April 12, 1917. After three days of intense combat, the Canadian Corps stands triumphant atop Vimy Ridge on the Western Front. Today atop the same ridge in France, a grief-stricken Mother Canada stands alone in marble, mourning the loss of her sons. Like many nations in World War I, Canada finds an everlasting myth and memory in its great sacrifice at Vimy Ridge.
World War I was raging, and only getting worse. 1917 dawned with the Allies and Germany still locked into their death grip on the trench line that ran from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Belgium and northern France were locked in hundreds of miles of deep fortifications and bunkers that both armies struggled to overcome. It was, despite rumor to the contrary, never quiet on the Western Front.
1916 had seen the enormous, generation-defining nightmares of Verdun and the Somme for the French and British respectively, but both battles hurt the Germans as badly as they did the Allies. The Allied High Command decided for an intense push in 1917. First, the British would attack in the northern sector around the city of Arras to draw away German reserves and hold their attention. Then the French would attack in the center along the Chemin des Dames, the critical ridge north of Paris that was the key to the German line.
The British attack at Arras would demonstrate how much war had progressed in less than three years due to hard fighting and hard lessons. The British planned an enormous and well-integrated artillery barrage of over 2,500 guns, and 2.5 million shells had been stocked for the occasion. They had 40 tanks for the main attack, ample air reconnaissance and fighter planes, and the infantry had been trained in the new modern tactics. The Germans would not know what had hit them.
The main effort would be made to the east of Arras by the VI Corps, with some six divisions including the 15th (Scottish) Division and the 17th (Northern) Division, boys from Yorkshire and Northumberland. To the northeast, the effort was in the hands of the four-division Canadian Corps, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng.
Canada was still a British Dominion, for all intents and purposes a part of the United Kingdom and had almost never played a major part in British politics. Canada had no control over its own foreign affairs, and self-governance had only been granted in a limited way in 1867. The Canadian Corps, then, was still part of the British Army, and largely British officers staffed the Corps. General Byng was himself a British officer, but he had earned the care and respect of his men and officers. The Canadian Corps consisted of 97,000 men.
The Canadians had been in combat; the 1st Canadian Divison’s famous baptism of fire was at the 2nd Battle of Ypres, where they were the first to experience a German gas attack. As trained volunteers arrived, more divisions were formed and sent into battle in dribs and drabs at Ypres and the Somme throughout 1916. Vimy Ridge, though, would be the first time the Canadians were committed as a single unit and fighting as something close to a nation. The Canadian Minister of Militia, the pugnacious and energetic Sam Hughes, had been lobbying the British government to bring the scattered Canadian units together into a cohesive entity – a single Corps.
The four divisions of Canadian soldiers were rugged and tough characters, used to a hard existence on the frontiers of their developing nation. Their highest-ranking officer, Sir Arthur Currie, had been a real-estate broker before the war, but he would prove one of the most brilliant tactical officers of World War I and eventually command the Corps himself. The Canadians were tired of being treating like second-class soldiers by British officers and commanders – Byng excepted – and were ready for their collective trial by fire. They had something to prove.
The Germans in 1917 were under the collective command of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the military duo that ran a virtual military dictatorship over the Second Reich starting from August 1916. One of Ludendorff’s chief concerns was shortening the Western Front to free up troops for more attacks in Russia and Italy. As part of “Operation Albricht,” the Germans were set to pull back across the Western Front in April 1917, straightening out their line behind a heavily reinforced defensive position called the “Hindenburg Line” and shortening their front by 25 miles. In February 1917, Ludendorff ordered Operation Albricht to begin – all across the front, British and French forces would be surprised when they launched an attack only to stumble on booby traps, land mines and tripwires left behind by the Germans. The real defenses lay ahead. This move was depicted in the recent film “1917.”
The key to the German move – the hinge of Operation Albricht – was one of the only pieces of land they had kept: Vimy Ridge, northeast of Arras. A gently sloping hill, it was nevertheless a vital feature for its vistas of northern France. It had been a key German position since 1914, and was well-fortified with trench systems and artillery. Vimy Ridge was the Canadian target.
