realized, heroes made. Historians are responsible for Vimyism. It is a trap because it reflects none of the nuance and little of the stark horror of modern warfare that soldiers and civilians experienced and that contemporary writers expressed. And this is why Canadian historians must read The Vimy Trap. McKay and Swift remind us all that we have not always glorified war and ask us, as historians, to consider our part in honouring, or ignoring, that past.
Mary-Ellen Kelm is a professor of history at Simon Fraser University specializing in settler colonial and medical histories of North America.
Re-published from Andrea Eidinger’s original blog post with permission