Ken MacLeod /Special to Black Press
An estimated 20,000 people will attend the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 2017 near Arras, France, including 25 air cadets from 386 Komox Squadron in the Comox Valley.
It will be my ninth visit to the Canadian monument at Vimy and the 29th military pilgrimage, consisting of 141 Canadians, that I have served as historian since 1995.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9–12, 1917 is Canada’s most famous military victory. For the first time in the Great War, all four Canadian divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, commanded by Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng, would fight together. The monument, designed by Toronto architect Walter Allward, is situated at Hill 145 on Vimy Ridge, the highest point of the Ridge (photo courtesy Ken MacLeod, circa 2009).
The history of Vimy Ridge
Vimy Ridge was the anchor of the German northern lines. The French had failed to capture the Ridge in the spring and fall of 1915, suffering 140,000 casualties, including 40,000 fatalities, most of which are buried in the nearby Notre Dame de Lourette French Military Cemetery. The British relieved the French in March, 1916, continuing the tunnelling war where British and German engineers (sappers) continued to carve tunnels and dugouts in the limestone or chalk ridge and detonate large mines under each other’s lines.
After the Battle of the Somme, the Canadians began arriving at Vimy. Canadians described their new location as a dirty, muddy place with endless numbers of rats and constant enemy fire. The Canadians were assigned to take the Ridge as part of the larger British Battle of the Scarpe, a diversion of the larger General Robert Nivelle’s French campaign to breakthrough the German lines in the Champagne Region of France.
Approximately 100,000 Canadians took part in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, about 25,000 of them in the infantry. An equal number of Brits were also involved in the battle with most of these engineers, gunners, members of the Royal Flying Corps, and only one brigade of infantry.
The Canadians would attack on a four-mile front up the gradual western slope, then descend the more abrupt eastern slope to the final line. The success of the battle was largely the result of the detailed, thorough planning, training and the artillery, almost 1,000 guns in total. The introduction of the new high explosive No. 106 fuse was also very effective in breaking the German wire.
On March 20, the British and Canadians launched a three-week preliminary bombardment, the first two with half the guns and the last week with all the guns that resulted in the destruction of 83 per cent of the German gun batteries and defensive strongholds. The Germans referred to the last week of the bombardment as “the week of suffering.”
The continual barrage prevented the Germans from supplying rations and reinforcements to their lines.
Major–General Arthur Currie, GOC 1st Canadian Division, had a lot to do with the success of the battle, having visited the Verdun battlefield and making recommendations for the upcoming Battle of Vimy Ridge such as the use of the creeping barrage to surprise the enemy and platoon tactics in battle, as opposed to a set–piece attack and attacking in waves, as was the case at the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Lt.-Col. Andy McNaughton, in charge of counter–battery work, introduced many innovations. Using air balloons, aeroplanes, patrols, raids, sound–ranging devices, and information from captured Germans to identify the German gun batteries, the British, Canadian, and Indian guns were able to destroy 83 percent of the 212 German guns by the start of the attack. Despite inferior planes and guns, the Royal Flying Corps maintained dominance of the skies, losing 131 planes between April 4 and 8, several of these to Baron von Richthofen’s Flying Circus.
Canadian troops also carried out numerous patrols and 55 raids against the Germans prior to April 9. Most were successful with the exception of a large gas raid on the night of February 28–March 1 that went awry when the wind shifted, causing more than 600 Canadian casualties.
Early A.M. attack
The battle opened at 5:30 a.m. on April 9 with a terrific barrage, a real show of fireworks that was heard in England. Fifteen thousand Canadians went over the top, advancing behind a creeping barrage of the 18–pounder field guns lined up almost wheel-to-wheel along the four mile front, that included the sweeping fire of 150 Vickers machine-guns 400 yards in front of the advance.
