Vimy Ridge and Canada are irrevocably linked. As one of the Allies greatest victories of the war, the fact that the operation was fully executed by Canadian soldiers stands as a point of pride to all in our nation.
Often looked upon as Canada’s finest military operation, the capture of Vimy Ridge also symbolizes our country’s becoming a nation. The battle was the first time all four Canadian Divisions fought together in history, with each region in Canada represented in battle.
The Allied campaigns of 1915 and 1916 had been fruitless endeavours. Although the trench lines along the Western Front remained unchanged, the Canadian Corps had matured into one of the most effective fighting forces within the Entente.
Canadians had forged a formidable reputation through the big battles of 1915. In spite of severe casualties, the battle hardened veterans of the Corps had been well schooled in the art of large scale offensive warfare. Now, they would experiment with new thoughts and implement new tactics into their military doctrine.
Through the winter of 1916/1917, Canadian forces launched sixty raids. Their aggressiveness saw great success - 338 German prisoners were captured from November 1916 to April of the next year.
In February, David Watson’s 4th Division planned a raid against German positions at Vimy Ridge. The raid was pointed towards Hill 145, the highest point along the 7 kilometre ridge, and Watson planned to use gas to smother the German defenders.
The raid commenced at 5:00 am on March 1st, and was a spectacular failure. The 1,038 canisters of gas had failed to cripple the German defenders, with their effective respiration masks, and a second wave of gas didn’t release due to a change in the wind. Thus, the Canadians assaulted a German trench with no surprise and a strong defence. The attacking Battalions suffered 687 casualties.
In the face of their failure, the Corps had learned valuable lessons about trench raiding, and the German positions at Vimy. Because of this, they would be called upon again for another attack upon the Ridge. However, this would be no raid - the entirety of the Corps would be called upon to capture Vimy.
It was a formidable task. French Commander in Chief Robert Nivelle believed the Vimy position to be so strong, he recommended the British begin their offensive further south. Though British General Douglas Haig declined this recommendation, Nivelle was correct in his assessment.
German forces had reinforced their positions on the ridge during their three years tenure upon . From October 1914 to April 1917, German engineers poured concrete bunkers, strong machine gun positions, and laid rows upon rows of steel barbed wire. Moreover, from their high positions atop the ridge, the Germans could direct accurate artillery fire into any attackers lines.
Their positions had withstood assaults from French, and then British offensives in 1914 and 1915. The Canadians would need an extra edge when trying to capture the ridge.
Julien Byng had taken control of the Corps in May 1916. Through his time as Commander, he instituted a number of changes to the Canadian attack doctrine - this included decentralizing command, allowing units in the field to attack on their own initiative, and installing specialist attack groups such as rifle grenadiers and machine gun teams within the Corps’ 4 Divisions.
In addition to their months of raiding experience, the Canadians also underwent months of specialized training behind the lines. Junior officers and NCO’s were trained to take responsibility during an attack, in case their superiors fell in battle. These tactics translated down to the general infantry itself, who learned to how to work both as an individual and as a team.
All 4 Canadian Divisions, numbering some 56,500, were to participate in the attack. They would be supported by a huge artillery barrage both before and during the attack on the ridge.
For 13 days, the Canadian artillery bombarded Vimy Ridge. Roughly 880 guns fired off 343,000 shells at German defenders. Moreover, the Canadian artillery engaged in counter-battery work, aimed at destroying the German artillery opposite them.
Zero hour was set for 5:30 on April 9th. In the hours before the assault was to begin, men wrote home, prayed, and smoked cigarettes. Some carved their names in the deep network of tunnels dug by Canadian engineers - they remain there today.
A renewed artillery barrage crashed into German lines at 5:30 AM, signalling the beginning of the assault. All 4 Canadian Divisions went over the top, acting as a unified corps for the first time in the nation’s history.
Closely hugging the artillery barrage, the Canadians edged closer to the German lines. The bombardment steamrolled the rows of barbed wire, concrete pillboxes, and the German troops themselves as the Corps crept closer and closer. Finally, the Canadians surged forwards, with the 2nd Brigade being the first to enter the German lines.
The intense training each division underwent paid off, though the capture of the ridge was no easy task. Stiff German machine gun positions massacred the oncoming Canadians, and those who made it to the trenches often had to engage in brutal hand to hand fighting.
German High Command had entrusted the defence of Vimy to 3 elite German divisions. The 1st Bavarian Reserves, 16th Bavarian, and 79th Prussian Reserve Divisions punished the Canadian attackers, making them pay for every inch of ground gained.
Despite the stiff resistance, the Corps overcame the staunch defenders and captured the ridge. The last German defenders were pushed off early in the morning of April 10th.
Through four days of engagement with the Germans, the Canadians suffered more than 10,000 casualties. 7,707 of these took place on the 9th and 10th, and April 9th still stands as the bloodiest day in Canadian military history.
The Allies now held a commanding view of the Douai plain, and could clearly see German positions along the Western Front. The attack had been a resounding success, and one of the few major Allied victories to date in the First World War.
Through the rest of the war and afterwards, Vimy Ridge stood as a symbol of Canadian unity and national achievement. In 1922, the French Government gifted the land around Vimy Ridge to Canada, in recognition of the supreme sacrifice and ultimate success of the Canadians that day.
In 1936, the Vimy Memorial was unveiled. To this day, the memorial stands as both a solemn and proud reminder of what Canadians accomplished.
“We went up the ridge as Albertans and Nova Scotians. We came down as Canadians”.