It happened a hundred years ago, one of the great battles of the First World War. Few Americans have ever heard of it and the British have mostly forgotten about it. But in France they remember. And in Canada — though in Canada remembering why the battle matters is a little fuzzy these days.
The battle took place in the spring of 1917, April 9-12, an Eastern weekend. Since October 1914, the German army had held a position in northern France between Soissons and Arras, part of the vaunted Hindenburg Line, which came to be known as Vimy Ridge. They had fortified it with three divisions of infantry, field guns, machine guns nested in concrete fortifications, belts of barbed wire, bunkers, lines of trenches and tunnels stretching back several kilometers. The geography was perfect for defence: a nine kilometer-long escarpment with great views of the gently sloping decline towards Arras northwest of the ridge which the enemy would have to climb and a sharp drop on the reverse slope towards the town of Vimy and surrounding woods which shielded artillery from direct visibility. The ridge wasn’t particularly high, just 450 feet above sea level, but it dominated the flat country around it. As one Canadian observer remarked at the time, “more of the war could be seen (atop Vimy Ridge) than from any other place in France”. For two and half years, the position had resisted British and French assaults at the cost of some 300,000 casualties.
After the bloody fighting on the Somme during the summer of 1916, Canada’s 100,000-strong army on the Western Front had been moved to the area of Arras where it had time for rest, for reinforcements to be absorbed into units, and for training. In January 1917, the Canadians were assigned a role in a new allied offensive to be launched in the spring. The French, under their enterprising and newly appointed General Robert Nivelle, would mount the main attack in Champagne, while further north the British under Field Marshal Douglas Haig would attack in the Arras area. Comprising the British left flank, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps under the command of British Lieutenant-General Julian Byng would take Vimy Ridge. In command of the Canadian First Division was Canadian Major-General Arthur Currie.
Byng was an unassuming commander who had endeared himself to the Canadians, nothing like the many British army martinets they had often had to endure. In their history of Canada in the Great War, Marching to Armageddon, Desmond Morton and Jack Granatstein write that Byng was “no genius, but he was a sensible, experienced soldier who taught Canadians that training and careful staff work saved lives”. As Granatstein writes in Canada’s Army, Currie too was no military genius, but he was “capable of learning, personally brave, and confident in the abilities and fighting skills of his men”. Under his command, the men of the 2nd Canadian Brigade and then of the First Canadian Division (and after Vimy the Canadian Corps) all became accustomed to winning their battles. “He was no Napoleon, but Arthur Currie was the best soldier Canada ever produced. The Canadian Corps under his command became the finest, most professional formation this nation has ever put in the field.”
Noting that Nivelle had had some military success, Byng arranged for Currie to join a group of British officers who visited the French to study their fighting methods. It was a key step. Among the ideas Currie came away with were that assaulting troops should move as fast as they could, fighting their way forward in small formations, and maneuvering to attack defences from the flank and rear — rather than advancing in the formulaic lines and waves the British had insisted on. Also critical were reconnaissance, the recognition that front-line troops needed maps and aerial photographs as much as the planning staffs in the rear, and rehearsals to allow troops to practice their roles. Finally: the intelligent use of artillery, particularly counter-battery techniques to locate and destroy enemy guns. All these ideas and more the Canadians adopted, as well as or better than the French and British did, for the battle to come.
The Canadian Corps was reorganized. Companies were divided into four platoons, each with four sections, made more self-reliant by being integrated with machine gunners, bombers and rifle grenadiers, and trained to employ movement and individual initiative. Attacking battalions practiced their roles over and over, using terrain roughly similar to Vimy Ridge marked out with tapes to replicate the German trenches and other landmarks. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History recounts a Canadian soldier saying that “when we finally reached the top of the hill, we not only landed in exactly the right place, but we knew we were in the right section of those trenches we were supposed to be in”. In support of the attacking infantry, the Canadian Corps engineered one of the most formidable creeping barrages ever seen on the Western front. Counter battery operations, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew McNaughton, used balloons, flash-spotting, and sound-ranging to locate the German guns — and managed to destroy 176 of 212 German batteries, 83 percent.
