Vimy Ridge: April 1917

After the battles at Thiepval and Courcelette, four divisions of the Canadian Corps were moved to a new front, stretching ten miles from Arras to Lens. Veterans of the 10th Battalion recognized some of the terrain from earlier battles at Festubert, where the 1st Division had seen some of its earliest combat. South of the river Souchez, which ran through the corps’ front, was a seven-mile long ridge – only 470 feet high at its peak – now devoid of trees and even grass, having been fought over for months and years. Popular history has Vimy Ridge converted into a fortress by the Germans, with the Canadians tasked with taking it back. New research suggests that the Germans were actually hampered in their defensive plan by manpower shortages and an inability to defend in-depth by the terrain itself.

What is not in dispute is the military value of the ridge; the view from the top of the ridge of the Douai Plain is unobstructed for dozens of miles in all directions, making the ridge a natural military objective. The Germans first captured it in October 1914. It was briefly recaptured by a French Moroccan unit in May 1915, but could not be held due to lack of reinforcements and the Germans quickly regained it. The French launched a second major attempt to take it in September 1915 but only succeeded in capturing the town of Souchez at the base of the ridge.

That assault had been the last major attempt to retake the ridge. When British troops took over the sector, the emphasis turned tunneling and mining. In May 1916, a major German infantry attack on a 2,000-yard front attempted to push the British back from the ridge, and managed to secure several British tunnels and mine craters before the advance was halted. British counter-attacks failed to restore their positions.

The Canadians began to move into the sector in October 1916. Lessons learned from the Somme were already permeating the various arms of the service in the British and Empire forces in France. The infantry was reorganized into platoons and sections, with emphasis now on small groups of men led by platoon commanders, sergeants and corporals. The new Lewis machine gun was distributed liberally (Vimy Ridge would be the last time that the 10th Battalion used heavy American-made Colt machine-guns). For the Vimy operation, maps were printed by the thousands and distributed far down the chain of command – something truly unprecedented. Giant outdoor models of the terrain were built, and infantry units practiced the assault by walking over them.

The artillerymen had developed a true science to their methods; flash-spotting and sound-ranging teams were now able to pinpoint the location of enemy batteries – before the attack on April 9th, 1917, over 80% of the German artillery would be located and knocked out. The gunners, who had started the war ignorant of basic conditions such as barrel wear and the effects on their shooting, were now measuring atmospheric conditions, and even better, had developed a new fuse specifically for cutting barbed wire to allow the infantry passage through No Man’s Land. There were also far fewer duds than previously, due to improvements in the manufacturing of ammunition.

A new branch had been developed to support the infantry – the Canadian Machine Gun Corps – and their weapons were also used to thicken barrages, firing indirectly in great loops over the trenches and into German rear areas, preventing ration parties, reinforcements, wiring parties and other logistical movements from doing necessary work.

The Canadians spent the winter of 1916-17 making preparations. It was the worst European winter in 21 years; cold and wet, freezing rivers solid. Plans for a spring offensive in the Arras sector had been laid out as early as November 1916. In addition to lessons learned from the Somme, Canadian staff officers who had visited Verdun gave a series of lectures to Canadian Corps commanders, and reiterated the importance of artillery, and the need for flexibility in lower level infantry units. The tactical plan for Vimy Ridge was drawn up by the Canadian Corps and approved by the British 4th Army in March.

The Corps, with all four Canadian divisions fighting together for the first (and, as it turned out, the only) time, would assault after a week-long bombardment, following behind a creeping barrage lifting in 100-yard intervals. There would be four phase lines (identified by code words bearing the names of colours – BLACK, RED, BLUE and BROWN). On the left of the ridge, there was room for only two-phase lines. While light guns would provide the creeping barrage, medium and heavy artillery would provide standing barrages deeper in German territory, on known defensive positions.

Set to go on Easter Sunday, 8 April 1917, the attack was delayed a day. A two-week bombardment commenced in late March. The firing intensified for a period of seven days of heavy shelling before Zero Hour, and was known to the Germans as the “Week of Suffering.” In addition to the artillery preparation, tunnelling companies had expanded on the underground network of tunnels that had begun to appear in the chalky Arras-Vimy sector as early as 1915. The Bavarians had blown twenty mines by March 1915 alone, and gained a clear advantage over their French counter-parts by early 1916. The British engineers who took over the sector that year put a halt to German tunneling and mining, and by the start of 1917 there were 19 distinct crater groups, each with several large craters resulting from blown mines.

