Vimy Ridge, 1917

Last weekend saw the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Arras and the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge commemorated. Services in France attended by members of the Royal Family and the Canadian Prime Minister were well publicised. The actual story of the battle, and in particular Vimy Ridge were less well publicised, if at all, which is a pity because it was a significant action in a number of ways if of somewhat less strategic importance in the context of the five week Arras campaign than the tactical success at Vimy implied.

One aspect of the Canadian action at Vimy that did dominate the news reports last week was the suggestion that it was the action where, 'Canada came of age.' This 'Gallipolisation,' of Vimy is a modern affectation and a departure from the truth. Certainly, Arthur Currie, the legendary Canadian commander at Vimy dismissed the idea. True, it was the first time that all four Canadian divisions fought together as one formation but at the time, and immediately after the war Canadians did not look upon the battle in those terms. Indeed, the 'birth of a nation,' narrative only gained traction in the late 20th century, after most of the actual participants had passed away. 

While the Canadians were regarded as the best troops on the Allied side it is often forgotten that a great many were only newly arrived immigrants into Canada. Some estimates suggest 60% of the first Canadian Corps recruits were British-born. In the Saskatchewan battalion of Lieutenant Colonel D. E. MacIntyre, according to his 1967 account of the battle, Brits accounted for 80% of the men in arms. Quite a few had probably been in Canada only a few years. Immigration was booming in the years leading up to the war, and half of the newcomers were British. In 1913, a record 400,810 immigrants entered the country, boosting the population by 5.56%. They arrived just in time for the collapse of a land-speculation boom, a terrible wheat crop and a surge in unemployment. A soldier’s pay and a chance to help the Empire win a war that most expected to be short must have seemed, to many of them, a lucky break.

So what made Vimy Ridge significant? 

Arras lay to the north of the Somme battlefield and at the top of a huge German salient. The French commander Nivelle wanted the BEF to drive into the northern end of the salient while he attacked in the south in the Chemin des Dames, (a long level ridge along which King Louis XVth made a ride for his daughters). The two armies would then join up behind the Germans capturing all the enemy in the salient. The plan was opposed by both Nivelles deputy, Petain and Haig but Nivelle drove his plan through with political help. Petain and Haig were right, it wasn't a very good plan, especially as a French officer carrying the plans was killed on a reconnaissance  patrol during the build up. The German High Command in fact could not have been more prepared, as the 97,000 Frenchman who were killed on the first day of the attack found out. Thereafter, the French lost men at the rate of around 6,000 a day up until the 3rd May when the French Army began to remonstrate with their officers and demonstrate discord. Nivelle was sacked on the 9th and the French offensive was halted. Petain took over and spent the rest of 1917 restoring order in the French Army and their fighting ability.

 

Meanwhile, in the north the BEF had deployed and had begun their offensive one week before the French. The campaign in the north brought quick but patchy success. New German defensive doctrine had been poorly interpreted by German ground commanders and failed in places. To exploit any advantage that could threaten the German salient, Vimy Ridge to the north of Arras would have to be captured. The French had failed for the previous two years to take the ridge losing 150,000 men in the attempt in 1915 alone. The BEF had then taken over this part of the line to release French units to fight at Verdun. The task of taking the ridge fell to the Canadian Corps under the command of British general, Sir Julian Byng. The Canadians usually resisted all attempts to dilute their national force with outsiders but for this attack an English Division reinforced them.

The Germans had fortified the ridge with an array of defensive works for three years. Three successive lines of trenches spread among a network of barbed wire, concrete machine gun bunkers, underground chambers for the front line troops to shelter in during artillery bombardments. The whole system was connected by a web of communications trenches and tunnels. At the widest point, the German first and third line defences on Vimy were more than eight kilometers apart, interspersed with fortified strong points. Among the roughly 10,000 German soldiers entrenched on the ridge, many had a clear view of the Canadian positions at the base of Vimy's gradually-angled western slopes.

The planning and preparation for the attack was extraordinary. Prefabricated light railways, to move food, ammunition and water to just behind the front lines, were constructed. 50,000 horses were used during the weeks of preparation beforehand; new water reservoirs and pumping systems and many miles of new pipes were constructed to meet the water needs of the assembled army and its working animals; more than 60 miles of communications cable were laid in the Canadian zone, buried several meters deep to avoid destruction from enemy shelling. The Corps' Number 2 Forestry Detachment even set up a sawmill nearby that churned out vast quantities of lumber to support the army's needs.

