The birth of a nation, the Canadian Corps captures Vimy Ridge
The "Trench Line" of World War I was surely hell on Earth. Stagnant, many failed charges across "no man's land," artillery fire, sniper fire, smoke, gas, rain, sleet, snow, cold, wind, malnourishment, disease, no end in sight to the agony and death from November 1914 until April 1917. What had the Germans inflicted on mankind by splitting Europe in two and committing millions of fine young men to terror and death deserved by no man? On April 9, 1917, after many months of planning, training, and digging, a Canadian Corps, the Canadian Corps of four Canadian Infantry Divisions, supported by intensive British and Canadian artillery, lurched out of their holes and tunnels and captured the previously impregnable Vimy Ridge in France, in just one day. The Huns were defeated, the Canadians held the Ridge, the Allies saw they could win. Perpetual hellish stalemate was not inevitable. The Canadians? Well, they among many endured an enormous sacrifice, but they also saw the birth of their nation, a prize every Canadian and American should cherish forever.
May 30, 2004
This victory was important for many reasons. It was one of many battles that occurred during this time period that attempted to break through the German lines. The Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge was the only important gain made among all these battles. It provided a firm anchor for the British drive against the Germans that would occur in 1918.
Long term, as you will see, the victory marked the birth of Canada as an independent nation.
Understanding WWI is a huge and complex undertaking. The Battle of Vimy Ridge of 1917 was an important milestone in this war. To fully appreciate why that is true, we must first go through some history. Throughout this summation, we recommend you pay attention to dates.
First, let's recap the scope of WWI. This graphic is courtesy of World Book.
World Book Map, © 2002 World Book, Inc. All rights reserved. This image may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on June 28, 1914, and invaded Serbia on July 29.
During August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia and France, and invaded Luxembourg and Belgium.
During that same month, Great Britain declared war on Germany, Austria declared war on Russia, and France and Great Britain declared war on Austria Hungary.
So, you get a sense for the complexity of this war.
The second point is that you can see from the map that there were multiple fronts extending from France and Belgium to Russia, the Balkans, and what was the Ottoman Empire, present-day Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and others.
When the fighting began, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia, who came to be known as the Allies, backed Serbia. They opposed the Central Powers, made up of Austria-Hungary and Germany. Other nations later joined the Allies or the Central Powers.
For purposes of Vimy Ridge, your attention will be directed to the Western Front and northeastern France.
Third, this war occurred at a time when the capacity for warfare to be extraordinarily lethal was enabled by the technologies and production facilities emerging from the Industrial Revolution.
Valcartier military mobilization camp, 1914, courtesy of Canada & World War One - the First Contingent.
Yet, at the same time, many countries, Canada and the US included, were not at all prepared to fight wars on this scale. They did not have the troops, they did not have the training, they did not have the weapons. To fight this war, they had to start virtually from scratch. The Germans, on the other hand, were prepared and had thought about this kind of war for some time.
Finally, to put Canada's contribution to WWI in context, we need to touch on just a bit of Canadian history, which we will do through a succession of maps.
In the 17th century, much of Canada was known as New France, while the English entrenched themselves in the American colonies. Between 1689 and 1763, French and English colonists fought each other in four wars for control of New France. Britain won. As shown in the next map, Britain took control along the Atlantic coastline and the St. Lawrence River.
In March 1867, the British Parliament established the Dominion of Canada, elevating its stature from that of a colony. This essentially meant that Canada ruled itself, except that Britain ran its foreign affairs and the British monarch served as head of state. As you can see from the map below, the United States had already formed as its own country. The Dominion of Canada remained very small.
But between 1867 and WWI, the Dominion of Canada grew very rapidly. As seen in this next map, it now stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and had nine provinces.
In summary, on the eve of WWI, Canada had grown markedly, it was largely independent but was still closely tied to Britain, with Britain running its foreign affairs, and the British monarch served as its head of state. On the military side, any army the Canadians might have was commanded by British officers.
Britain declared war against Germany on August 4, 1914. On that same day, Canada issued this message to Britain:
“If unhappily war should ensue, the Canadian people will be united…to maintain the honor of the empire”
As a loyal member of the British Empire, Canada too was now at war with Germany. She quickly decided to create an Expeditionary Force and Canadians mobilized right away. By September, over 40,000 men had volunteered.
The ranks for this regiment were filled in some eight days, consisting almost entirely of trained ex-regular soldiers who had served with the British Army, that is British ex-pats who had settled in Canada. On December 21, 1914, this regiment arrived in France and was the first Canadian unit committed to battle. So, Canada was at war with Germany in early August, and four months later a Canadian regiment was in France on its way to battle.
Valcartier military mobilization camp, 1914, courtesy of Canada & World War One - the First Contingent.
The First Canadian Army, returning from drill at Valcartier Camp in Quebec, courtesy of Library and Archives of Canada
In the mean time, Canada had begun mobilizing on a much larger scale and by late September 1914, already had enough recruits to form a division and a reserve division. As a result, the First Canadian Infantry Division emerged in late September from the Valcartier Mobilization Camp in Quebec. This was the first Canadian infantry division ever assembled in the country, over 30,000 officers and enlisted men.
4th Battalion on board the SS Tyrollia leaving Gaspé, October 4, 1914, courtesy of Canada & World War One - the First Contingent.
On October 1, 1914, the First Infantry sailed to Britain to complete its training. It took some 33 Atlantic liners and additional British Royal Navy escort ships to move these forces from the Gaspé Basin off the coast of Quebec to England.
In February 1915, the First Canadian Infantry Division began landing at the Bay of Biscay in France. What an incredible feat: start mobilization in August 1914, organize, train, equip and deploy a brand new infantry division in October, get a light infantry regiment to France in December, and follow that by getting this first-ever Canadian infantry division off to France to fight by February 1915, just six months after starting.
As a point of interest, it was not until April 6, 1917, that the United States declared war on Germany and not until June 26, 1917 that American forces landed in France.
There is a mind-boggling amount of history that occurred between 1914 and 1917. We want to focus your attention on the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Why this battle? Because it involved some very important “firsts,” and the Canadians led the way in such a manner that they changed history. Not many Americans know this.
At long last, we are ready to explore Vimy Ridge. As is always the case, we like to start with geography. You’ll be surprised at how much history you’re exposed to by simply trying to understand where Vimy Ridge is.
First, we need to get an overview of World War I. As shown earlier, there were multiple fronts. We are going to focus on the Western Front in northeastern France and Belgium. The Western Front is shown in this next graphic, also courtesy of World Book.
World Book Map, © 2002 World Book, Inc. All rights reserved. This image may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form without prior written permission from the publisher. The Germans began their invasion of Belgium and France on August 4, 1914, and it was on that day that Britain declared war against Germany, and therefore it was on that day that Canada too was at war with Germany.
The Belgians and French were no match for the German invasion. Britain, which had about a decade earlier created a British Expeditionary Force (BEF), started to deploy to France when Germany launched its invasion. By October 1914, it had seven infantry and three cavalry divisions in France and Belgium.
The Germans almost made it to Paris and the English Channel but the British, French and Belgians managed to stop the advance and pushed the Germans back to the blue line shown on the map above. This Blue Line became known as the "Trench Line." Germany had hoped to capture France quickly. They were unable to do so and finally withdrew to the Trench Line. It extended some 450 miles from the North Sea near Ostend, Belgium, through northeastern and eastern France to the Swiss border. It has been described as "a meandering line of trenches that ran non-stop from the Swiss border to the North Sea," a line of trenches that split Europe.
It is now November 1914. That Trench Line remained relatively static for about 3.5 years and became the location of a killing field that is almost second to none. We have placed a green arrow on the map above to highlight the location of Vimy Ridge. You can see it is right on the Trench Line.
Evacuating an early casualty. 1-Jul-1916, The Somme, courtesy of worldwar1.com, photo archive
To demonstrate the slaughter that occurred in this 450 miles of meandering trenches, the British alone suffered 60,000 men killed, wounded and missing at the Battle of Somme in 1916. Total Allied losses at this battle were 1.3 million. There were other horrendous battles, including the Battle of Verdun. This battle lasted from February through December 1916, some 700,000 casualties, dead, wounded and missing, were inflicted in this patch of land measuring about 10 square kilometers, and at its end, virtually nothing changed with regard to land holdings of each side.
This Trench Warfare impacted soldiers in many other ways, when there were no battles. Many men died of disease, poor diet, snipers, and occasional artillery rounds. These men were all lumped together in a group called "normal wastage." To many, it seemed that this stand-off would go on forever.
In 1917, French General Robert-Georges Nivelle, a hero of Verdun, thought he could rupture German lines. He launched a major offensive on April 16. The Germans had learned of the plan and had prepared their defenses well. At the end of the battle, more than 100,000 men were lost, there were no significant gains made, and the French Army deteriorated into a state of mutiny. .
It is against this backdrop that we can now approach the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
This is a photo of the Ridge.
First position for the battle of Vimy, Carency, April 1917 , Courtesy of the Government of Canada
The Ridge, seen in the background of this photo, was occupied by the Germans in September 1914. It is now April 1917.
On the surface, the Ridge does not look formidable, unless it was your task to get up that ridge and defeat the forces entrenched on it in the days of WWI. Located near the town of Arras, it proved to be a strategic location for the Germans. Occupying the top of the Ridge meant that they could control much of the region.
The Ridge itself might better be described as "heights," or an escarpment, which overlooked the plains of Artois, also called the Douai Plain. It stretched 14 kms from the town of Vimy northwest to Givenchy-en-Gohelle. Sections of it were 60 meters high. But as a whole, the Ridge was only 150 meters above sea level and dominated by the lowlands in front of it.
Trenches at Vimy Ridge, photo courtesy of School history, Vimy Ridge
German engineers constructed a network of artillery-proof trenches, caves, passages and bunkers that snaked along the crest down into the valley, connecting with another network of natural caves. It had three rows of trenches behind barbed wire and numerous machine gun nests.
With these defenses set, the Germans bombarded the town of Arras using heavy artillery with impunity. The French 10th Army was dug in around the town, some 12 kms away from the Ridge. They attempted several assaults on the Ridge during 1915 and suffered an estimated 150,000 casualties.
Trenches at Vimy Ridge, photo courtesy of School history, Vimy Ridge
In 1916, the British took over this sector and almost immediately had to fall back about 2 kms. Once settled in place, aggressive planning began to take the Ridge. The British plan was not approved.
You will recall that the Canadian First Infantry Division arrived in France in February 1915. By 1917, Canada had four divisions in France, the First through the Fourth. Fortunately for them, the Canadians were deployed together, forming the Canadian Corps, instead of being split apart and assigned to British units. Australian General Sir John Monash wrote after the war:
"It is impossible to overrate the advantages which accrued to the Canadian Corps from the close and constant association of all four divisions with the others. This was the prime factor in achieving the brilliant conquest of Vimy Ridge."
All four divisions were located near Vimy Ridge, with the British on their north side and the French on the south. This map shows the Canadian and German deployments at Vimy Ridge.
The Canadian and German Front Line Positions, courtesy of the Canadian National Archives, presented by CBC News In-depth
There are three points we wish to make with this map:
- Geographically, note the towns marked with red dots, Givenchy to the northwest, and Vimy southeast of it. Also note the abundance of contour lines between the two. As a general statement, those red dots mark the heights at Vimy Ridge. About 12-14 kms to the south-southwest is the town of Arras, off this map.
- The Germans to the east had two corps, the VIII Corps to the north, opposed mainly by the 24th British Division. One of the VIII Corps' divisions, the 16th Bavarian Jager Division, however, faced both the 24th British Division and the 4th Canadian Division, the latter marked by the green box. Most of the Vimy Ridge, however, was occupied by the Bavarian Reserve Corps, with two divisions, the 79th Reserve Division and the 1st Bavarian Reserve Division. These stood opposed to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions, marked by red, dark blue, light blue and green boxes respectively.
- The two dark lines you see in the middle, going roughly top to bottom through the center of the map, mark the area referred to as "no man's land." This is a term used by the soldiers to describe the ground between the two opposing forces. The average distance across might be about 250 yards. But there were locations where it was only 50 yards, some where it was 500 yards, and one place where it was only seven yards. These areas normally contained a great deal of barbed wire, perhaps 100 feet deep.
Scene in Mons, Belgium when the Canadian army arrived in 1917 shortly before the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Crowds welcomed the Canadian soldiers who were piped through the streets by Canadian pipers.
Reporting for CBC News On-line on April 9, 2003, Gary Graves, in an article entitled, "In-depth Vimy Ridge Remember: Shock and Awe 1917," said that the Canadians assembled a very detailed plan of attack. They planned their assault for months, set up a mock replica of the Vimy terrain to rehearse and adjust, mapped out 80 percent of the German gun positions using Canadian spotters, and dug five kilometers of tunnels in order to move their troops and ammunition to the front without being observed. They also built a light railroad to bring in heavy artillery.
As a prelude to the attack, the British and Canadians joined to pound the German positions with 2,500 tons of ammunition per day for two weeks. The Canadians had an expert gunner in Major Andy McNaughton, a McGill University graduate in physics and engineering who brought science to bear on the art of war. He was so scientific and disciplined in his approach to targeting and maintenance that one British officer is reported to have said:
"You Canadians take all the fun out of war."
"Hundreds of shells would land at once, spraying plumes of muddy earth upward like a polluted version of some giant decorative water fountain. Every three minutes the 850 Canadian cannfons would aim a little higher, advancing the row of shellfire forward by 90 metres."
The Canadians planned to move forward as a single formation, all four divisions, by foot, but not too fast. They had to stay behind the forward moving barrage, and not get ahead of it, in what came to be known as a "creeping barrage," an invention of Canadian General Currie.
29th Infantry Battalion advancing over "No Man's Land" during the battle of Vimy Ridge. Dead comrades, or enemy, lay at left. Photo courtesy of the National Archive of Canada PA 1020, presented by Warchronicle.com
The attack commenced at 5:30 AM, April 9, 1917, the day after Easter Sunday. The weather has been described as cold, wet, sleet and windy, the mud below them wet and slippery. An estimated 30,000 Canadian troopers had already moved toward the front lines, and 20,000 of them moved out from their trenches and into "no man's land," from all four Canadian divisions, simultaneously. The Germans expected an attack, but they did not know when or how.
The Canadians took the important position of Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917. They advanced with
brilliance, having taken the whole system of German front-line trenches between dawn and 6.30 A.M. This shows
squads of machine gunners operating from shell-craters in support of the infantry on the plateau above the ridge.
This photo shows the Grange Tunnel, a 250 meter stretch that has been preserved (photo courtesy of Veterans Affairs, Government of Canada, "Vimy Ridge Memorial Tour, a Virtual Reality Panoramic tour of the area, a "must see" web site). This tunnel was dug in 1916-1917 by the 172nd Tunneling Company of the British Royal Engineers, with the help of the men of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade.
There are two maps below. They are both interesting to study. We like the first map because it shows the order of battle, it shows how various Canadian and a British infantry brigades crossed the "no man's land," and how they made it up to the Ridge, pushing back the German lines.
The Canadian Plan of Attack, courtesy of the Canadian National Archives, presented by CBC News In-depth
We like this second map because it's easy to read and is most descriptive.
The Canadians at Vimy Ridge, courtesy of "For King and Empire, Canada's soldiers in World War I," one terrific web site, must see.
Let's briefly identify the Canadian forces that attacked the Germans at Vimy Ridge: The front that you are looking at stretches for about four miles:
- We have talked about the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. The 1st was commanded by Major General A.W. Currie. This division's 1st, 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades crossed "no man's land" in their sector, referred to as the Zwolfer Graben Trench system, in 30 minutes, and after another hour, the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade was in control of the land south of the town of Thelus. By the end of the day, the division had achieved its objectives. Painting of General Currie presented by worldwar1.com
- The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was formed in October 1914 and was fighting in France by September 1915. For Vimy Ridge, the division was commanded by Major-General Harry E. Burstall. The division's 4th, 5th and 6th Canadian Infantry Brigades along with the British 13th Infantry Brigade moved across "no-man's land" and the 6th Canadian took the town of Thelus. Painting of General Burstall by Sir William Orpen, courtesy of Orpen Portraits in the Canadian War Memorials Collection by Robert F. Wodehouse, Curator of War Art, presented by the Government of Canada.
- The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was formed in December 1915 and engaged in its first major battle at Mount Sorfrel in June 1916. It was commanded by Major-General L. J. Lipsett. This division, with its 7th and 8th Infantry Brigades, moved into what was called the "Schwaben Tunnel," which was heavily fortified with machine gun boxes. Its objective was to reach the eastern slope of Vimy Ridge. The division captured La Folie Farm, pushed through La Folie Wood and captured positions south of Hill 145, the highest point on the Ridge. Painting of General Lipsett by Sir William Orpen, courtesy of Orpen Portraits in the Canadian War Memorials Collection by Robert F. Wodehouse, Curator of War Art, presented by the Government of Canada.
- The 4th Infantry Division was formed in April 1916 and embarked for France just a few months later, in August 1916. For Vimy Ridge, it was commanded by Major-General David Watson. The 4th was to move into Givenchy, take Hill 145, and the eastern slopes of the Ridge. This was the most heavily defended part of the Ridge, the landscape was steep and filled with holes that filled with water, and Canadian forces were open to fire from some of the machine-gun posts that survived the 3rd Division's assault. The 4th Division took heavy casualties, but, by the end of the day, it had taken Hill 145, though the Germans remained active east of the hill. Painting of General Watson by Sir William Orpen, courtesy of Orpen Portraits in the Canadian War Memorials Collection by Robert F. Wodehouse, Curator of War Art, presented by the Government of Canada.
There was a great deal of activity to the south of the Vimy Ridge. The British 3rd and 5th Armies engaged in battles around Arras and areas further to the south in an effort to stretch German resources, but they met with enormous resistance.
The Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge started on April 9, early in the morning. Three of the Canadian divisions captured most of the Ridge by the afternoon, and the other division had taken its objectives south of the town of Thelus. By April 12, the Canadians took the two highest points, Hills 135 and 145, it was clear that the Canadians held Vimy Ridge, and achieved their overall objectives. The Germans tried a counter-attack, it failed, and they withdrew in the darkness of night.
The many days of heavy artillery barrages against the Germans took their toll on them. Many of them fell back to their secondary lines or simply surrendered when the Canadians arrived. The Canadians encountered heavy resistance at the secondary lines, however. They suffered 10,602 casualties, of which nearly 3,600 were killed in action. While high, it must be recalled that many, many tens of thousands Canadian, British, French and German men were killed in action as the result of previous attacks on the Ridge.
This battle was important for many reasons. It was one of many battles that occurred during the time period that attempted to break through the German lines. The Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge was the only important gain made among all these battles. As mentioned during our introduction to this battle, the Trench Line had remained static from 1914 until this time. The Canadian victory proved that this line could be moved, that there was an alternative to stalemate. The city of Arras was relieved. The defeat was demoralizing for the Germans who had viewed the Ridge as one of their most impregnable strong points. The Canadians held the Ridge following their victory, offering a strategic point at times behind German lines. It provided a firm anchor for the British drive against the Germans that would occur in 1918.
The Canadians, under British rule, under British command, had won the first major allied victory over the Germans in WWI. What strikes us as perhaps the most important, long-term, was expressed well by Brigadier-General Alexander Ross, DSO, who commanded the 28th (North West) Canadian Battalion at Vimy. He saw the victory this way:
"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."
In the November 9, 1999 edition of Canoe, Quebcormedia, John Ward of the Canadian Press said this:
"It (WWI) was a war that changed Canada in this century from a meek colony to a nation insistent on its dignity and its own place in the peace. The official Canadian history says of the soldiers: 'They fought as Canadians and those who returned brought back with them a pride of nationhood that they had not known before.'"
In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which officially recognized Canada and the other self-governing dominions as independent nations. Canada was then its own nation.
Private Reaper was injured by shrapnel during the battle, and recovered to fight again in the Third Battle of Ypres in Flanders fields. He was an orphan from Scotland and came to Canada through the auspices of The Orphan Homes of Scotland at the age of 12. He enlisted in the Canadian Army at the age of 16. While recovering in hospital from his wounds at Vimy, he proudly boasted to all that he was a Canadian. He was Canada's last living link to the infantry soldiers who fought at Vimy Ridge. Private Reaper was granted one of France's highest awards, the Legion of Honour, in 1999.
Aerial view of the Vimy Memorial, courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada.
Two hundred and fifty acres of Vimy Ridge, including Hill 145, its highest point, were made "the free gift in perpetuity of the French nation to the people of Canada" Canada has built a glorious memorial there to honor all those who Canadians who fought in this terrible war.
Canadian losses during WWI were staggering: 60,000 soldiers dead from a total enrollment of 625,000. On the western front, one Canadian in seven who served was killed. Of those, 16,000 have no known grave.
"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. William Frederick Longstaff is a distinguished Australian artist. He was born in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia in 1879. This photo of the "Ghosts of Vimy Ridge" is courtesy of Bartletts Battlefield Journeys Ltd. By using this link, you can order a print.
This is the central statue at the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, France. The statue is to represent Canada and Canadian women who lost a loved one in this Workd War One battle.
Canada celebrated the 85th anniversary of Vimy Ridge in April 2002. A student from each province went to France and to the memorial.
"They are too near to be great. But our children shall understand, when and how our fate was changed, and by whose hand." Courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada.
As a final note, the Victory at Vimy! We salute you, Oh Canada!
Victory at Vimy! The celebratory mood of these soldiers was echoed back home in Canada, and throughout the Alliance. (#PAC A-1322) Courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada, visit the photo gallery for an impressive slide show.
The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
Four Canadians would receive the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour, on the Ridge. Only one survived the war. All illustrations by Sharif Tarabay, presented by Legion Magazine of Canada. The VC recipients were:
Private William Milne, Cambusnethan, Lanarkshire, Scotland, Canadian Infantry, Manitoba Regiment, 16th Battalion
Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Wallacetown, Ontario, 18th Battalion, Western Ontario Regiment
Captain Thaine MacDowell, Brockville, Ontario, 38th Ottawa Battalion (Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa), East Ontario Regiment. Survived, and later achieved the rank of colonel.
Private John George Pattison, Calgary, Alberta. Alberta Regiment, Canadian Expeditionary Force.