This year marks the 100th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge. Our Programme Manager and Volunteer Coordinator, Jon Ambler has created an interesting display in our Museum Library for those of you who are able to visit the Comox Air Force Museum. Included is an informative narrative. I thought you might like to read it here on our website. Thanks to Jon for the work he’s done to educate us!
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is Canada’s most celebrated military victory. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time, attacked the ridge from 9 to 12 April, 1917 and captured it.
Vimy Ridge itself is a seven kilometer-long hill rising amid the open countryside north of Arras, France. To the east of the ridge was German occupied territory on the Douai plain; to the west were the British lines. German forces were entrenched on the ridge, having held it for much of the war. More than 100,000 Allied soldiers had already been killed and wounded in previous efforts to dislodge the Germans from the ridge.
Easter Monday 1917
After a week of intense Allied bombardment, the Canadian Corps attacked the ridge at 5:30 am on 9 April, Easter Monday. Timing and co-ordination were critical — the troops moved up the long western slope of the ridge, just behind a rolling artillery barrage designed to keep the Germans hidden in their bunkers and away from their machine guns as long as possible.
In wind, sleet and snow, an initial wave of more than 15,000 Canadians stormed the ridge and captured most of the German positions by the afternoon of the first day. After three more days of intense fighting, the highest features on the ridge — “Hill 145” and the “Pimple” — were in Canadian hands. The Canadian Corps had achieved the greatest single Allied advance on the Western Front, to that point in the war.
Such a stunning victory did not come easily: the fighting left 3,598 Canadians dead, and another 7,000 wounded. There were an estimated 20,000 German casualties.
Secrets to Success
Meticulous Preparation: The assault plan called for the four Divisions of the Canadian Corps to attack up the slopes of the ridge in side-by-side formation. Under the command of British General Sir Julian Byng, and assisted by British and Canadian staff officers including the Corp’s 1st Division leader General Arthur Currie, the Canadians carefully rehearsed the assault. Troops were given detailed information on the terrain and the location of enemy strong points, and were shown models and maps of the battlefield based on aerial photographs of the ridge.
New Tactics: Infantry soldiers would no longer all be riflemen. Many were now assigned specialist tasks as machine gunners or grenade-throwers. New platoon tactics were also introduced: Keep moving, the troops were told, follow your lieutenant (and if he goes down, follow your corporal), prepare to outflank enemy machine gunners who might survive the initial artillery barrage, use grenades and follow-up with bayonets. Don’t lose contact with the platoon or company next to you. Such tactics were the expression of new, innovative thinking percolating at that time through the British army — aimed at solving the riddle of the trenches — based on three years of observed successes and failures in the war so far.
New Technology: Army engineers also dug extensive tunnels under the battlefield to bring the infantry more safely and closely to the German lines. And new artillery tactics would be used in advance of the main assault, including a nearly unlimited supply of shells, and a new shell fuse that allowed the bombs to explode on contact, rather than become buried in the ground.
Brave Soldiers: Although careful planning and well-executed artillery barrages helped the Canadians seize the ridge, their victory was also the result of personal bravery, and of small groups of soldiers taking the initiative in battle. Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook wrote about: “countless acts of sacrifice, as Canadians single-handedly charged machine gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145 … was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions.”
Four Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for their courage in the battle: Private William Milne, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Captain Thain MacDowell and Private John Pattison.
Importance to Canadians
Today an iconic white memorial atop the ridge commemorates the battle and honours the 11,285 Canadians killed in France throughout the war who have no known graves.
The victory at Vimy Ridge quickly became a symbol of an awakening Canadian nationalism. One of the prime reasons is that soldiers from every region of Canada — fighting together for the first time as a single assaulting force in the Canadian Corps — had taken the ridge together.
Vimy also symbolizes Canada’s immense sacrifices in the First World War — especially its 60,000 war dead. The high price of victory convinced Prime Minister Robert Borden to step out of Britain’s shadow and push for separate representation for Canada and the other Dominions at the Paris peace talks. Canada was a separate signatory of the Treaty of Versailles.