The Battle of Vimy Ridge
“For Canadians, Vimy Ridge was a nation-building experience. For some, then and later, it symbolized the fact that the Great War was also Canada`s war of independence” (historian Desmond Morton)
Approximately 7 km in length with an elevation of less than 150 m, Vimy Ridge afforded a commanding view of both German-held territory and the Allied lines. The Germans took it during the First Battle of Artois in October 1914. The following May, during the Second Battle of Artois, the French had managed to briefly take back the ridge, but lost it due to a lack of reinforcements. The Second and the Third battles of Artois had cost the French more than 150,000 casualties.
The German Sixth Army had since fortified the ridge with machine-gun nests, artillery, barbed wire and three rows of trenches and a maze of tunnels. By October of 1916, Allied casualties incurred through efforts to seize the Vimy Ridge had risen to 300,000. Then, a new unit, the Canadian Corps relieved the British stationed along the western slopes of the ridge.
This corps had been formed just one month after the arrival in France of the 2nd Canadian Division. Initially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Edwin Alfred Hervey Alderson, his position came to be filled by Field Marshal Julian Byng (one day he would be installed as the twelfth Governor General of Canada). The corps was formed by more than 97,000 Canadians.
The Canadian Corps objective was to attack the ridge and this assault was intended to allow the southern flank of the Arras offensive to advance without being fired upon by Germans along the ridge.
British units of the 5th Infantry Division and engineer units aided the Canadians in expanding the vast underground networks and fortifications already in existence. Twelve passages, each more than 1 km in length, connected the reserve lines to front lines, thus allowing the Canadians to advance without being seen.
Planning for the assault on Vimy Ridge rested on Byng and Major General Arthur Currie, a veteran of the Second Battle of Ypres.
The Canadians trained for four months.
On 25 March 1917, shells began raining down on the Germans, beginning a period they would come to call the Week of Suffering. Each and every hour, over the course of the next seven days, the barrage continued and more than a million shells fell on German trenches.
At dawn of 9 April, the Canadian Corps began the attack on Vimy Riddge. Assault divisions advanced along a front of more than 6 km, under cover of the creeping barrage. The first wave numbered 15,000 Canadians. In less than two hours, the corps captured three of their four objectives. All had gone according to schedule, with one exception: Hill 145. The highest point of the ridge, it was used by the Germans to fire upon the advancing Canadians of the 4th Division with considerable effect. In six minutes, more than 60 per cent of the assaulting company were shot to death. But by day’s end the Canadians managed to seize the hill.
With the coming of light the following morning, the 4th Division moved east of Hill 145 in an assault of still-active enemy positions.
On 12 April, amid a blinding snowstorm, the last of the German resistance ended and the Canadian Corps controlled the entire ridge.
For Canada, the cost was greater than any battle before or since: 3,598 Canadians had been killed, a further 7,004 were wounded.
The German Sixth Army suffered more than 20,000 casualties. It retreated downwards to the Plains of Douai.
The victory of Vimy Ridge marked the first time in the young nation’s 50-year history that a corps-sized formation fought as a unit. The tunnels, craters and trenches of the World War I remain to this day, now towered over by the white limestone Canadian National Vimy Memorial. The war monument took 11 years to build at a cost of more than $1,500,000. It stand on the highest point of the ridge, Hill 145.