The Battle of Vimy Ridge, during the First World War, is Canada's most celebrated military victory — a sometimes mythologized symbol of the birth of Canadian national pride and awareness.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, during the First World War, is Canada's most celebrated military victory — a sometimes mythologized symbol of the birth of Canadian national pride and awareness. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force), fighting together for the first time, attacked the ridge from 9-12 April, 1917 and succeeded in capturing it from the German army. More than 10,500 Canadians were killed and wounded in the assault. 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.
Part of Arras Offensive
By 1917 the First World War had become a struggle of attrition. The opposing Allied and German armies were stuck in a stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front (France and Belgium), in which millions had been killed and wounded in battles that brought the war no closer to an end. In the spring of 1917 the Allies planned a new, massive offensive: the French would assault the German lines at the southern end of the front in the Champagne region of France, while the British would launch diversionary attacks in the north, around the French town of Arras. The Canadians, fighting as part of the British diversion in what would be known as the Battle of Arras, were ordered to seize the high strategic strong point of Vimy Ridge, on the northern flank of the British assault. Holding this high ground would give the Allies an important vantage point, overlooking the network of trenches on both sides, and the "no man’s land" — the space between enemy lines.
Vimy Ridge is a seven-kilometre-long hill rising amid the open countryside north of Arras. 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 heights, having held the ridge for much of the war. More than 100,000 French soldiers had already been killed and wounded in previous efforts to dislodge the Germans from the ridge, so the Canadians would now be attacking across an open graveyard.
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. 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.
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.
After a week of intense Allied bombardment, the Canadian Corps attacked the ridge at 5:30 am on 9 April, Easter Monday, or Bloody Easter. 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 too. The Canadian Corps had achieved the greatest single Allied advance on the Western Front, to that point in the war.
It was a stunning victory, but it did not come easily. Many German machine gun positions were not destroyed by the artillery. Elsewhere in the battle, tanks broke down and became mired in the mud; troops become disoriented on the explosion-scarred slopes; flanks opened up dangerously between various Canadian units; stretcher bearers could not find their way to the wounded, and field dressing stations were overwhelmed with injured and dying men. The fighting left 3,598 Canadians dead, and another 7,000 wounded. There were an estimated 20,000 casualties on the German side.
The horror of Vimy was officially recorded by the 2nd Division's 6th Brigade (the "Iron Sixth," comprised of Western Canadians), as they made their way into the fight at about 9 am on the opening day: "Wounded men (were) sprawled everywhere in the slime, in the shell holes, in the mine craters, some screaming to the skies, some lying silently, some begging for help, some struggling to keep from drowning in (water-filled) craters, the field swarming with stretcher-bearers trying to keep up with the casualties."
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. As Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook puts it, there were "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.
"Birth of a Nation"
The victory at Vimy Ridge was greeted with awe and enthusiasm in Canada, and the battle 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. As Brigadier-General Alexander Ross would famously say of the battle: " . . . in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation." The triumph at Vimy also led, two months later, to Byng's promotion out of the Corps, and to his replacement by Arthur Currie — the first Canadian commander of the Corps.
Vimy also became emblematic of Canada's overall sacrifices in the First World War — especially its 60,000 war dead — sacrifices 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 Paris peace talks after the war.
The sense of national pride and confidence sparked by Vimy was fueled in subsequent decades by the construction of a massive limestone memorial atop Hill 145 on Vimy Ridge, inscribed with the names of the 11,285 Canadians who died in France in the First World War with no known grave. The soaring white monument, on land given to Canada by France, has drawn pilgrims for nearly a century, perpetuating Vimy's iconic image as the place where Canada came of age.
In recent decades a new generation of scholars has begun to question the iconic status of the battle, arguing that Canadians' understanding of Vimy Ridge is the result of mythmaking.
Vimy was a proud moment for Canada. But in spite of the impressive victory there, the battle was strategically insignificant to the outcome of the war. No massive Allied breakthrough followed either the assault on the ridge or the wider Battle of Arras of which it was a part. As historian Andrew Godefroy writes in Vimy Ridge, a Canadian Reassessment, "To the German army the loss of a few kilometres of vital ground meant little in the grand scheme of things." The war would rage on for another 19 months after Vimy, taking the lives of many of the Canadians who had survived and triumphed there. Other Canadian battles, such as the 1918 victory at Amiens, had greater impact on the course of the war, but are far less known.
Some historians have also noted the fact that Vimy wasn't purely a Canadian accomplishment. Not only was Julian Byng, the Canadian Corps commander, a British officer, but so were dozens of other officers in the Corps, including Major Alan Brooke (later Field Marshall, chief of the Imperial general staff in the Second World War) who was instrumental in planning the artillery barrages at Vimy. And while most of the infantry that attacked the ridge were Canadian, they would not have been able to go up the slopes of the ridge without the British artillery, engineers and supply units that supported them.
It has also been argued that Vimy was mythologized in Canada because it occurred on Easter Monday, giving the battle religious significance. "Once the battle was identified with the rebirth of Christ," writes historian Jonathan Vance in A Canadian Reassessment, "it was only a small step to connect Vimy with the birth of a nation. With the provinces represented by battalions from across the country working together in a painstakingly planned and carefully executed operation, the Canadian Corps became a metaphor for the nation itself."
Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, Mike Bechthold, eds, Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment (2007)
Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918. Volume Two (2008)
Pierre Berton, Vimy (1986).