This wasn’t all the Canadians accomplished. In the staging area, they built and repaired dozens of roads and laid 30 kilometers of light-railway track to facilitate the movement of men and material; they built new water reservoirs, pumping systems, and pipes; and they buried over 30 kilometers of signal cable and 100 kilometers of telephone wire deep enough to avoid destruction by enemy shelling and “laddered” them with connecting links so that a single shell could not break communications. They also secretly constructed 11 tunnels or subways nearly six kilometers in length, equipped with electric lighting, water and telephones, to bring many of the 15,000 troops comprising the first wave of the assault safely out in front of the German lines without first having to cross a wide expanse of “no man’s land” under German fire.
The attack itself was meticulously planned and executed. Four objectives were each designated by a coloured line on the map, with each to be achieved according to a strict timetable. The first attack would go in at 5:30 a.m. with the troops given 35 minutes to reach the Black Line, the first three German trench lines. With 40 minutes to regroup, the attackers would have 20 minutes to reach the Red Line, a second line of trenches about 1000 yards behind the first and just short of the top of the ridge. After a pause of two-and-a-half hours, reserve brigades would take the advance over the ridge and down the slope to the edge of the woods below, the Blue Line. And after a 96 minute pause, those brigades would move to the outskirts of Vimy and the town of Farbus to the south of it, the Brown Line. If everything went as planned, the Canadians would have secured their objectives by 1:18 p.m.
Extraordinarily, despite rain and sleet, fully three-quarters of the ridge was taken “in precisely the same manner as it had been worked out on the practice field” according to the British Official History. Only Hill 145, the highest point on the ridge (where the Memorial now stands) remained unsecured until after dark. After three days of reorganization, the Canadians took “The Pimple”, a last bastion of German resistance on an elevated salient at the far north end of the ridge.
Some 40,000 Canadians took part in the attack; 7,004 were wounded; 3,598 were killed. One in three infantrymen were casualties, wounded or killed.
Why it matters
At the time, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a long overdue good news story, despite the heavy toll. The ridge’s capture marked the deepest Commonwealth advance in two and half years, the Germans having had to pull back to a new line on the Douai plain and the Canadians moving forward more than four kilometers. With the French army in a mutinous state, the Russian army disintegrating as a result of Bolshevik agitation, and American troops not due to arrive at the front until 1918, it was understood that the troops of the British Empire would have to bear the brunt of the fighting for many months to come — and the Canadians had delivered a signal success.
Americans, British and French all hailed it as a great victory:
- In the New York Tribune, an editorial exclaimed that “No praise of the Canadian achievement can be excessive. Canada has sent across the sea an army greater than Napoleon ever commanded in the field.” The New York Times said the battle would be “in Canada’s history, one of the great days, a day of glory to furnish inspiration to her sons for generations.”
- In London, the headline in the Morning Post read “Canadians Sweep Vimy Ridge”. The Illustrated London News gave the Canadian victory huge attention. The Nottingham Guardian said the battle “will stand out as an imperishable addition to the glory of the gallant colonials”. In contrast, the Times failed to mention the Canadian role in its coverage of the larger Battle of Arras. Prime Minister Robert Borden was livid, but the King sent his congratulations (to Haig).
- A Paris newspaper called the Vimy triumph “Canada’s Easter gift to France” — and after the war was over France returned the gift. On 31 January 1923, the Governor General of Canada, Field Marshall Sir Julian Byng, 1st Viscount Byng of Vimy, announced in Parliament that the Government of France had offered Canada “a tract of land of 250 acres on Vimy Ridge, at the site selected for the erection by Canada of a monument commemorating the exploits of the Canadian Corps in the Great War”. The memorial was unveiled on 26 July 1936, and it has been the site of commemorative ceremonies ever since, presided over by the Prefect of the Pas-de-Calais.
In Canada, the victory at Vimy immediately took on a mythic quality which has persisted to this day — and has been challenged for just as long as unwarranted euphoria over an essentially prosaic chapter in the long sorry saga of World War 1. As Pierre Berton wrote in Vimy, “It has become commonplace to say that Canada came of age at Vimy Ridge. It has been said so often — in Parliament, at hundreds of Vimy dinners and in thousands of Remembrance Day addresses, in newspaper editorials, school texts, magazine articles, and more than a score of books about Vimy and Canada’s role in the Great War — that it is almost an article of faith.”
