Canada at Vimy Ridge
… a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness.
Tim Cook, Canadian War Museum
Last Tuesday, as I prepared this post, was the 102nd anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a well planned, brilliantly executed operation in which all four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time, successfully dislodged Germans from the top of a high ridge, a feat the French and English had failed to accomplish earlier in the war. It cost 3,595 Canadian deaths and approximately 7,000 wounded.
Weeks of training and nighttime drilling made use of models and mock-ups to prepare the troops for the attack. Unlike tactics employed at the Somme the year before, effort was made to empower leadership down to the squad level so every man knew that if officers fell, the assault would continue. Units were given as much information as possible, to decentralize command and to encourage initiative.They built roads and railways, shored up the French trenches, made use of existing underground caverns called souterrains dug into the chalky soil, and built an additional 6km of subways to transport troops as close to the front as possible while protected from German Fire.
More important than any other innovation and preparation, however, were the overwhelming amount of artillery brought up to support the attack and improvements that enabled artillery shells to explode on contact so few simply burrowed into the mud. Steady bombardment began March 20 and lasted twenty days, raining death and destruction onto the top of the ridge. On April 3 it intensified, and Germans called it “the week of suffering.”
Coincidentally that week was holy week; Good Friday must have been hellish for men on both sides. My own interest is rarely about strategy and planning, but primarily about the men themselves, the lives of the common soldier, hiding in tunnels, trenches, and caves waiting. When the time came the stories of individual heroism at Vimy Ridge abounded. The names of Ellis Sifton, William Milne, and Jeremiah Jones, stand out as examples. Ordered to take Vimy Ridge, take it they did.
Shortly after dawn on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, 15,000 Canadian troops, joined by a British division in their right flank, began their assault uphill in driving sleet, supported by still more artillery fire in a “creeping barrage” designed to protect them, and keep the Germans in their trenches. By the end of April 9 Canadians held the entire ridge with the exception of one hill; they pushed the Germans back 5Km, the greatest one-day advance in the war to that point. The artillery had been less effectively employed against Hill 145 (aka “the Pimple”). Defenders cut the Fourth Canadian Division to pieces in the initial assault. Renewed bombardment and a second infantry assault took the hill on April 12.
In the grand scheme of the Great War, Vimy Ridge could be defined as a mere tactical victory, its importance overshadowed by the British Army’s failure to make significant progress in the overall Battle of Arras of which it was a part, and the failure of the French action at Aisne, which it was designed to support. In the quagmire that was the war in northern France, Vimy cost the Germans an important vantage point, but only a few kilometers of ground.
Strategically vital? No. Defining? Emphatically yes. Though joined by a British division, and other the overall command of Sir Julian Byng, architect of the meticulous planning, at the end of the day Canadian soldiers accomplished the thing. Men from every part of Canada charged up Vimy Ridge, functioning as a single unit. They had good reason to be proud of their daring, initiative, and success.
Brigadier-General Arthur Edward Ross has been quoted as saying, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” As Gallipoli defines the moment in which Australian and New Zealand came of age as independent countries, so Vimy Ridge took on mythological importance to Canadians. It has been said the Canadian corps became a metaphor for the country itself.
They were not finished. There were battles of greater strategic importance, and more bloodshed still to come—Amiens, Cambrai, Passchendaele, and Ypres. Yet it is Vimy that is remembered as the corps’ defining moment. It is therefore fitting that Canada’s main monument to the Great War in France is the Vimy Memorial, which sits atop Hill 145.For more information, see:
Cook, Tim, “The Battle of Vimy Ridge, 9-12 April 1917” on The Canadian War Museum website, https://www.warmuseum.ca/the-battle-of-vimy-ridge/
Foot, Richard, “The Battle of Vimy Ridge” in The Canadian Encyclopeia, last upated April 6, 2017, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/vimy-ridge
Rickard, J (19 August 2007), Battle of Vimy Ridge, 9-13 April 1917 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_vimy_ridge.html
The Vimy Ridge Foundation, https://www.vimyfoundation.ca/learn/vimy-ridge/
There is a wealth of material on Vimy Ridge across the Internet, including many videos. This one is particularly compelling, dealing as it does with the experience of individual soldiers:
“The Battle of Vimy Ridge: Voices of the Men Who Fought,” posted to the Facebook Group, Canadian Expeditionary Force Research Group 1914-1919; it also appears on YouTube, posted by Edward Walshe April 8, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/cefrg/videos/2065312666851068/
The audio of the men’s voices on that piece appears to originate with a program on the CBC from 1965. The audio and the names of the men can be found here: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/cbc-radio-presents-the-battle-of-vimy-ridge-as-told-by-men-who-fought-there/
Featured image photo of a statue on the Vimy Memorial by Amanda Slater from Coventry, West Midlands, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D
Caroline Warfield is a writer of family-centered historical romance. She is currently expanding her novellas “Roses in Picardy” and “The Last Post,” which feature a Canadian solider in France 1916 and 1919, into a full length novel. The added middle section opens with her hero, Harry Wheatly, billeted at the foot of Vimy Ridge.
You can find her here: https://www.carolinewarfield.com/