National Defining Moments
I have been thinking and reading lately about national defining moments which successful nations seem to have. Today, Canada is remembering the successful military battle of WW I at Vimy Ridge which has persisted at the event that most focused Canada's identity as a Nation. For our provincial Canadian partners in Newfoundland and Labrador we are also remembering their catastrophic defeat in WW! at Beaumont Hamel, at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. It is geographically close to Vimy Ridge. Also at this time, the British and
Falkland Islanders. are remembering that short but intense war thirty years ago(1982), which expelled the Argentine occupiers . There have been others which come to mind. I think of the defeat of the Australians and New Zealanders at the Battle of Gallipoli. For these two nascent nations this was a similar experience to Canada's victory at Vimy Ridge. To this day it is celebrated as ANZAC Day. For our American cousins, I think they view the American Revolution as their defining event. They have had many war events to point to since. One could argue this is more myth than reality for it was arguably not a great unify event. It was in fact a victory for an American property class which developed the National defining myths. At the time, and for over 100 years, slaves were not included, nor were American Indians. It was true that many "Americans" did not support the revolutionary split with Britain particularly in the Northeast. North of the border we embraced these United Empire Loyalists who evently fought alongside the French, British and Aboriginal residence in the War of 1812 to repel the attempt of the United States to annex these northern British colonies. This was an early moment of awareness for the future Canadians. They knew they were different from Americans and did not want to be part of the United States.
Nations seem to need these moments to shape their national consciousness, sadly they are often military events.
Vimy Ridge, which I have written about before, was the first time the Canadian soldiers from all across Canada fought as a unit and not just part of the British military. The Canadian Corp, at the time part of the British military, was given the task of dislodging the German troops occupying Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corp was a volunteer force of mostly rural and small town men, such was the nature of Canada back then.It had no great military tradition. As a result, it seemed to be able to find new and creative ways of solving the problem of dislodging a well dug in superior force. The old ways of warfare of pitting wave after wave of soldiers against barrages of deadly weapons until manpower of loss of ammunition is depleted resulting in "victory". This was the way WWI was being fought in the Battle of the Somme, which saw massive casualties in battles over a narrow piece of land. (1000 yard of less). The Canadian military leaders were creative and meticulous in their planing and execution. They built a scale model of the Ridge. They practiced the attack strategy, they invented fighting in small units (a sqad) under the leadership of an officer which could act creatively on it's own. They invented the creepting barrage which allowed the troops to advance just behind an artillery barrage which forced the enemy to seek cover rather than fire on the troops. These military tactics have been employed by armies ever since.
Canadians prevailed at the Battle_of_Vimy_Ridge, where the British and French had failed. They represented Canada well for which Canadians have since felt we gained something in our National identity. Yes! there were many casualties but not nearly as many which could have result if the old way fighting had been used.
The WWI defeat of the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont Hamel was the result of way wars were traditionally fought. The War of the Somme was such a war of attrition. They made a frontal mass assault against machine guns were their numbers were decimated. What makes this Newfoundland defeat to significant of Newfoundlands is that the Newfoundland regiment was made up of volunteers from all over the island, mostly from the many small outport fishing communities. A whole generation of Newfoundland men (boys) were lost. Hardly a family or community went untouched. In some cases, brothers , fathers and son, cousins were lost. To this day Newfoundland, now part of Canada, remembers this event from their colonial past when their men answered the call in defense of Britain and did not return.
Both Vimy Ridge and Beaumont Hamel battle sites are Canadian territory within France. They French honoured Canada by giving them the site of Vimy Ridge, while the mothers, sisters and wives of the Newfoundlanders raised the funds to purchase the Beaumont Humal site. When I visited Vimy Ridge a couple of years ago, which is a moving experience all Canadians should seek, I wanted to visit Beaumont Humal but could not. I hope another trip to Belgium and northern France will make this possible.
For some time now I have been interested in the Falkland Islands. It is almost an obsession with me. I have long been interested in remote places in the World where people live, usually on islands. The Falkland Islands are such a distant and remote archipelago in the South Atlantic. It was a British colony, sparsely populated and dependent mostly one industry, sheep farming. They British had colonized this uninhabited land continually since 1833. Argentina have laid claim to it, and all the Antarctic British Territories, as part of the Spanish territory which came to form that Nation. They have it written into its Constitution that these groups of Islands off the coast of South American are part of Argentina. The Falklands are the only one of several island groups continually colonized. Others have been whaling stations or weather and scientific sites. Britain and Argentina have debated the sovereignty of these islands for over 150 years.
Prior of the Falklands War the Falkland Islands were in decline economically. They were no longer a resupply place for ships sailing around South America as a result of the development of the Panama Canal. The wool industry was in decline. In fact the small population was in decline having dropped below 2500. Even now the population is small at 3,000. The British had been exploring ways to unburden itself of this remote colony so dependent on Britain. This was part of a world wide effort at decolonization. Britain had been considering a deal with Argentina to turn the Falklands over to it under an arrangement similar to that of Hong Kong, which after 99 years sorted back to China.
