Canada’s independence from Great Britain was achieved through an unusual manner, that is, mainly by fighting alongside the British as opposed to being in direct conflict with them. The Great War (or First World War) provided the theatre for Canadians to earn such great respect from the British that independence was the only natural course. Throughout all of Canada there is one significant name that conjures up the heroism, sacrifice and dedication of Canadians in that terrible conflict: Vimy Ridge.
While Vimy Ridge was not the most strategic of battles fought by the Canadian army between 1914 and 1918, nor was it the biggest, it was nevertheless the first time that all the Canadian divisions fought together, unaided by the British, and planned and executed the operation to success. It was a purely Canadian battle, and the results so impressed the British high command that the process for Canadian independence began.
Vimy Ridge is a high point of land in northern France, towering 600 feet above the surrounding plains. It was first captured by the Germans during the “Race to the Sea” in 1914 (in which both the Germans and the French attempted to outflank each other’s armies following the Battle of the Marne, leaving a long front of fortified trenches behind them). The ridge provided a natural and fantastic vantage point for whoever occupied it, in this case, it allowed the Germans to observe Allied movements miles behind the lines and direct artillery fire all along that sector of the front.
The strategic importance of Vimy Ridge was not lost to the Allied High Command, who made two strong attempts to take the ridge back from the Germans. The first was by the French 10th Army in 1915, and was such a disaster, with over 150,000 casualties, that the 10th Army was considered destroyed and withdrawn from the lines. The British made a second attempt at taking Vimy Ridge in May 1916, but were unprepared for the massive network of tunnels and bunkers the Germans had fortified their position with. The British suffered appalling casualties, nearly 100,000, over several weeks of intense fighting before they were forced to withdraw from the sector to regroup. The 1st Canadian Corps was sent in to relieve the British.
Canada had been involved in the war from the outset. In 1914, when Britain went to war, her entire empire was forced to do so as well, including Canada. Canada’s armed forces at the start of hostilities were puny indeed. Canada posessed one standing regular-forces brigade and a cluster of semi-amateur militia regiments that served more as gentlemens clubs than battle-worthy military formations. The call to support the Empire in 1914 saw a vast wave of patriotism and by early 1915 Canada had raised a navy from scratch, a new air force and an entire army of volunteers, including artillery, cavalry and the vast logistical support network required to keep an army in the field. All industry in Canada was switched to war production and rationing of food and vital products was introduced. In what the British Field Marshall Hague called “a miracle”, Canada went from a peaceful agricultural society to a vast industrial-military machine in under 11 months.
The first Canadian units that took part in the war were intermingled with British units, and placed under senior British command. At the time the British didn’t consider Canada to be a separate people from themselves. The thinking in London was that Canada was merely an extension of Britain, albeit with a bit of water between them (Canadians even carried British passports). As a result the Canadian units were sent piecemeal into fruitless battles of attrition alongside British units, like those on the Somme and at Ypres. Entire regiments were shattered and wiped out, devestating blows to the communities in a land with a small population (the small town of Port Elgin on Lake Huron is a good example, where in one hour at the first battle of Ypres every male between 17 and 40 from this community was killed).
Canadians had a different view of themselves than the British. Although most Canadians viewed themselves British subjects, they did not view themselves as British. They were Canadian. The devastating losses under British command in the first years of the war served to reinforce this feeling of nationalism, particularly for the troops at the front. In Ottawa, Prime-Minister Robert Borden began to press London to place Canadian troops under Canadian command, in a separate and independent army. His motives were more than political (although emotions at home and at the front were running high on this matter). Canada had a small population at that time, and the Canadian units serving in British divisions made up the single largest contingent of colonials in the British army. At that current rate of attrition Canada would have no more men left within a year. Economically and politically it was vital that Canadian units be withdrawn from British command.
Following the disastrous Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British, bleeding and running out of men themselves, and nearing starvation as the German U-boat offensive in the Atlantic increased, finally agreed to Borden’s demands. By this point Canada had the third largest armed forces on the Allied side, and her industry and agriculture was outproducing the British. With the Germans nearly strangling Britain at sea and Canadian goods desperately needed in England, Robert Borden suddenly found himself with a great deal of political clout in London. His demands for an independent Canadian command were granted.
By early 1917 all Canadian regiments serving in British units had been withdrawn from the front, supplied with Canadian-made weapons and uniforms, placed under Canadian officers, and formed into Canada’s first independent army. To command them, the Chief of Staff in Ottawa chose General Arthur Currie. Currie was a furniture-store owner from Victoria, British Columbia who had used his money to raise a regiment at the outbreak of the war. Before that he had commanded one of the citizen’s militia clubs that were popular in the early twentieth century. He had studied military science and was an amateur historian. More than anything, though, he was a natural leader who instilled respect and confidence among his troops.
