During World War I, the Vimy Ridge battle lasted from April 9 to April 12, 1917. It took place on the Western Front in northern France.
In the history of Canada, it is the most recognized military triumph, and it is frequently mythologized as the beginning of Canadian national pride and consciousness.
Remembering The Sacrifice
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a huge victory but came at a high price. There were almost 10,600 casualties among the 100,000 Canadians who served there, approximately 3,600 of which were fatal.
Canada, a country of fewer than eight million inhabitants, will see more than 650,000 men and women serve in uniform by the end of the First World War.
More than 66,000 Canadians were killed, and over 170,000 were injured due to the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
If you are interested in this great battle and want to know more about it, we are here to help.
1. The First World War
The First World War was the world’s biggest conflict up until that point. It arose due to the era’s political conflicts and intricate military relationships.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the summer of 1914 triggered an international crisis, and combat had commenced by August.
Britain, France, Russia, and the United States would fight a four-year war against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.
2. Parts of Arras Offensive
After three years of pointless bloodshed, the First World War had devolved into a battle of attrition by 1917.
On the Western Front, the opposing Allied Force and German troops were locked in a stalemate, a huge line of trench fortifications from the North Sea through Belgium and France to the Swiss border.
Millions of men on both sides had been killed or injured in conflicts that brought the war no closer to a conclusion.
The French and British prepared a new onslaught in 1917, hoping to break through the German lines and end the stalemate.
Time was of the essence: all armies had been decimated by years of battle and were striving to replenish their ranks with recruits.
The Russian Revolution was also in full swing, with revolutionaries threatening to take Russia out of the war.
A Russian retreat would terminate the war in the east, allowing Germany to concentrate its forces on the Western Front.
With this in mind, the French army, led by newly appointed commander General Robert Nivelle, planned a large attack against German lines in the Champagne area of France, near the Aisne River, in April 1917.
Further north, the British would attempt a diversionary assault near the French town of Arras, hoping to encircle German supplies and give the French a better chance of victory in Champagne.
The Canadians were ordered to conquer Vimy Ridge, a high strategic strong position on the northern flank of the British onslaught, as part of the wider British effort in what became known as the Battle of Arras.
The Vimy Ridge attack would assist in deflecting German forces away from the French onslaught.
Capturing this high land would also provide the Allies with a crucial geographic vantage point, with panoramic views of German positions to the east.
3. Vimy Ridge
Vimy Ridge is a 9-kilometre-long escarpment towering in the open countryside north of the town of Arras.
The Douai Plain and the large coal mining city of Lens lie north and east of the hill; Germany seized both in 1917.
The British lines and unoccupied France were to the west and south. Despite many attempts to remove them, German soldiers had been entrenched on the Vimy Ridge heights since almost the start of the war in 1914.
Earlier attempts to retake the crest had resulted in the deaths and injuries of over 100,000 French men.
The Germans had fortified the ridge for three years with a slew of defensive works.
It includes three successive lines of trenches spread across a network of german barbed wire, concrete german machine guns bunkers, underground chambers for front-line troops to shelter in during artillery bombardments, and a web of communications trenches and tunnels.
The German first and third line defences on Vimy Ridge were more than 8 kilometres apart, with reinforced strong points intermingled.
Many of the approximately 10,000 German soldiers nestled atop the hill could see the Canadian positions at the base of Vimy’s progressively inclined western slopes.
4. Before the Battle of Vimy Ridge
After the combat at the Somme concluded in the autumn of 1916, the core of Canada’s army on the Western Front, the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps, with its different British and Canadian support troops, had relocated into the Vimy region.
The Corps acquired a battlefield that had been ravaged by years of warfare at Vimy Ridge.
Trenches were half-destroyed or in bad condition, while shell craters and mine explosions had already decimated the area.
Throughout March 1917, the Canadian staging camp was a bustling, militarized, industrial zone, with thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands more troops practicing their attack on the mountain.
Some men were billeted in neighbouring homes and villages before the battle of Vimy Ridge.
In contrast, others were housed in tented camps or ancient, artificial underground tunnels – the famed souterrains dug out of the chalky soil that was ubiquitous in this region of France.
This work was done only after dark to evade the Germans’ prying eyes.
During the night, Canadian raiding groups crossed German lines to spook the enemy, seize prisoners, and gather intelligence.
