The above is one in a series of pictures a Royal Canadian cameraman took during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. The photo is regarded as one of the greatest war photos — although its origins are obscure. Some note that it was taken during “pre-battle” training behind the lines. This is not unusual. Because of the primitive photographic equipment available in the field, most photos purporting to portray actual ‘combat action’ during World War I in fact showed troops during pre-war training exercises. Some however note that the soldier going over the top was making a gesture expressing his contempt for the Germans by putting his thumb to his nose. (There is a website refuting this here).
No matter what the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 was considered as a pivotal moment for Canada as a nation; four Canadian Army units fought together as one for the first time. Three thousand five hundred and ninety eight Canadian soldiers were killed during the battle, and four Victoria Crosses were awarded. Indeed, the Canadians captured a strategic area, but it was a minor victory for the losing Allies that spring, and had a negligible effect. The Globe and Mail noted that “if French or British rather than Canadian troops had driven the German enemy off Vimy Ridge, history probably would have forgotten about it.”
Yet, the victory at Vimy become inseparable from the Canadian identity. When there were rumors that the Vimy memorial had been destroyed by Germans during the WWII, the Canadians were whipped fury and hatred so much so that Adolf Hitler’s advisers thought it was necessary for the Nazi leader to be photographed in Vimy at the monument to demonstrate that it was still intact.