The April weather at Arras was terrible. The alternating sleet and snow along with incessant artillery fire, bodies and gas had turned the mud into thick, cold treacle, and the average World War I soldier carried almost 75 pounds of gear. The preparations for Vimy went on. The artillery bombardment would destroy enemy works and clear a path for attacking infantry. They would use a tactic called “rolling barrage,” where the artillery fire crept forward, infantry moving behind it. Accurate mortar fire and smoke were prepared to screen the Canadian movement.
Byng was fixated on reaching the top of the ridge without significant infantry loss. At the Somme, most of the infantry had been killed in the initial attack. To accomplish this, he prepared deep tunnels across the front, dug into the deep limestone of the hills below Vimy Ridge. The British and Canadians duelled with German miners, also trying to dig their way under their enemy’s lines, and pitched battles occurred with knife and shovel in the dark below the earth.
The logistic concerns were insatiable: the Corps was supplied by eight trainloads of gear a day – 370 tons of equipment, half of that ammunition. 50,000 horses and mules carried the gear from railhead to frontline. Ironically, most of the few trucks and cars transported fodder for the animals. Intense training was also on point: platoons rehearsed specific objectives and built scale models of the German trenches to practice on. Byng and the Canadians would not let this be another Somme.
On April 9, 1917, the attack began. The unfortunate Germans, expecting the poor tactics of last year, were pinned under the massive weight of the British and Canadian bombardment. Even though the sentries saw the attack coming, they could not report it to headquarters because their telephone lines had been cut by the blasts. 18 mines dug over the last few months by the Canadians exploded beneath the German trenches, blasting their strongpoints into the sky. Allied artillery blasted the front lines for hours, then began to move on, and before the Germans could get out of their dugouts and holes the Canadians were upon them. The creeping barrage rolled forward, and the Canadians pushed forward against increasing resistance.
With all their training and preparation, the Canadians did not let the Germans hold them up for long. Rifle grenadiers and light machine guns knocked out the heavy machine gun nests the Germans tried to set up, and planes flying overhead called in more artillery fire.
On the first day of Arras, the Canadians advanced farther than any unit had on a single day since 1914. As the days rolled on, though, casualties began to mount on junior leaders and officers. Much of the 4th Division was shattered on the first day; one battalion ran into a trap and suffered 50% casualties in 60 seconds. The Canadians pressed on. They ran into German strongpoints known as Hill 145 and the fortified knoll just called “the Pimple”, and died in droves trying to surmount these blasted mounds of earth. Even though 145 was taken at devastating loss by the 4th Division, the “Pimple” held out until April 12.
On April 12, the German 16th Bavarian Infantry Division still held the Pimple under relentless artillery and gas assault. After four days of attacks, the 10th Canadian Brigade finally ascended the Pimple and drove the Bavarians off. After four days of carnage, the Canadians held Vimy Ridge. It had cost them almost 4,000 dead and 7,000 wounded – almost a tenth of their original numbers.
As far as its impact on the war, Vimy was a great Allied success, demonstrating superior planning and training that showed how far they had come in a couple of years. They had gone from outmoded, obsolete ways of fighting to something thoroughly modern. The Germans had lost a key piece of terrain on the Western Front, and numerous casualties besides. It’s important to remember that Vimy was only one part of the great battle of Arras, in which many British soldiers also took part and suffered terrible losses.
For the Canadians, though, Vimy Ridge has come to symbolize something more. For the first time, their nation’s troops had been united in a great mission and accomplished it. The national unity and enduring sacrifice achieved at Vimy was far beyond anything that the fragmented and diverse provinces of Canada had ever experienced together before, something that made them more than a set of territories loosely bound by a Dominion government. After the war, numerous veterans and national leaders would rework Vimy Ridge into the great story of Canadian national identity and nationhood.
This memory is crowned by the great memorial “Canada Bereft” that stands atop Vimy Ridge to this day, a weeping woman in marble looking down where the Canadian Corps charged through hell and fire up the sloping hill. Even the Germans during their conquest of France did not disturb it. The battlefield at Vimy is still honeycombed with tunnels, trenches and craters, largely closed off to the public due to unexploded ordnance.
In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President of France Francois Hollande, and British royalty joined Canadian veterans for a remembrance ceremony at Vimy Ridge beneath the sobbing visage of Mother Canada.