Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917
The Birth of a Nation! the Canadian Corps capture of Vimy Ridge.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is one of the greatest battles in Canada’s history. For the first time in the Great War, all four Canadian divisions fought together on the same battlefield. Canadian valour and bravery brought about a fantastic victory, not only for Canadians but for the entire Allied force.
Above: The Battle of Vimy Ridge after a painting by Richard Jack.
Map of Vimy Ridge
Preparing for the attack
No Allied operation on the Western Front was more thoroughly planned than this deliberate frontal attack on what seemed to be virtually invincible positions. Vimy Ridge was so well fortified that all previous attempts to capture it had failed. However, Canadian commanders had learned bitter lessons from the cost of past frontal assaults made by vulnerable infantry. This time their preparations were elaborate. As the Canadian Commander of the 1st Division, Major-General Arthur Currie, said,"Take time to train them." This is exactly what the Canadian Corps did, down to the smallest unit and the individual soldier.
In the late autumn of 1916, the Canadians moved north, capping their ordeal on the Somme, to relieve British troops opposite the western slopes of Vimy Ridge. They spent the coldest winter of the war strengthening defences, carrying out increasingly frequent raids on enemy trenches and gathering intelligence, in preparation for the spring offensive. Continual raiding from mid-March on cost the Canadians 1,400 casualties. However, the knowledge gained would later help the Canadians take their Vimy objectives with lighter losses.
A full-scale replica of the battle area was laid out with reams of coloured tape and flags behind the Canadian lines. Here Canadian units carried out repeated exercises, rehearsing exactly what they would do throughout the day of the attack. Maps were given out to guide the smallest units. The troops were fully informed about their objectives and their routes.
Military mining had long been a feature of war on Vimy Ridge. German, French and British engineers had dug many long tunnels under No Man's Land. They filled them with explosive charges, which blew up enemy trenches, leaving huge craters as new features of the landscape. Working at night, tunnelling companies used the existing tunnels to build a new underground network for the Vimy assault. As well, they dug 12 deep subways, totalling more than five kilometres in length, through which assault troops could move to their jumping-off points. The subways protected them from shelling and permitted the wounded to be brought back from the battlefield. Some subways were quite short, while one, the Goodman Subway, opposite La Folie Farm, was 1.2 kilometres long. All had piped water and most were lit by electricity provided by generators. They also housed telephone lines.
Into the walls of the subways were cut chambers for brigade and battalion headquarters, ammunition stores, communications centres and dressing stations. The largest of several deep caverns, the Zivy Cave could hold a whole battalion.
Smaller tunnels leading off the subways to the front line—saps they were called (the title, sapper, meaning military engineer or engineer private, derives from this term)—were sealed until Zero Hour and then blown out. At that point, the Canadians would push out to attack, right onto the battlefield.
The maze of tunnels and caverns was one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the war. The extensive underground network would reduce casualties amongst the advancing infantry and returning wounded, and enable supplies to be brought up under less hazardous conditions.
In addition to constructing this network, Canadian and British engineers repaired 40 kilometres of road in the Corps' forward area and added 4.8 kilometres of new plank road. They also reconditioned 32 kilometres of tramways, over which light trains, hauled by gasoline engines or mules, carried stores and ammunition.
The infantry assault was preceded by a massive artillery barrage, which began on March 20. This involved 245 heavy guns and howitzers, and more than 600 pieces of field artillery. Supporting British artillery added 132 more heavy guns and 102 field pieces. All this firepower amounted to one heavy gun for every 20 metres of frontage and one field gun for every 10 metres.
On April 2, the bombardment was stepped up. By the time the infantry set out, a million artillery shells had battered the Germans. One Canadian commented that shells poured over his head onto enemy positions "like water from a hose". More than 80 per cent of the German guns had been identified by aerial reconnaissance and by other spotting methods which Canadians had perfected. Few survived intact. The Germans called the period "the week of suffering." Trenches were shattered and a new artillery shell-fuse demolished many barbed-wire entanglements, thereby easing the Canadians' dangerous path to combat.