Twelve tunnels were dug from entry points well behind the BEF lines and out of sight of the Germans on the ridge. The tunnels ran right up to the front lines and were dug on different levels, allowing for the safe movement of troops and supplies. Water pipes and electricity lines were laid and large shelters were dug underground giving safe harbour to 24,000 troops close to the front line. A small underground hospital was constructed along with a headquarters and communication centres. Additionally, some months before mines had been dug under the German trenches in anticipation that an attack at some point was inevitable.

Concurrent with these preparations the Corps started a period of intensive training. A replica of the area with similar topography was used to rehearse the attack. Every man was to know his role in the attack and would practise it. The army had learned the lessons of 1916 in sending men to their slaughter in extended lines walking toward the enemy over flat ground. Troops were given detailed information on the terrain and the location of enemy strong points, and were shown models and maps of the battlefield based on aerial photographs of the ridge. Innovation was the order of the day. The first great change is that command on the battlefield was decentralised to platoon level and lower. Soldiers, especially non-commissioned officers, were encouraged to think for themselves, show leadership, and use initiative. Keep moving, the troops were told. Follow your lieutenant, and if he goes down, follow your corporal; 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 next to you.

Another change is that infantry soldiers would no longer all be riflemen. Many were now assigned specialist tasks such as machine gunners or grenade-throwers. Engineering troops, or sappers, would also accompany some infantry units onto the battlefield in the opening waves, providing help with overcoming obstacles, or quickly erecting defences on captured positions.

Artillery techniques were refined and cooperation with the infantry was practised to a high level.  The infantry knew that the creeping artillery barrage would advance in front of them at the same pace as their own advance keeping German heads down right up until the infantry were upon them.

Twenty-five squadrons with 365 aircraft from the Royal Flying Corps came into the sector to provide reconnaissance, artillery spotting and enemy aircraft interdiction. The suppression of the German air force was successful and hampered their intelligence gathering but the cost was heavy. 130 aircraft were lost in the week before the assault and another 150 during the rest of the month.

The preliminary bombardment lasted a week with over 150,000 shells being fired each day from over 950 guns on an area much the same size of Richmond Park.

The attack was launched on Easter Monday, 9th April. The Canadians moved from their shelters, into their front lines went over the top and straight up the hill. Within two hours most of the ridge was in Canadian hands and by nightfall the last pockets of resistance had been taken. 100,000 soldiers had taken part in the assault and casualties were under 10,000.

Preserved tunnel at Vimy Ridge

Preserved tunnel at Vimy Ridge

Success on the ridge allowed the Third army to press ahead to the south of arras and over the next six weeks moved east for distances of up to 5 or 6 miles on a 20 mile front with some stunning Brigade and Divisional successes. 11 Brigade for example, achieved a record for any advance in the war so far advancing 3 miles against fortified German positions for the loss of 302 men killed, wounded or missing. Early thoughts that the German fighting spirit might have broken were misplaced. In fact, the Germans had not tried to hard to defend their positions and had provided only a screen defence to mask their actual plan.

That plan was to withdraw from the salient to a new defensive line, the Siegfrid Stellung, known to the British as the Hindenberg Line. This was a line across the salient behind the old Somme battlefield going south for 70 miles from the east of Arras past St Quentin, La Fere and on to Soissons. In withdrawing to their new shorter defensive line they released many troops from the defence of the salient. They systematically destroyed every road, bridge and building as they left and done their utmost to make the land unusable by the Allies. The Allies moved in a desolate piece of land, littered by unexploded ordnance, booby traps, old water filled trenches and miles of torn barbed wire entanglements. This was to challenge their logistics and troop movements in the months ahead.

So, despite the heroic tactical success by the Canadians at Vimy, and the British to their south, the Germans had actually improved their strategic position.

Vimy Ridge itself and the iconic Walter Allward Canadian memorial to their dead of the Great War on top of Hill 145 are must-visit sites for anyone touring the Great War battlefields. With typical Canadian application the Department of Veteran Affairs runs a programme for Canadian students to apply to travel to France and work as battlefield guides for four months. Their knowledge and enthusiasm is endearing. Goodness knows why we don't have a similar programme but well done Canada nonetheless. They led the way then and do so now.