During the day, Royal Flying Corps pilots flew overhead, scouting the position of German artillery sites while avoiding enemy fighters.
5. Meticulous Preparation
Perhaps the most important work leading up to the battle of Vimy Ridge was the secret construction of 11 tunnels or subways totaling nearly 6 km in length, designed to safely bring many of the first waves of assaulting troops out in front of the German lines without having to cross a wide area of open ground at the start of the battle of Vimy Ridge.
Each subway was outfitted with electricity, water, first-aid stations, and battalion headquarters’ dugout chambers.
During the battle of Vimy Ridge, the Canadians methodically prepared the attack in the weeks leading up to the fight, under the overall direction of British General Sir Julian Byng and aided by numbers of British and Canadian commanders and staff personnel. Soldiers advanced in timed attacks over broad fields behind the front lines, where Allied and enemy trench locations were marked out on the ground with tape.
Troops were provided comprehensive topography intelligence and the location of enemy strong positions, as well as models and maps of the battlefield based on aerial reconnaissance images of Etheridge.
The massacre on the previous year had sparked new thinking and tactics in the British Army, intending to solve the puzzle of well-defended trenches. This innovation was most visible in the Canadian Corps.
The first massive change at the Battle of Vimy Ridge was decentralizing leadership on the battlefield to the platoon level and lower.
Soldiers, particularly non-commissioned officers, were urged to think for themselves, demonstrate leadership, and take the initiative. The troops were urged to keep moving.
Another difference at the battle of Vimy Ridge was that infantry personnel would no longer be exclusively riflemen.
Many were now assigned specialized roles, such as machine gunners or grenade throwers.
Sappers, or engineering forces, would also follow certain infantry units onto the battlefield in the initial waves, assisting with overcoming obstacles or immediately constructing fortifications on conquered locations.
In anticipation of the major attack, new canadian and british artillery tactics were deployed at the battle of Vimy Ridge, including an almost infinite supply of shells and a novel shell fuse that allowed the bombs to detonate on impact rather than become buried useless in the earth.
The first wave of attacking forces marched across the battlefield close behind a “creeping barrage” of Allied shellfire.
They aimed to cover the attackers by keeping hostile troops in their bunkers until the Canadians were virtually on top of the opposing positions.
Over 980 heavy artillery pieces and field German guns were concentrated for the operation.
More than a million rounds were fired at German soldiers stationed on the hill and in the towns behind it in the week following the attack.
The heavy bombardment obliterated German trenches, artillery emplacements, communications lines, transportation junctions, and even entire communities.
7. Assault on Easter Monday
The bombardment lasted until April 8. Then, in the pre-dawn darkness of Easter Monday, April 9, 15,000 Canadians, the initial wave of the attack, assembled at their gathering places in the underground subways, chosen shell holes, or trenches above ground.
The weather was frigid at 4 a.m., and the muck had solidified overnight. Wind-driven snow and sleet whipped across the hill, making conditions unpleasant but assisting in the Germans’ concealment of the Canadians.
The Allied artillery guns opened up again, and the Canadians launched their charge, staying as close to the booming artillery bombardment washing over the German front positions as possible.
The advancing infantry was further protected by the heavy fire of 150 supporting machine guns, which swept the ground ahead of the Canadians.
8. Four Canadian Divisions
During the battle of Vimy Ridge, the 1st Canadian Division, the 2nd division, and the 3rd Division arrived at the German front line with most defenders still waiting in their dugouts on the right and the center of the assault.
Due to the destruction produced by the Allied bombing, the 3rd division faced the least opposition.
However, enemy machine gun crews who survived the shelling hurried to their weapons in well-protected shelters for the first and second.
They opened fire on the Canadians as they advanced on the German lines. As the Canadians leaped into the German lines, hand-to-hand combat erupted.
There were several instances of individual initiative and courage. Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, 25, of Wallacetown, ON, silenced one bothersome machine gun by rushing into a trench alone, bayoneting each of its crew, and battling off a wave of German forces until he was slain.
At the battle of Vimy Ridge, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions fought all day, slowly moving through German defences, in some areas having to overcome tough enemy opposition, in others seeing Germans retreat to the east in the face of the attack. Death and terror were all around.
The three divisions of the Canadian Corps at the Battle of Vimy Ridge had completed all of their objectives by late afternoon on April 9, and most of Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands.