Currie had been appalled at the tactics employed by the British. After taking part in his first battle with his regiment he immediately recognized that charging a defended trench line was a terrible waste of lives, and even once called his British superiors “murderers” for knowingly sending their troops to their deaths. Currie was determined to preserve the lives of the Canadian soldiers. “I won’t waste single one of my boy’s lives if I can help it” he once told a Daily Telegraph reporter. As commander of the new Canadian forces in France, he immediately resolved to alter tactics.
In early 1917, when the 1st Canadian Corps was asked to take over from the British on the Vimy sector, Currie was given his chance.
The British were planning a massive campaign at Arras (which would result in another terrible battle of attrition), and Currie was asked to secure Vimy Ridge to prevent the Germans from shelling the British flank. It was a tall order. Vimy Ridge was, after three years of German occupation, a veritable fortress consisting of multiple defensive lines supported by a network of underground tunnels. Blockhouses and bunkers for machine guns were interconnected but could fight independently if cut off and surrounded. Over 8,000 miles of barbed wire was strung out in a vast forest of steel on the ridge’s slopes. Nearly 1,000 German artillery cannons were zeroed in on pre-sighted grids the length of the ridge. Three German divisions, an entire Corps totalling 50,000 battle-hardened men, were dug in on the ridge. Currie was given a grand task indeed.
The first thing Currie did was to order a detailed reconnaisance of the battle field. At every moment of every day, there were Canadian aircraft and balloons taking pictures of the ridge. At night the Canadian Corps developed the tactic of trench raiding to a fine science, sneaking over No-Man’s-Land, through the barbed wire and into the German trenches to kidnap an unsuspecting sentry and haul him back to Canadian lines for questioning. Between February and March a detailed view of Vimy Ridge had developed.
Currie next developed an overall strategy for the offensive but allowed his junior commanders to develop the tactics for their own units, right down to platoon strength. Massive sand tables of the entire battle field were produced and each man, including privates, were instructed to study them (a novel idea in warfare, where until Currie came along it was thought that only officers were intelligent enough to know the overall strategy of a campaign). Massive 50-foot high curtains were raised up along the supply lines to the front, to shield troop movements from German observers on the ridge, and Canadian units were trained vigorously for the assault on their individual objectives. Each unit was also trained to take over from another unit, so that if any one unit was bogged down or destroyed, somebody else could still achieve their objectives.
The Canadian artillery corps developed the system of “flash spotting”, used even today. When enemy artillery fires, even if from over the horizon, a large flash is produced. The Canadian engineers, by placing three men in a triangle, could triangulate the exact location of the gun flash and call in devastating artillery fire on the position. In the run-up to the offensive, Canadian artillery destroyed over 600 German guns far behind the lines. The Germans never picked up on the method.
Finally Currie developed the “creeping barrage” system. Up until then, a massive artillery bombardment of the enemy’s front lines had been standard military procedure. When the artillery stopped firing, the infantry would charge the positions. In the trenches of the First World War this gave the defenders the chance to hide underground during the bombardment, and then when it stopped to rush out to their firing positions to meet the advancing infantry with a hail of rifle and machine gun fire. Currie changed all this. In a creeping barrage, the infantry follow the line of exploding shells by keeping a few hundred metres behind it. Every few minutes the barrage moves forward a few hundred metres and the infantry follow. In this way, as the defenders rush out to take their positions the infantry are already pouring into their trenches. This tactic is still studied and used today.
On Easter Monday (April 9), 1917, the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge began. At 05:30 the artillery opened up on the ridge while at the same time the infantry went over the top. Following nearly two months of close training, the Canadian units calmly walked up the ridge closely behind the thunderous artillery barrage. In the first defensive line of the ridge the Germans had retreated to their dugouts when the shells began to fall, and as the barrage lifted and moved off behind them they rushed out, only to be met with swarms of Canadian soldiers scrambling into their trenches. German survivor’s accounts speak of incredibly confusion and deadly hand-to-hand fighting, but by 0:630 the entire first line of trenches was in Canadian hands.
On the far left of the ridge was a high hill dubbed “The Pimple” by the Canadian troops. It was a vast network of concrete bunkers and despite the creeping barrage it held out. The 4th Canadian Division was bogged down in front of the Pimple by concentrated machine gun fire. On the rest of the ridge, however, the advance continued and by 0:700 the 2nd and 3rd Canadian divisions reported that they had captured the second line of defences and were moving on to the third and final line.
