April 9-12, 1917
"Canada will be proud"
"The whole Empire will rejoice at the news of yesterday's successful operations. Canada will be proud that the taking of the coveted Vimy Ridge has fallen to the lot of her troops. I heartily congratulate you and all who have taken part in this splendid achievement."
"Out of the mist," wrote the diarist for the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, "exploded a curtain of fire from 983 guns and mortars." At 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, attacking battalions from four Canadian divisions crept forward behind this wall of flame and smoke up the gentle slope leading to the "coveted Vimy Ridge." Shells burst along a 6.4-kilometre front as far as the eye could see. The first artillery barrage lifted and the infantry pushed forward through sections of uncut barbed wire, over ground churned up beyond recognition. Close on their heels swept the stretcher bearers searching for the wounded. The Canadians, with guns often jammed with mud, faced determined German soldiers firing machine guns, rifles and revolvers at point-blank range. It was the first time all four Canadian divisions had fought together. Intense training, thorough planning and coordination, superior intelligence gathering and determination carried Byng's Boys forward-at times through driving sleet-to take the Ridge. When the battle was over on April 12, there were 10,602 casualties.
While the Ridge would never again fall to the Germans, the victory was not the long-awaited western front breakthrough to end the war. For Canada, Vimy proved the mettle of her men, the value of preparation and what Canadians could achieve on the battlefield when they fought as a unit for a common cause. Anglophone, Francophone, Black, First Nations, Métis and Asian soldiers: the victors of Vimy took the Ridge as Canadians.
By the spring of 1917, the Allies were desperate to break through the deeply entrenched German line, which zigzagged over 800 kilometres from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Planning began for a new offensive in the Arras Sector of the western front. Here, the Canadian Corps spent the winter of 1916-1917 below Vimy Ridge-the only significant height of land in northeastern France. Since October 1914, the Germans had transformed the ridge into an impregnable fortress which guarded the valuable Lens coal mines below it. In 1915, the French suffered an estimated 140,000 casualties attempting to retake the Ridge.
The Canadian role in the new Allied action was to secure the Ridge and protect the flank of the British 3rd Army attacking simultaneously immediately south of Vimy. The combined Canadian and British assaults were to provide a diversion for what would prove to be an unsuccessful French drive against the German line some 90 kilometres farther south in the Reims-Soisson area.
The eight-kilometre Ridge rose before the Canadian line like the spine of a great beast. Its western shoulder leaned towards the Canadians, gently sloping upwards (to a maximum of 110 metres) through three lines of German trenches. These forward defences were pockmarked with deep dugouts and a treacherous network of concrete machine-gun emplacements and barbed wire. The Ridge's eastern shoulder dropped precipitously into a tangle of forests with hidden German machine gun nests and mortars.
Moving south to north, three crests pushed through the "spine": Hill 135, named for the number of metres it stood above sea level; Hill 145, the highest and best-defended of the three; and Hill 120, dubbed "The Pimple" at the northernmost tip of the Ridge. The unusual presence of buried chalk beds beneath the Ridge created extraordinary tunnelling opportunities for engineering and pioneer units.
A Four Division Attack
Fifteen thousand well rehearsed fighting men would attack along a 6.4-kilometre front, in side-by-side two-brigade formations, under Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, the Commander of the Canadian Corps. Behind a forward-moving curtain of blistering artillery fire from 850 guns, Byng's Boys were to fight their way through two main enemy lines (the first, west of the Ridge; the second, east) in just under eight hours. Twenty-four hours later, 4th Division's 10th Brigade would storm and secure "The Pimple."
Because the German front line angled southwest from the Ridge itself, the northern 3rd and 4th Divisions prepared to fight upwards across the 700-metre thin edge of the enemy "wedge" to take Hill 145. The southern 1st and 2nd Divisions would be forced to travel nearly six times the distance (4,000 metres)-albeit over more level ground for the southernmost 1st Division-to the heavily fortified town of Farbus, well east of the Ridge.
Artillery and Tunnels, Timetable and Intelligence
The first key to success lay in crippling German forward defences with artillery and mortar fire; the second, in finding a way to bring Canadian troops unharmed to the forward lines. In what has been described as one of the great engineering feats of the war, tunnelling companies excavated or extended 11 main subways (7.6 metres below the surface) to protect men from enemy counter-bombardment as they made their way to the front.
Furthermore, men exiting these tunnels were required to follow dangerously close to the moving wall of fire. This was so that at the moment the artillery curtain lifted and the guns began to roll forward, troops were in position to overpower German soldiers who emerged fighting from dugouts. Thus, the third key was exceptional co-operation between the infantry and artillery. A strict timetable-specifically addressing position and speed of attack-needed to be rehearsed and learned by every soldier. The Canadian Corps pioneered the distribution of maps to platoon sections. Battalions were rotated to the rear to practice on a full-scale battle course.
The final key was intelligence. Daring and sometimes bloody raids were mounted into "No Man's Land" to gain critical intelligence about enemy defences. Aerial photographs from observer balloons and No.16 Flying Squadron assisted the Canadian Corps Counter-Battery officer and the men under his command to destroy 83 percent of German guns prior to the attack.