Thousands of injured soldiers, as well as German captives, were returned to Canadian lines. Many of the deceased on both sides were lost in the mud or buried with homemade markers where they lay.
The Canadian Corps had forced the German army back about 5 kilometres at the deepest point of the assault, the biggest single Allied advance on the Western Front to that time in the conflict.
9. The Fourth Division’s Struggle
At the battle of Vimy Ridge, things did not go as smoothly for the men of the 4th Division of the Canadian Corps, led by Major-General David Watson.
The 4th Division of the Canadian Corps was allocated the far left flank of the Vimy ridge assault, which comprised the most difficult objectives — Hill 145 and another high position known as the Pimple.
Each was highly guarded, surrounded by well-built trenches, and had a clear view of the hills the Canadians would charge.
The Canadians could not hold Vimy Ridge until these two high positions were seized.
Photo by British Library:Unsplash/ copyright 2022Unfortunately, the pre-assault bombardment did not sufficiently destroy German fortifications on Hill 145 and the Pimple.
To make matters worse, numerous 4th Division battalions lost touch with the creeping artillery bombardment that was supposed to bring them safely onto German lines.
As a result, mere minutes into the April 9 attack, the 4th division’s leading waves came under withering fire and were hacked to pieces.
Many survivors at the Battle of Vimy Ridge had been pinned down and could not move. Among the first fatalities were many junior officers, company, and platoon leaders, whose loss exacerbated the disarray and impeded the flow of information to commanders in the rear.
By the night’s end, neither Hill 145 nor the Pimple had been conquered.
The next day, additional artillery and infantry advances, aided by 4th Division reserve battalions, secured Canadian control of Hill 145.
The Pimple was seized two days later, on April 12, after an hour of the furious battle of Vimy Ridge in blowing snow.
The four-day battle of Vimy Ridge was done, and the Allies had finally taken Vimy Ridge – a remarkable but expensive triumph.
The conflict killed 3,598 Canadians and injured another 7,000. Along with William Milne and Ellis Sifton, two more Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for great bravery during the Battle of Vimy Ridge: Captain Thain MacDowell and Private John Pattison.
10.The Birth of a Nation
The victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge was met with joy in Canada, and the battle of Vimy Ridge became a symbol of resurgent Canadian nationalism after the war.
One of the primary reasons was that men from every area of Canada had attacked the hill simultaneously, for the first time as a single attacking force in the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.
The victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge also resulted in General Julian Byng’s promotion out of the Canadian Corps two months later and his replacement by Arthur Currie.
He became the Corps’ first Canadian commander. The Canadian Corps would go on to distinguish itself in subsequent fights under Currie, a sequence of expensive but remarkable triumphs that began with the Corps’ tremendous success at Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge quickly became symbolic of Canada’s overall experience in the First World War, particularly its 60,000 war dead, a sacrifice that 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 post-war Paris peace talks.
This was followed in succeeding decades by Canada’s rising demand for independence from Britain on the international stage, a goal fueled partly by Canadian sacrifices during the war.
Ottawa picked Hill 145 at Vimy Ridge as the site for a massive national memorial to the country’s First World War fallen in 1922.
This was due less to the significance of the conflict and more to Vimy’s unique geographical location – a high vantage point with a commanding outlook seen for miles around.
A huge limestone memorial was created atop Hill 145, etched with the names of the 11,285 Canadians who died in France without a known cemetery during the war.
The soaring white monument, a testament to loss and sacrifice rather than military success, has drawn visitors for over a century, fueling the Vimy narrative and maybe inflating its importance as the spot where Canada came of age on the battlefield.
Regiments from coast to coast saw action together in a uniquely Canadian success at the battle of Vimy Ridge, contributing to creating a new and stronger feeling of national identity in our country.
One of the most crucial parts of Canadian military history. Its successes throughout the war helped enhance our international standing and earned us a distinct signature on the Treaty of Versailles, formally ending the war.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands atop Hill 145, soaring above the now-quiet countryside, on land handed to Canada for all time by a grateful France.
This magnificent Vimy memorial bears the names of 11,285 Canadian troops categorized as “lost, believed dead” in France during World War I.
Vimy ridge memorial stands to honor everyone who served our nation throughout the conflict and gave the ultimate sacrifice; it tells the story of how bravely the Canadian corps fought in the battle.
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