The Battle of Vimy Ridge and Place Names of Waterton Lakes National Park

For this week’s blog post we welcome Meg Stanley, a historian with Parks Canada. Meg has done extensive research on war-related place names in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, particularly place names in the National Parks. We welcome her to RETROactive!

During the First World War, the Geographic Board of Canada assigned place names to various geographic features in the southern Rocky Mountains commemorating battles, military leaders, individual soldiers, and others with strong associations with the war. The Board’s inscription of the war onto the mountain landscape began in 1915 and continued through the war years and into the early 1920s.

Vimy Bridgland 1914 Plate 655 Stn 98 Blakiston Mouth

View of Vimy Peak and Ridge from the mouth of Blakiston Creek, taken on the M.P. Bridgland survey in 1914. Source: Mountain Legacy Project / Library and Archives Canada. http://explore.mountainlegacy.ca/stations/1265

The first mention of using war-related names appears in correspondence between surveyor M.P. Bridgland and Canada’s Surveyor General Edouard Deville in June 1915. Bridgland was working on preparing maps based on a survey he had completed of the Crowsnest Forest Reserve and Waterton Lakes Park in 1914. As part of his work he was required to propose names, and he turned to the war for inspiration, submitting a list that included well-known military leaders of the time. Deville, and by extension the Geographic Board, accepted Bridgland’s proposal.

With the precedent of using war-related names established, it soon became common practice, especially along the line of the Alberta-BC boundary survey that was then underway. Deville came to see the practice as not only commemorating battles and individuals, but also as a tool to reinforce alliances. He made sure that those commemorated were informed and that the newspapers of London and Paris carried news of Canada’s decision to inscribe the names of the alliance leaders on its mountains. In this way, the naming of places in the southern Rocky Mountains was made a part of the Canadian war effort.

Vimy as seen from the Akamina Highway, Waterton Lakes National Park, 1920s. Colourized postcard after W.J. Oliver photograph. Source: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, University of Alberta Libraries, PC010991.

The naming of Vimy Peak and associated features in Waterton Lakes National Park occurred between July and November 1917 shortly after the battle of the same name, which took place in April 1917. The naming coincided with the preparation of a map of Waterton Lakes Park that combined information from the boundary and forest/park reserve surveys. The map, which appeared in January 1918, shows Vimy Peak, Ridge, and Brook, along with all the other place names associated with the First World War in Waterton Lakes Park. The features named to commemorate Vimy were previously known as Sheep Mountain (Vimy Peak and Ridge) and Hell Roaring Canon (Vimy Brook).

View of the village of Vimy from Vimy Ridge, France, May 1917. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada, PA-001290

The Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April 1917) was the first battle in which all four Canadian divisions fought together and is considered a great Canadian victory. A strategic high ground held by the Germans since the early days of war, Vimy Ridge was seen by many as an impregnable stronghold. The Canadian attack was the result of careful planning, application of tactical and operational innovations, and extensive preparations. Victory, however, was the result of the courageous and determined actions of the 40,000 Canadian men at the ridge. The battle was won at a tremendous cost, with more than 10,600 Canadian casualties.

Vimy Monument, France. The Vimy Ridge monument is a National Historic Site of Canada; one of only two located outside of the country. 
Source: Parks Canada.

It is important to bear in mind that the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge was part of the larger Battle of Arras which began on the 9th of April. Although both the Canadians and British were able to advance, in the end, these gains could not be consolidated into a strategic breakthrough.  The war, and Canada’s role in it, most definitely did not end at Vimy.

Detail of names inscribed on the Vimy Monument, France.
Source: T.J. Hammer/Parks Canada, 2007.

 

 

Described as a “Canadian epic,” the symbolism of Vimy was enormous. From the moment the victory was announced, it represented a coming of age and is a touchstone in narratives regarding Canada’s evolution from British colony to independent nation. On the home-front, the timing of the victory was fortuitous as it came when divisions over issues such as conscription were widening and Prime Minister Borden was seeking ways to advance the war effort.

Vimy has remained important to Canadians, both as a symbol and as a place. In 1922, France granted Canada perpetual use of a 117-hectare section of land at Vimy Ridge for a battlefield park and memorial.  Dedicated in 1936, the memorial is inscribed with the names of the 11,285 Canadians killed in France with no known grave. The memorial and park were designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1997. In 2003, April 9th was declared a National Day of Remembrance marking the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

View of Vimy Peak and Ridge from Bertha Mountain taken on the M.P. Bridgland survey in 1914, Waterton Lakes Park. Source: Mountain Legacy Project. http://explore.mountainlegacy.ca/stations/1253

Today, there are almost 100 geographic features, streets, communities, and civic facilities named for Vimy across Canada. Although there is no other Vimy Peak, there is a mountain (Mont Vimy, northwest of Québec City, near CFB Valcartier), and two ridges (near Murtle Lake in British Columbia and on CFB Wainwright, Alberta). In May 1917, one month after the battle was fought, the community of Vimy, Alberta was established when a new rural post office named Vimy opened about 50 kilometres north of St. Albert. At Waterton Lakes National Park, Parks Canada has organized a dinner and hike with Vimy Peak as the objective to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the battle on April 5th and 6th 2017.

Written By: Meg Stanley, Historian, Archaeology and History Branch, Parks Canada

Sources

Canada. Department of the Interior.  “Map of Waterton Lakes Park, Alberta, from Photographic Surveys by M.P. Bridgland, D.L.S. and A.O. Wheeler, B.C.L.S.” Scale: 1:100,000. Drawn and Printed at the Surveyor General’s Office, Ottawa, Canada, January 1918.

Canada. Department of the Interior. “Crowsnest Forest and Waterton Lakes Park, Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve,” Sheet 5, Scale: 1:62,500. Drawn and printed at the Surveyor General’s Office, Ottawa, Canada, from Photographic Surveys by M.P. Bridgland, D.L.S., assisted by A.E.Hyatt 1913-14, nd

Canada. Geographic Board of Canada. Place-Names of Alberta. Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1928.

“Geographic Board of Canada, Decisions, July-November 1917,” Canada Gazette, 51, 23 (December 8 1917), 1954.

Hayes, Geoffrey, Andrew Iarocci, and Mike Becthold, eds., Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment. Waterloo: Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies and Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007.

“Peaks Names after 1914 War Generals, British Columbia-Alberta,” F. 186, Vol. 159, Geographic Board, RG21, Library and Archives Canada.

“Alberta Names,” F. 8, Vol.  152, Geographic Board, RG21, Library and Archives Canada.

“French Generals,” F. 365, Vol.  165, Geographic Board, RG21, Library and Archives Canada.

Note: these files were consulted at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa as well as on Geographic Board Microfiche, loaned to Parks Canada by Historic Resources Management, Alberta Culture and Tourism. The files are mostly the same, but there were some differences in content.

Cautley, R.W., J.N. Wallace, and A.O. Wheeler, Commissioners. Atlas, Report of the Commission Appointed to Delimit the Boundary between the Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Pt. 1, 1913-1916. Ottawa: Office of the Surveyor General, 1917.

Karamitsanis, Aphrodite. Place Names of Alberta: Mountains, Mountain Parks and Foothills. vol. 1. Calgary: Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Friends of Geographical Names of Alberta Society and University of Calgary Press, 1991.

Morton, Desmond. Military History of Canada.  5th Edition.  Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2007.

“National Day of Remembrance, Vimy Ridge,” in Veterans Affairs Canada, news (archived), accessed February 24 2014, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/news/viewrelease/211

Smith, Donald, “The Great Wars in the Rockies: Towering Monuments.” The Beaver (Feb-March 1990).

Stanley, Meg. “Backgrounder: War-Related Place Names in Waterton Lakes National Park,” Unpublished report prepared for Waterton Lakes National Park, 2014.

Vance, Jonathan F. Death so Noble, Memory, Meaning, and the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.

“Vimy Place Names.” Unpublished list prepared by Archaeology and History Branch, Parks Canada, 2015.

“Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada,” in Historic Places.ca, accessed February 24 2014, http://www. Historicplaces.ca/en/pages/vimyridge.aspx.

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