Black, Red, Blue and Brown Lines
Taking the first objective or the Black Line meant that all four divisions had to fight through the German forward trenches in 35 minutes. The final objectives for the northern divisions were to secure the Red Line and capture Hill 145, as well as enemy terrain east of the Ridge.
Because the southern divisions had farther to travel (more than 4 kilometres from the original Canadian front), reserve brigades were to leapfrog in at the second objective or the Red Line. The planners assigned the British 13th Brigade (north flank) and the Canadian 6th Brigade (south flank) to reinforce the 2nd Division. The 1st Canadian Brigade was to reinforce the 1st Division. These "leapfrogging" brigades would push the assault through the third and fourth objectives: Thélus and Hill 135 (Blue Line) and then to Farbus (Brown Line).
In April 1917, the Canadian Corps strength stood at approximately 170,000 men in all ranks, including troops of the British 5th Division and attached British artillery and support units. Seldom mentioned is the presence among the Canadian fighting battalions of men from First Nations reserves, as well as Black and Japanese Canadians. Of the 97,184 Canadians in the Corps, the Vimy infantry assault troops accounted for roughly 20 percent of their total numbers-leaving some 80 percent of the Corps involved in the critical preparation and delivery of vital services, supplies, construction, communications and intelligence before and during the attack.
In the Canadian forward area, 40 kilometres of road and 32 kilometres of tramway were built, repaired and extended by pioneer and engineering units for the daily hauling of 720 tonnes or more of ammunition, rations and stores. Artillery ammunition allotted for the Vimy operation amounted to 38,250 tonnes. Over 72 kilometres of new pipeline carried the Corps' daily requirement of 2.3 million litres of water for the men and 50,000 horses, as well as for cooling overheated artillery. Canadian signallers buried 34 kilometres of cable two metres below ground to withstand enemy shelling.
By 4:00 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, all units were in position for the attack to begin at precisely 5:30 a.m. Each soldier in the assault wave carried a "rifle and bayonet, 120 rounds of ammunition, two Mills bombs (grenades), five sandbags, 48 hours hard rations, a waterproof sheet, a respirator (gas mask), goggles, one ground flare and a filled water bottle." (Wood 1967, 131) Specialists such as Lewis gunners carried the same kit, but 60 percent less rifle ammunition. The strongest among them carried picks and shovels.
The attack began amidst a driving northwest storm which favoured the Canadians by sending sleet into the German line. The 983 guns and mortars supporting the initial 21 assaulting infantry battalions blasted the enemy's front line trenches, creating a cesspool of mud, blood, shattered trenches, shell holes and barbed wire.
1st Division (Major-General Currie), 2nd Division (Major-General Burstall) and 3rd Division (Major-General Lipsett)
By 6:15 a.m., the 1st and 2nd Divisions had battled their way to the Black Line, through well-sighted machine gun fire and oftentimes fierce hand-to-hand combat. The 3rd Division's 7th and 8th Brigades reported capture of the Black Line at 6:25 a.m. During the planned consolidation pause, while the artillery continued lobbing shells and mortars at key enemy gun emplacements, the original rear companies of 1st and 2nd Divisions' forward battalions spearheaded the drive to the Red Line by 8:00 a.m. An hour later, the 3rd Division, after a bloody struggle, gained its second and final objective, the Red Line. By 2:40 p.m., the 1st and 2nd Brigades (in reserve) leapfrogged through the new Canadian line and the capture of the Brown Line was assured. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions had taken their objectives on schedule.
4th Division (Major-General Watson); Hill 145 and Success; "The Pimple"
The 11th and 12th Brigades of the 4th Canadian Division failed to take their objective, Hill 145. The 38th, 72nd, 73rd and 78th Battalions of the 12th Brigade took heavy losses trying to hold their positions, in the face of the 11th Brigade's inability to push forward. While the initial attack of 11th Brigade's 102nd Battalion was successful, the supporting 54th Battalion was forced to retreat. The 11th Brigade's southern battalions collapsed. A section of enemy trench had not been destroyed by Canadian Corps' artillery, and thus blistering fire rained down upon 87th Battalion. Its assaulting company was wiped out in six minutes with 60 percent killed in action. In support, the 75th Battalion retreated.
Even with the combined efforts of the 11th Brigade's 75th, 85th and 87th Battalions and the 10th Brigade's 46th and 47th Battalions, Hill 145 had not been taken by the end of April 9. Before dark, two companies of the 85th Battalion managed to secure the western summit, but the Hill's eastern slope remained in German hands. The next afternoon, the 10th Brigade's 44th and 50th Battalions wrested the Hill from the Germans. On Thursday, April 12, amidst a driving snowstorm, the 10th Brigade's 44th, 46th and 50th Battalions (two companies), with the 47th Battalion in reserve, captured "The Pimple." The Battle of Vimy Ridge was over. Canadian casualties amounted to 10,602, of which 3,598 were fatal.
tein, J.L. Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Greenhous, Brereton and Stephen J. Harris. Canada and the Battle of Vimy Ridge: 9-12&April, 1917. Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1992.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1989, pp. 138-143.
Nicholson, Colonel G.W.L., C.D. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: The Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Ottawa: Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1962, pp. 244-265.
Wood, Herbert Fairlie. Vimy! London, England: Macdonald & Company, 1967.