Canada in the First World War - Vimy Ridge
Before the Canadians
Vimy Ridge marks the western end of the Douai Plain in northern France. It lies west of the village of Vimy and was briefly occupied by the Germans in September of 1914 until they were driven off by the French. Recognizing the advantage of holding a 400 foot high ridge commanding both east and west the Germans launched a new offensive to capture the ridge in October. The object was to capture and breakthrough at Arras but French resistance blunted the attack and in a week of fighting only the height of the ridge was gained with some territory around Arras.
On the 9th of May, 1915, the French began a new offensive to relieve the siege of Arras and recapture the ridge. With over 1,000 artillery pieces supporting the assault some of the French divisions managed to penetrate 5,000 yards toward the ridge. But the French artillery were allowed to decide their own targets without reference to the needs of the infantry and some divisions got caught up in the uncut barbed wire (a common complaint for much of the war) and the assault became bogged down on the flanks. The battle lasted until the 18th of June with only the capture of some small villages and a small part of the ridge to show for the effort. The French had suffered nearly 100,000 casualties inflicting almost 60,000 on the Germans.
The French would try again between 25 September and 11 October intending to drive through and capture the rail junction at Douai. They would use more medium artillery pieces than before. But in the mean time the Germans had fortified their lines. At the cost of 47,000 casualties the French would manage to capture a single village. With pressing concerns at Verdun the French would hand over this section of the line to the British Army.
The British IV Corps which occupied the sector maintained a policy of raiding and mining. Mining was the digging of a tunnel or tunnels under the enemy trenches, filling them with explosives and then detonating them. The Germans were so intimidated by the mining that they decided to launch a limited assault to put a stop to it. On the 21st of May 1916 the Germans launched their assault and with the aid of a well prepared artillery barrage were quickly able to capture their objectives. A battle of counterattacks lasted until the 27th of May when normal trench warfare resumed.
The assault by the Canadian Corps on Vimy Ridge was only part of a much larger general offensive, the Nivelle Offensive, by the Entente forces in the west. The French were to advance to St. Quentin, the British to Cambrai, the Canadian Corps at the northern end of the offensive were in a subsidiary role, it was intended as holding action to prevent the Germans from sending reserves to strengthen the sector the French would attack.
The Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was preceded by trench raiding, an activity credited by Canadian historians to Canadian troops of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, then serving as part of a British Division in the Ypres salient during 1915. The practice was picked up by other Canadian units, most notably by those commanded by Victor Odlum, a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion in 1915, at Vimy Ridge he commanded the 11th Brigade.
The largest raid carried out by the Canadians was on February 28th by the 4th Division at Vimy Ridge. It was planned as a reconnaissance in force using over 1,700 men from four battalions, half of them from Victor Odlum‘s 11th Brigade. The raid was preceded by a release of gas (a combination of phosgene and chlorine) and an artillery barrage. Two of the battalion commanders opposed the raid and when they were overruled chose to lead their men into battle. What was supposed to be a cake walk was a fiasco. The wind blew the gas back onto the raiders, the gas warned the Germans that an attack was coming and they brought down an artillery barrage on the assaulting troops. Of the 1,700 men 687 became casualties including the two battalion commanders. In the two weeks preceding the actual assault another 1,600 Canadians would become casualties during raiding operations.
Beginning two weeks before the actual ground assault the artillery bombarded the German trenches and artillery. After the Battle of the Somme, General Byng, the commander of the Canadian Corps, had ordered a study of counter-battery tactics. Led by the Canadian Lt. Colonel McNaughton a team of British and Canadians developed equipment and tactics to quickly and accurately respond to German artillery. As a result of their efforts by the time the assault started the Germans had only enough artillery to cover a single divisions frontage. From March 20th to April 2nd nearly 350,000 artillery rounds were fired at the German positions. From April 2nd the number of guns firing was doubled. Nearly 2,500 tonnes of explosives being delivered on German positions daily. The Germans termed this period the Week of Suffering.
On the morning of April 9th, Easter Monday, the actual assault began. From Canadian divisions were arrayed numerically from south to north. The 1st Division at the south end of the ridge had the furthest to go over flatter terrain, some 4,000 metres. The 4th Division at the northern end had the steepest terrain to assault and therefore the shortest horizontal distance to traverse.
The 1st Division under Maj. Gen. Arthur Currie made rapid progress, by 1:30pm they had captured all of their objectives. The 2nd Division made similar progress. The 3rd Division was hampered by fire coming from their left flank where the 4th Division had been unable to capture their objectives.
The 4th Division had the most difficult objectives to take, two prominences on the ridge, hills known as The Pimple and Hill 145. These hills had been fortified by the Germans, not simply with entrenchments but with concrete bunkers. To make matters worse the commander of the battalion tasked with capturing Hill 145 had requested that the barrage not target his objective. It was his hope that the proximity of the German trenches would make it easy for his troops to capture. He was wrong and his battalion paid for his mistake with their lives. From this position overlooking the battlefield German snipers and machine-gunners were able to pour effective fire into the troops on the left flank of the 3rd Division.
Another assault on Hill 145 would be undertaken on the evening of April 9th. Again the artillery barrage was cancelled for fear of causing casualties to Canadian troops pinned down below the hill. Not all of the infantry companies involved in the assault were informed but they went over the top anyway. With the aid of rifle grenadiers the 85th Battalion managed to capture Hill 145 and Vimy Ridge, for the most part, was in Canadian hands.
It would take another two days to secure the Pimple, but the German line was effectively broken. As the Canadian part in the Nivelle offensive was a diversionary one only a single Cavalry division was allocated as reserve and they were too far back to exploit the success of the attack. Further to the south the British 3rd Army had gained more ground but the reserves were also too far back to exploit the success.
By the time the offensive ended in mid-May the British armies had suffered 158,000 casualties, the Germans 180,000. To the south the French had attacked on April 16th and made very little headway for the loss of 275,000 casualties and causing 163,000 German casualties. Of the objectives of the Nivelle Offensive only Vimy Ridge was captured, it was the one that General Nivelle did not believe would be.
It is said that at Vimy Ridge Canada became a nation and in good Canadian tradition there is no one hero from that battle. The Canadian Corps suffered over 9,000 casualties prior to the Easter battle with another 10,000 casualties in actually capturing the ridge. April 9th, 1917 became the bloodiest day in Canadian military history even as it was the day of it’s greatest victory. The French called the victory Canada’s gift to France, France would repay the favour by permanently ceding territory from the site for Canada’s War Memorial.