The impact of the air war was significant at Vimy. While aerial reconnaissance yielded valuable intelligence about enemy positions and artillery sites, fighter aircraft prevented the enemy from gaining a clear idea of Allied intentions. German observation aircraft and balloons were attacked and shot down. This work was important and dangerous—balloons were defended by fighters and anti-aircraft guns. The soon-to-be-famous Canadian fighter pilot, Billy Bishop, won the Military Cross on April 7 for shooting down a balloon near Vimy. He had begun his remarkable career in March.
The Capture of Vimy Ridge
Book: Vimy Ridge 1917: Byng's Canadians Triumph at Arras
At 5.30 a.m., April 9, 1917, Easter Monday, the creeping artillery barrage began to move steadily toward the Germans. Behind it advanced 20,000 soldiers of the first attacking wave of the four Canadian divisions, a score of battalions in line abreast, leading the assault in a driving north-west wind that swept the mangled countryside with sleet and snow. Guided by paint-marked stakes, the leading infantry companies crossed the devastation of No Man's Land, picking their way through shell-holes and shattered trenches. They were heavily laden. Each soldier carried at least 32 kilograms of equipment, plus, some say, a similar weight of the all-pervasive mud on uniform and equipment. This burden made climbing in and out of the numerous trenches and craters particularly difficult.
There was some hand-to-hand fighting, but the greatest resistance, and heavy Canadian losses, came from the strongly-emplaced machine-guns in the German intermediate line. Overcoming this resistance, three of the four divisions captured their part of the Ridge by midday, right on schedule. In the final stage, the 2nd Canadian Division was assisted by the British 13th Brigade, which fell under its command for the operation.
The 4th Canadian Division's principal objective was Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the whole Ridge. Once taken, its summit would give the Canadians a commanding view of German rearward defences in the Douai Plain as well as those remaining on the Ridge itself.
Because of its importance, the Germans had fortified Hill 145 with well-wired trenches and a series of deep dug-outs beneath its rear slope. The brigades of the 4th Division were hampered by fire from the Pimple, the other prominent height, which inflicted costly losses on the advancing waves of infantry. Renewed attacks were mounted using troops that were originally scheduled to attack the Pimple. Finally, in the afternoon of April 10, a fresh assault by a relieving brigade cleared the summit of Hill 145 and thus placed the whole of Vimy Ridge in Canadian hands. Two days later, units of the 10th Canadian Brigade successfully stormed the Pimple. By that time, the enemy had accepted the loss of Vimy Ridge as permanent and had pulled back more than three kilometres.
Vimy Ridge marked the only significant success of the Allied spring offensive of 1917. But though they had won a great tactical victory, the Canadians were unable to exploit their success quickly with a breakthrough, mainly because their artillery had bogged down and was unable to move up with them through the muddy, shell-torn ground. Instead, some Canadian artillerymen took over captured German guns which they had earlier been trained to fire.
The Canadian achievement in capturing Vimy Ridge owed its success to sound and meticulous planning and thorough preparation, all of which was aimed at minimizing casualties. But it was the splendid fighting qualities and devotion to duty of Canadian officers and soldiers on the battlefield that were decisive. Most of them citizen-soldiers, they performed like professionals.
Canadians attacked German machine-guns, the greatest obstacles to their advance, with great courage. They saved many comrades' lives as a result. Four won the Victoria Cross for their bravery in such dangerous exploits. Of these, three were earned on the opening day of the battle.
Private William Milne of the 16th Battalion won the VC when he crawled up to a German machine-gun that had been firing on the advancing Canadians, bombed its crew and captured the gun. Later, he stalked a second machine-gun, killing its crew and capturing it, but was himself killed shortly thereafter. The whereabouts of Private Milne's grave is unknown.
Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton of the 18th Battalion charged a machine-gun post single-handed, leaping into the trench where it was concealed and killing its crew. Soon after, he was met by a small party of Germans who were advancing through the trench. He managed to hold them off until his comrades arrived, but then one of his victims, gasping a last breath of life, fired upon him.
During the fight for Hill 145, Captain Thain MacDowell of the 38th Battalion entered an enemy dug-out, where he tricked 77 Prussian Guards into surrendering and captured two machine-guns by pretending he had a large force behind him. His large force consisted of two soldiers. MacDowell had earned the Distinguished Service Order on the Somme.
On April 10, Private John Pattison of the 50th Battalion jumped from shell-hole to shell-hole until, 30 metres from an enemy machine-gun, he was in range to bomb its crew. He then rushed forward to bayonet the remaining five gunners. Pattison was killed two months later.
Of the four Vimy VCs, only Captain MacDowell survived the War.
At Vimy, the Canadian Corps had captured more ground, more prisoners and more guns than any previous British offensive in two-and-a-half years of war. It was one of the most complete and decisive engagements of the Great War and the greatest Allied victory up to that time. The Canadians had demonstrated they were one of the outstanding formations on the Western Front and masters of offensive warfare.
Though the victory at Vimy came swiftly, it did not come without cost. There were 3,598 dead out of 10,602 Canadian casualties. Battalions in the first waves of the assault suffered grievously. No level of casualties could ever be called acceptable, but those at Vimy were lower than the terrible norm of many major assaults on the Western Front. They were also far lighter than those of any previous offensive at the Ridge. Earlier French, British and German struggles there had cost at least 200,000 casualties. Care in planning by the Corps Commander, Sir Julian Byng, and his right-hand man, Arthur Currie, kept Canadian casualties down.
The Canadian success at Vimy marked a profound turning-point for the Allies. A year-and-a-half later, the Great War was over. The Canadian record, crowned by the achievements at Vimy, won for Canada a separate signature on the Versailles Peace Treaty ending the war. Back home, the victory at Vimy, won by troops from every part of the country, helped unite many Canadians in pride at the courage of their citizen-soldiers, and established a feeling of real nationhood.
Brigadier-General Alexander Ross had commanded the 28th (North-West) Battalion at Vimy. Later, as president of the Canadian Legion, he proposed the first Veterans' post-war, pilgrimage to the new Vimy Memorial in 1936. He said of the battle:
"It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then . . . that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation."
"Ghosts of Vimy Ridge" (1931), a painting by Will Longstaff, portrays the spirits of servicemen of the Canadian Corps. The memorial on Vimy Ridge stands dramatically on the summit beneath which the shimmering spirits of Canadian soldiers gather in the silvery moonlight."
Vimy became a symbol for the sacrifice of the young Dominion. In 1922, the French government ceded to Canada in perpetuity Vimy Ridge, and the land surrounding it. The gleaming white marble and haunting sculptures of the Vimy Memorial, unveiled in 1936, stand as a terrible and poignant reminder of the more than sixty thousand Canadians who died serving their country during the First World War.
- Maj. Thain Wendell MacDowell, 9 April, 1917
- Pte. William Johnstone Milne, 9 April, 1917
- LSgt. Ellis Wellwood Sifton, 9 April, 1917
- Pte. John George Pattison, 10 April, 1917
- October 1916: The Canadians start to arrive on the Vimy sector from the Somme battlefields in the south and load up on artillery and rations. For the coming battle a total of 42,609 tonnes of ammunition and 2,465 tonnes of daily rations are put together for the Canadian Corps. The Canadians also have access to 245 heavy guns, four 12-inch howitzers and the Royal Naval divisions' naval guns among other heavy artillery. For many it is their first glimpse of the devastated landscape.
- December 1916: All four Canadian Divisions are now together for the first time, with a total numbering 100,000 men. For the rest of 1916 and into early 1917, the Canadians settle into the front line and continue the underground war by blowing up mines. While the Canadian military is meticulously planning the coming attack, the front lines continue to probe the German lines, raiding their trenches to gain intelligence.
- March 1, 1917: The 4th Division launches the largest of all the Canadian raids against the German positions between the Pimple and Hill 145. This has devastating effects with 687 Canadians lost. Indeed many men and officers lose their lives during the many raids preceding April 9.
- April 9, 1917: The 1st Division's plan is to attack from its position west of the Arras-Lens road and capture the main German trenches in front of Thelus, carry through to capture positions south of Thelus and push east to capture Farbus. The plan goes well; the front line falls quickly but resistance stiffens as they reach the second line. By the end of the day, the 1st Division has achieved its objectives.
- Positioned north of the 1st Division, the 2nd Division will also attack Thelus. Its objectives are similar to the 1st Division's, that is, to capture the main German trench position in front of Thelus. By the end of the day, the 2nd Division has also achieved all its objectives.
- The 3rd Division is to attack on a front of 1.2 kilometres opposite La Folie Wood. Its objective is to reach the eastern slope of Vimy Ridge. The terrain here, unlike to the south, is rife with shell holes, mine craters, and old and new trenches. In the face of these obstacles, they manage to capture La Folie Farm, push through La Folie Wood and capture positions south of Hill 145. German resistance is stiff for the 3rd Division and, sniping a particular German strength, results in many deaths.
- The 4th Division is to attack from Bradmarsh Crater to Givenchy. Its objective is Hill 145 and the eastern slopes of the ridge. This is the most heavily defended part of the ridge, their northern flank is open to fire from the strong German position of the Pimple. It is also the most steep and destroyed landscape in the area. While the north and south part of the Division do well, the centre is annihilated. By late in the day they manage to capture Hill 145, although German trenches east of the Hill are still active.
- April 10, 1917: The 4th Division attacks the remaining German positions on the ridge just east of Hill 145 and quickly captures them. Vimy Ridge is now in Canadian hands.
- April 12, 1917: The 4th Division attacks the Pimple. After a short fight they capture it, and push toward the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle. While the Allies expect counterattack, none appeared, and a day later the Germans withdraw from Givenchy and pull back onto the Douai Plain. The meticulous planning and rehearsing of the Canadian Corps pay off and their reputation as the most effective fighting machine of the Western Front, and of Canada itself, is sealed.
Canadians searching captured German trenches for hiding Germans at Vimy Ridge, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Our advanced reserves digging themselves in under shell fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Shrapnel bursting over our troops in the act of digging themselves in at Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
German prisoners and Canadian Red Cross men assist in the despatching of wounded on a light railway. Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
Bringing Canadian wounded to the Field Dresseing Station. Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
Canadian soldiers returning from Vimy Ridge.
The taking of Vimy Ridge. Canadians advancing with a tank over 'No Man's Land'. July, 1917.
Canadian machine gunners dug in shell holes in Vimy advance. April, 1917.
Happy Canadians wading through muddy road. April, 1917.
Stretcher bearers and German prisoners bringing in wounded at Vimy Ridge, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The Canadian Light Horse going into action at Vimy Ridge.
A German soldier beyond human aid. Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
Light Railroad truck with wounded on board. Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
Examining a skull found on battlefield of Vimy Ridge.
Canadians enjoying a game of cards in a shell hole on Vimy Ridge.
Happy Canadians who captured Vimy Ridge returning to rest billets on motor lorries. May, 1917.
Tank advancing with Infantry at Vimy. April 1917.
Bringing in wounded Canadian soldiers from the battlefield.
Canadians searching captured German trenches for hiding Germans at Vimy Ridge, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Canadians giving a lorry a helping hand on a shell battered road on Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
Tending a wounded German on the battlefield. Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
Stretcher cases waiting to be loaded on light Railway. Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
Memorial to men of the 2nd Canadian Division who were killed at Vimy Ridge.
29th Infantry Batallion advancing over "No man's Land" through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
17th Battery C.F.A. firing a German 4.2 on the retreating Boche. Photograph taken during Battle of Vimy Ridge.
28th Battalion establishes a Signalling HQ and gest into communication with aeroplanes.
View over the crest of Vimy Ridge showing the village of Vimy , which was captured by Canadian troops.
Sources: For King & Empire, Veterans Affairs Canada, Library and Archives Canada