At 09:00 the 3rd Division learned that their left flank was exposed as the Pimple had not yet been captured. In fact, the 4th Division assault had collapsed almost immediately upon leaving their trenches, so intense was the fire from this small hill. A trail of dead and dying ran from the Canadian trenches to the foot of the hill, most of them from the Nova Scotia Highlanders (Cape Breton) and Queen’s Own Rifles (Toronto). German reinforcements, who had by now recovered from the initial shock of the attack, were pouring into the dangerous gap left between the third and fourth divisions. Currie was now faced with the possibility that his entire Corps would be surrounded and destroyed on Vimy Ridge.
Indeed a growing battle on the 3rd Division’s flank was growing as the Germans attempted to get between the two divisions, and a small band of Canadians held back no less than nine German counter-attacks. With the threat growing the commander of the 3rd Division, General M.S. Mercer, ordered his division to reel around and relieve the exposed flank. This decision came about only because of Currie’s insistence that commanders be allowed to take initiative as they saw fit, and was a giant leap away from standard British doctrine that orders be followed to the death. The German battalions assaulting the division’s flank were taken by surprise when an entire division came crashing down on them and they fled.
That night both sides rested and took stock of what had happened. The Canadian army, in it’s first ever independent action, had driven a gap in the German lines nearly 12 km deep with only a few thousand casualties. Nearly 2/3 of Vimy Ridge, the heaviest defended position on the western front, was in Canadian hands and nearly two entire German divisions had been destroyed. The Canadians spent that night reinforcing their brigades and bringing up fresh supplies, while the Germans dug in for what they knew would be a renewed assault on the third and final defensive line.
At dawn on April 10th the Canadians renewed their attack, this time meeting with stiffening resistance. The Germans were prepared for the revolutionary creeping barrage tactic (although hadn’t quite figured out how to counter it) and the attack bogged down. Still the Pimple held out and the 4th Division remained pinned down under it’s slopes. Ferocious fighting took place all that day with both sides conducting attacks and counter-attacks. Two British tanks, revolutionary new vehicles on the battlefield, were brought forward and allowed the 2nd Division to secure it’s final objectives while the 1st Division raced past it’s objectives and captured the Vimy-Bailleul rail line on the opposite slopes of the ridge, severing German supplies to the front.
By sundown of April 10th the only objective not yet captured was the Pimple, with the 4th Division pinned down around it and taking appalling casualties.
The Pimple was defended by the 16th Bavarian Infantry Division heavily reinforced by the 4th Guards Infantry Division. The initial bombardment on April 9th had caused heavy casualties but the reinforced concrete bunkers had proven impervious to shelling. There were over 120 Maxim machine guns and 30 field cannons pouring a deadly rain of fire upon the survivors of the 4th Division below them. On April 11th the Royal Canadian Engineers brought up barrels of mustard and chlorine gas and attempted to drive the defenders out of their bunkers. The gas caused many terrible casualties upon the Germans and several Canadian regiments managed to capture the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, but during the night the Germans drove them out with small arms fire and a series of determined bayonet attacks. At 05:00 on April 12th the 4th Division made another attack on the Pimple, this time supported by all the Canadian artillery and the 24th British Artillery Corps several miles to the west of Vimy Ridge.
The German defenders, after three days of being cut off, constantly attacked, shelled and gassed, and running low on ammunition, food and water, began to fall apart. By 06:00, one hour after the final attack had begun, the Pimple fell to the Canadians, and all of Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands.
This real-time photo shows members of the 2nd Division in a capture German trench on April 11th, 1917.
The land around the Vimy Ridge memorial has remained permanently terraformed by the battle, as this photo by Tom Philo shows.
The Allied general staff, including Field Marshall Hague, were shocked and impressed by the rapid Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. Four members of the Canadian Corps received Victoria Crosses. 10, 602 Canadians were lost at Vimy, while the Germans lost over 35,000 (exact figures are unknown due the large number of German units that were overrun).
The victory at Vimy Ridge forged the Canadian army into a single national force, inspired by pride and a feeling of being something different from the British. After Vimy the Canadian army would develop a reputation, particularly among the Germans, as elite shock troops of the Allied side. Arthur Currie continued to develop tactics that proved to be revolutionary and life-saving, and the British and French troops cheered the Canadian units whenever they passed to take over a section of the front. In the following battles after Vimy Ridge, including Paschaendale, Arras and others, the Germans learned to recognized that wherever the Canadian army was in the center of the line, that is where the main axis of the Allied attack would fall. In 1918, as the first American contingents arrived in France, Canadian officers were sent to train the fresh-faced doughboys how to fight in trench warfare.
The Vimy Ridge memorial.