Remembering the Battle of Vimy Ridge 100 years ago

Vimy Ridge is an escarpment near the town of Arras in northeastern France. The ridge rises gently on its western side, and drops more rapidly on the east. It is about seven kilometres wide, and peaks at a height of about 60 metres above the Douai Plains, offering a view far into the distance in all directions. A great lookout for troops in wartime, Vimy would be the target of a mission which saw Canada’s four Europe-based divisions, in their first battle together of the First World War, jointly serving as the major combatants against the Germans.

Squads of machine gunners operating from shell-craters in support of the infantry on the plateau above the ridge. Photo courtesy of Canada. Dept. of National Defence.

Their assigned mission was to seize the strategic high point of Vimy Ridge as part of a diversionary assault by Britain across the broader Arras region, driving out German Sixth Army troops entrenched there. Under the command of Britain’s Sir Julian Byng, a force of 170,000 troops (97,000 of them Canadian) was part of a massive offensive focussed on breaking the long, deadly stalemate that had settled in across the war zone.

The attack occurred from April 9 to April 12, 1917. More than 10,500 Canadians were killed and wounded in those few days.

Here, condensed, is the Canadian Encyclopedia’s description of what happened.

“Troops were given detailed information on the terrain and the location of enemy strong points and were shown models and maps of the battlefield. Many infantry soldiers were given specialist tasks as machine gunners or grenade throwers. Keep moving, the troops were told, follow your lieutenant, prepare to outflank enemy machine gunners who might survive the initial artillery barrage, use grenades and follow up with bayonets. Don’t lose contact with the platoon or company next to you.

“Army engineers dug extensive tunnels under the battlefield to bring the infantry more safely and closely to the German lines. . .

“The troops moved up the long western slope of the ridge just behind a rolling artillery barrage designed to keep the Germans hidden in their bunkers and away from their machine guns. In wind, sleet and snow an initial wave of more than 15,000 Canadians stormed the ridge and captured most of the German positions by the afternoon of the first day. After three more days of intense fighting, the highest features on the ridge – Hill 145 and the Pimple –  were in Canadian hands.”

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Normandy, France.

This stunning victory did not come easily, this narrative tells us. Tanks broke down and became mired in the mud; troops became disoriented on the explosion-scarred slopes; flanks opened up dangerously between various Canadian units; stretcher bearers could not find their way to the wounded and field dressing stations were overwhelmed with injured and dying men. The fighting left 3,598 Canadians dead and another 7,000 wounded. The Germans suffered an estimated 20,000 casualties.

Tim Cook at the national War Museum reports on the “countless acts of sacrifice as Canadians single-handedly charged machine gun nests. . . Hill 145 was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions.”

The battle of Vimy Ridge 100 years ago, has come to be viewed as the start of Canada’s sense of its own nationhood and pride in its standing in the world – a main reason being that soldiers from every region of Canada had fought together to take the ridge. It came to symbolize Canada’s overall sacrifices in the First World War, in particular its 60,000 war dead.

The sacrifices are said to have convinced Prime Minister Robert Britain to push – successfully – for separate representation for Canada at the Paris peace talks after the war.

This battle would be one day commemorated for all time with a soaring, starkly simple white memorial, at the peak of Hill 145, remembering the battle and honouring the 11,285 Canadians killed in France during the First World War who have no known graves. It has drawn Canadians to visit the battle zone for most of the last hundred years.

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