The barrage would lift 100 yards every three minutes, keeping the Germans underground until the Canadians were right on top of them. The attack worked like clockwork with the 1st , 2nd, and 3rd Divisions reaching the German front lines, code–named the Black Line, by 6:15, and following a pause to allow for delays to reach the Red Line by 7 a.m. The fire was so intense that most Germans were kept underground in their dugouts, not knowing that the attack had started. Many of these dugouts were cleared by mopping–up units, using Mills bombs (grenades).
The Red Line marked the limit of the advance for 3rd and 4th Divisions. The 1st and 2nd Divisions had to advance much further, so had two further lines to capture, codenamed the Blue and the Brown Line. Eight tanks were used to support the 2nd Division attack against Thelus, but bogged down in the mud near the start of the battle.
The attack went like clockwork. Only at the heavily–defended Hill 145 where the commander of the 87th Battalion requested that the gunners spare a 100-yard section of trench to be used by the Canadians as a headquarters trench, did the attack not go well. The 4th, faced with literally wading through mud and avoiding the large number of water-filled shell holes, lost the barrage from the get–go and were mowed down by German machine–guns. The 102nd (Northern BC) Battalion, with many young men from the Comox Valley, advancing on the right flank of the 4th Division, fared better than the other battalions.
The capture of Hill 145 wasn’t finalized until the afternoon of April 10. The final objective, the Pimple, a height of land north of Hill 145, was taken in a blinding snowstorm on the morning of April 12, thus completing the battle.
Two troops (64 mounted cavalry) of the Canadian Light Horse were ordered into battle on the afternoon of April 9 to clear the Farbus Woods and to clear the village of Willerval.
Only three horses survived the action, the rest being mowed down or having to be put down because of machine gun wounds.
The capture of Vimy Ridge allowed the British and Canadians to capture this impregnable high ground and to retain it for the rest of the war. It proved to be of limited tactical use. However, the Canadian victory was an Allied morale booster and changed the nature of warfare in World War I. The victory came at a dark time in the war for the Allies following the heavy losses at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It was the first major Allied offensive victory of the war. It came at a time when German unrestricted submarine warfare was threatening to starve Britain out of the war; the first Communist Revolution had also occurred in Russia, which eventually led to Russia’s exit from the war in October 1917 and to allow the Germans in 1918 to move their eastern divisions to the Western Front; the Irish Rebellion had begun in April 1916 with increasing pressure by the Irish to break away from Great Britain. Following the failure of Nivelle’s southern offensive, there were widespread mutinies of French soldiers.
On the positive side, the United States entered the war on April 6, three days before the Canadians went over the top. It would be a year before the first American troops reached France.
The Canadians suffered 10,000 casualties at Vimy Ridge, 3,598 of these fatal. Many men died of exposure, lying in the cold, wet, and snow before stretcher–bearers could reach them. As a result of the Canadian success Lieutenant–General Sir Arthur Currie was knighted by King George V and was chosen to succeed General Byng as the first Canadian commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
The Canadians received accolades from throughout the free western world. One Canadian soldier recalled: “Nothing could stop us, and when I went back, there was a great crowd of people when I came in. All of sudden one of the citizens said, ‘The Canadians have taken Vimy; nobody did it before!’ And what a cheer went up; they threw chocolate bars; they threw flowers. We achieved something that had not been done before. I myself think that is where Canada was born!”
Another Canadian soldier stated: “We had convinced ourselves that we were the finest troops on the Western Front. In that glorious day they had that confidence, and I don’t suppose they ever lost it.”
The words of George Alliston of the 1st Canadian Division pay tribute to the Fallen: “I’m telling you we lost a few of the best boys a mother could have–all of them A-one kids–all in a few days. The flower of the land, you might say. Just a big loss to us.”
There have been several official pilgrimages to Vimy Ridge over the years, the first of these in July 1936 for the unveiling of the monument. The monument was redone at the cost of $75 million for the 90th Anniversary of the battle in April 2007 with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance.