The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place in April of 1917 during World War One. A static 600+ mile line extended on “the Eastern Front”. Stalemated trench warfare had been going on for two years. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was part of an Allied attempt to break the stalemate.
Germany captured Vimy Ridge early in the war and transformed it into a strong defensive position, with a complex system of tunnels and trenches manned by highly trained soldiers with many machine guns and artillery pieces. Previous French assaults on Vimy Ridge in 1914 and 1915 had resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties but had been largely unsuccessful.” Over 100,000 of those bodies remained in the mud of “No Man’s Land” between the forces.
The world was perfecting mass killing in warfare such as had never been seen before.
France, defending on the Western Front, suffered about one million casualties. Troops were merely ordered time after time across open fields in plain sight of the waiting German machine gunners.
My paternal grandfather was a stretcher bearer in World War One, and it so embittered him that he became angry with his two oldest sons for enlisting during World War Two. He told of time and again going into No Man’s Land after the latest charge to bring back rows of corpses with three bullet holes each in their chests. Thousands of French soldiers finally refused to “go over the top” of the trenches and charge the waiting machine guns.
At Vimy Ridge it was different. The Canadian military leadership by thunder used their blooming brains. A very good account is available at the Canadian War Museum. Aerial photography supplied up-to-date maps for precisely planned tactics. Well behind the front line, carefully dug replicas of the German trenches and locations of German machine guns and artillery gave the Canadians an advantage. The troops actually practiced assaults on replicas of the specific trenches they were assigned to attack. A new type of fuse in Canadian artillery shells caused the projectiles to explode on the surface. The older fuse caused the shells to burrow deep and waste part of their power underground. The new type was far more destructive and deadly.
It was still trench warfare. Muddy, cold, rats, lice, fleas. But the thorough, realistic planning, a huge numerical advantage in troops and artillery, and the technical advantages changed it from a suicide attack to a dangerous, costly, but winnable battle. Canadian casualties were high, but the courageous Canadian soldiers delivered the victory.
The assault began with what the Germans called”the Week Of Suffering” – about one million artillery shells over one week. This was immediately followed by a “creeping artillery barrage” – Canadian troops advanced just behind a moving curtain of artillery shells that forced the German gunners to take cover in their tunnels. The Canadians arrived at the enemy positions without having to cross open land under machine gun fire.
It was highly dangerous for the Canadians, though. “ ‘Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated,’ warned Canadian Corps commander Sir Julian Byng.” Too soon and they’d have been annihilated by their own artillery. Too late and the Germans would have re-emerged and begun to use their machine guns. And the Germans still managed to do a lot of shooting.
When it was over, “The Canadian Corps, together with the British Corps to the south, had captured more ground, prisoners and artillery pieces than any previous British offensive of the war. Canadians would act with courage throughout the battle. Four of our soldiers would earn the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for military valour, for separate actions in which they captured enemy machine gun positions. They were: Private William Milne, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Captain Thain MacDowell and Private John Pattison.”
Oh, by the way, the Canadians did this during a sleet storm.
Veterans Affairs Canada has an excellent website from whose pages the remaining links in this article are drawn. All the photos on this site are high quality. Regarding Vimy, they say, “Its capture by the Canadians was essential to the advances by the British Third Army to the south and of exceptional importance to checking the German attacks in the area in 1918 … After Vimy, the Canadian Corps went from one success to another, to be crowned by their achievements in the 1918 “advance to victory”. This record won for Canada a separate signature*** on the Versailles Peace Treaty ending the War.” This site also features excellent brief photos taken at Vimy. The exhibit titled Experience Vimy Multimedia is a series of photos of the statues at the Vimy Memorial in France. Must be the French influence – they’re all topless (and very realistic) women representing “Justice”, “Hope”, “Peace”, etc.
(***When the war started, the United Kingdom was still making “external decisions” for Canada, so Canada automatically became a combatant. They weren’t acting as a separate entity. Nevertheless, the exceptional record of Canadian soldiers throughout the war earned Canada this recognition.)
Vimy Story Gallery is a series of photos of Canadian troops at Vimy.
Insight into war’s “back story” is provided at the link “Soldier Work“, photos and brief descriptions of the MASSIVE work to be done in support of the frontline troops. Here we also learn that some of those support troops were actually sent into the battle. I’d almost rather have been on the frontline.
Both the Captures and Aftermath and the Before and After links are filled with graphic displays of what extensive artillery bombardment does to the earth and to towns. I can’t imagine what it did to the hearts and minds of those who lived there. F4 tornadoes don’t destroy as thoroughly as artillery shells.
Canada can be bragging proud of their brave warriors and their part in the World Wars. They helped preserve freedom. May their memory never fade.
God Bless our troops and veterans! Have a blessed and safe Friday all!