It is also a matter of fact. For the first time in the Great War, the Canadian Corps’ four divisions had fought together, planned an offensive largely of their own design, executed it almost flawlessly, and achieved a victory which had eluded other allied forces. As Jack Granatstein writes in his most recent book The Greatest Victory, “It gave Canadian soldiers the confidence that they could do anything … they were good and they knew it”.
To the soldiers, no matter from where they came, no matter their origin, no matter how short a time they had lived in Canada, after Vimy they were all Canadians and bloody proud of the shoulder flashes and cap badges that proclaimed their allegiance. The April 1917 victory had much the same effect at home. Canada had arrived on the world stage. It was a British Dominion fighting under British command as part of the British Expeditionary Force. But it was nonetheless truly Canadian … Vimy Ridge was the battle that became a symbol of nationhood almost at once … and it has remained so for a century, the proof that Canada counted.
So why the dissent? Mostly because the battle itself didn’t lead to much. The victory had laid open the Douai plain but the opening was never exploited. Partly as a result, the overall Battle of Arras ended in another stalemate and further prolongation of the war of attrition. In the weeks that followed, that war simply grinded on. The Canadian Corps, now under Currie’s command, was assigned other difficult and costly objectives: Hill 70 north of the city of Lens, then Lens itself, after which the Canadians marched to Passchendael. As it happened, the Canadians were to fight and win more important battles a year later, victories that are beginning to be recognized as the ones which finally led to Germany’s surrender in November 1918.
Amid all the back and forth about how important Vimy was or wasn’t, Canadians today should be reminded of the following:
- A hundred years ago, Canadians had a much better sense of what it means to be nation than we do today. Canada had become politically independent fifty years before, in 1867, but in the early years of the 20th century it was still something of an abstraction to which few felt an emotional attachment, whether they had been born here or had immigrated from elsewhere. People’s ties were mostly to family, ethnicity, and region. But Canadians began to feel themselves part of something bigger once they began to do great things together. Vimy was just such a great thing. By the end of the Great War, Canadians were ready to insist on their own place in the world, their seat at international conferences, no longer an adjunct of the British Empire or a self-governing “dominion” but a fully sovereign nation. They would have been appalled at the currently fashionable notion that Canada be the first “global” nation — whatever that means.
- Vimy should be a reminder that Canadians are quite capable of doing great things and doing them in their own way. No other people have built and kept a nation the size of half a continent with so little internal strife and so much external harmony, displayed such ingenuity in addressing problems and taking advantage of opportunities, and been so enterprising and results-oriented. Canadians of 1917 would not have understood the complacency and aversion to risk so characteristic of the national mood today.
- Vimy should also be a reminder that Canadians have their own history and culture, which they themselves created, distinct from those of any of other people, not remotely like any others. Whatever dark moments there might have been, the whole is one to be immensely proud of, superior in numerous respects to what any other society has accomplished. Its history and culture alone are the reasons Canada is so envied throughout the world, and why so many have wished to participate in it.
- Finally, Vimy was a moment when Canadians demonstrated not only how solid of character they were, but also the strength of the links which have tied Canada to Britain and France. In a cause that struck some, notably French Canadians, as one that brought no discernible benefit to Canada but cost it dearly, a tenth of the population of 7.8 million put on a uniform and crossed the Atlantic to support the two mother countries. Of all the Canadians who served overseas, 66,650 never came home. The remains of 18,309 were never found, 11,285 of whom had died in France. And then Canadians did it again in 1939 when a million put on the uniform out of a population of 11 million to defend Britain and help liberate France, Belgium and Holland. Remarkably, a third generation of Canadians came to the defence of Europe in 1949, committing to NATO and dispatching a force of 10,000 to help deter Soviet aggression. One could add a fourth return just this year, with the deployment of a battle group to Latvia to help bolster the Eastern defences of the Alliance.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge didn’t make Canada, but it showed what Canadians were made of and it was one of the most important moments in the making of their country.
The feature image: The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge, a painting by William Longstaff (1931), Canadian War Museum.