As things worked out. The Argentina military Junta in 1982 was dealing with an increasingly restless population. To rally the country to sport this dreadful regime they decided to invade the Falkland Island and just take what they claimed was theirs. The Junta bet the British would not defend this colony 7,000 miles away. The Argentina populations with national pride forgot their grievances with the junta temporarily. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was also losing popular support. She risked all by committing the nation to going to war with Argentina over the Falklands. An expeditionary force made it's way south, using the British Ascension Island in mid-Atlantic as a base. The result was that Britain, perhaps in her last Imperial adventure defeated the Argentine forces which had invaded the Falklands. It was a short war of 72 day but a real war none the less. Ships were lost, lives were lost, Creative and skilled war craft on the part of the British professional army defeated the young inexperienced Argentinian troops that were on the islands occupying them as now part of Argentina. It is an interesting small war to study. There are some YouTube videos which tell the story of the war rather well. What is not well known is the part the local inhabitants played in the war. They were traumatized by the events of living in a war zone. Some were held prisoner not knowing their fate. Others had unpleasant experiences with the occupying troops. Still other participated to the degree they could in their own defense. For example, when some military vehicles were lost with the sinking of ship the local farms with tractors and wagons move goods forward to the British troops fighting. To this day some Falkland Islands suffer from this emotional trauma. In the end, the Argentine troop surrendered. The Argentinean Junta collapsed . And Margaret Thatcher basked it the glory of leading the nation in a successful war. I encourage you to read about this war writ small in all its political and military and social aspects.
Ironically, as it turned out the war was a good thing for all parties. Argentina saw the end of the military rule in that country that has become known as the dirty war in Argentina. Dreadful human rights abuses were inflicted upon the people in those years. Argentina returned to democratic rule. Britain got to enjoy one last taste of being an Empire. But the biggest changes came for the Falkland Islanders.
The Falkland Islanders had made it clear to Britain that they were British and wanted to remain such. They did not want to be handed over to Argentina, with whom they did not share a culture or a language. This is very different to Newfoundland being encouraged by Britain to become part of Canada. Newfoundland shared a language (some wonders sometimes with their unique dialect), culture and history of good relations with Canada. Even with that It took two referendums for Newfoundland to finally agree to join Canada by only 52% support. There was and is not support of the Falkland Islanders ever becoming part of Argentina.
Since the war the Falkland Islanders have prospered. The large sheep farms were broken up and sold to local people who formerly would have only worked for the large farms. The sheep industry was diversified, no longer raising sheep only for wool but also for meat. A modern abattoir was built that met European standards. The government was reorganized so that local people had more control. Most significantly a fishing industry was developed such that it was managed requiring foreign boats to pay a fee to fish in Falklands waters and meet standard set by the Islanders. This became the largest contribution to the income for the country of the Falklands (now much more independant that a colony). This allowed them to fund all their own government and social programs. Their children could be sent to Britain for education paid by the Falklands government. Many have come home to take up positions in professions, beginning the process of replacing contract workers. Currently, the Falkland Islands are on the verge of mining oil from below the sea. Interesting, this is the economic engine that saw Newfoundland begin begin to prosper, which was failing before it joined Canada and for years was the poor sister province. It is no longer a "have not"province in spite of a much depleted fishery. One can only hope that the Falkland Islands will continue to prosper. One could argue they have the best prospects in all of South America. They have not only the oil to make them very rich (hopefully, they will follow Norway's example of save for the day when the oil runs out. Norway currently has about 500 billion saved so that every citizen will eventually have a pension. No other country has been this wise). There are other opportunities yet to be exploited in the Falklands. It is a place with few trees, low mountains and lots of wind. It has begun to develop for its own use wind powered electricity. Few countries of the world have the potential to be free of carbon based energy. Iceland is the best example with their geothermal power. With an abundance of cheap energy many industries could survive on the islands. I think of heated greenhouses for any number of crops and desalination plants to improve the availability of water to support a larger population. There are lots of opportunities yet to be realized. Their own airline would be nice so that they could easily reach other parts of North and South America, Africa and perhaps even Australia and New Zealand. This would free them from some threats from Argentina. I could envision a Falklands college that could educate their own students and draw many foreign students to specialized studies of importance to the Falklands and the South Atlantic.In time a prosperous Falklands may have much to offer South American in exchange for a right to exist. I imagine Falkland Islanders have such dreams to fulfill.
I think for the post Falkland War generations the declaration of wanting to be British will change to wanting first to be Falkland Islanders. When that happens they will have achieve what Canada, Newfoundland , New Zealand and Australia achieved with their war experience, a time to remember when they gained a greater sense of a national identity, as Falkland Islanders.