The tunneling companies by early 1917 had turned some of their attention to building massive subways, up to 1,300 yards long, connecting reserve positions to the front and allowing safe and secret passage for entire battalions. By the time of the assault on the ridge, entire underground cities were in existence, with light rail lines, hospitals, command posts, water reservoirs, ammunition dumps, weapons positions, and signals posts. Mining continued as well, and the German tunnelers continued their efforts at counter-mining.

Intelligence efforts for the battle preoccupied the infantry, along with training and rehearsals. The Germans had superiority in the air, meaning observation of the effectiveness of artillery at Vimy had to be done from the ground. The narrow front held by the 10th at Vimy provided few natural vantage points; confirmation was often a case of a risky night patrol or trench raid. Just one day before the battle, while reports from across the corps front were reporting that the barbed wire was coming down satisfactorily, the intelligence section of the 10th just couldn’t tell for sure what was going on out in No Man’s Land – the heavy shells were burying the wire in mud, and the limited vantage points gave them no way to see for themselves that obstacles to the advance were gone. An earlier request to send a raiding party to investigate had been denied – too much activity would have tipped off the Germans that something big was in works – but this time, the divisional commander himself, General Arthur Currie, was monitoring the situation and gave the go-ahead.

Yet another unique artillery development assisted the raiders forward at 4:30a.m. on April 8th – a “box barrage.” Preceded by a creeping barrage, artillery would then and fire shells on three sides of a selected piece of German line, in order to seal it off while friendly troops infiltrated in and did their work – knocking out installations, taking prisoners, identifying enemy units, seizing weapons, etc.

The raid was costly – 5 dead and 13 wounded of a total of 85 men divided into three parties – but it was discovered that the German wire was still intact in places, and forward trenches were still intact. On the afternoon of April 8th, General Currie rectified this by withdrawing the 10th Battalion from its positions in the front line and turning the entire divisional artillery onto the German positions in front of it.

After dark that night, the battalion formed up. Bayonets were not fixed; no talking and no smoking was permitted in the assembly areas. The C.O. urged his officers to remind everyone “surprise is of paramount importance.” At 4:00a.m. brigade headquarters received a flash – “KAMLOOPS” – indicating that the battalion was in position. As the clock ticked to Zero Hour, the weather turned colder, and a spring snowstorm blew in.

The orders laid down for the 10th were precise, and the timetable strict – if the unit couldn’t keep up to the barrage, there was no way to change it. “A” Company would form to the right of “D” Company, forming two waves of men 20 yards apart. Behind, 100 yards, would follow “C” Company, on the right, and “B” Company, with two more waves. The battalion was given 35 minutes to advance to the BLACK Line, a triple line of trenches 750 yards from the Canadian front line. This was the German’s forward defensive line. There would be a pause of 40 minutes for reorganization, and then just 20 minutes to advance to and capture the RED Line, what the Germans called the Zwischen-Stellung, just below the crest of the hill, his intermediate defences. To do the job, the 10th Battalion was allocated 75,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, 2,000 grenades, 500 rifle grenades, a few hundred flares, and an assortment of engineering supplies including 250 shovels, 100 picks and 10,000 sandbags. Combat strength at Zero Hour was 22 officers and 741 men.

The killing began a few minutes before Zero Hour when a random German shell ended one soldier’s life, and four other troops were hit along with him, still waiting for the whistles. When they blew, the attackers piled out into No Man’s Land and met determined small arms and machine-gun fire fifteen seconds into the assault. Four more men were killed by friendly fire, but the battalion pressed on doggedly, and at 5:47 a.m. cleared the first of the three trenches of the BLACK Line, taking 60 prisoners, and continued on to its final BLACK Line objective. One saving grace had been the narrowness of No Man’s Land – only 35 yards at one point – nonetheless officers and men were hit thick and fast. One platoon arrived on its objective led by a Lance Corporal, another by a Private – John Dunbar – who bayonetted nine Germans to death before he, too, was fatally wounded. By 6:10a.m., the BLACK Line objectives were all secure despite enemy shellfire increasing. The creeping barrage moved on 200 yards and became a standing barrage as the battalion took stock. Later in the morning, “A” Company was reported to number just 18 men, “D” Company only 75. “B” and “C” took over the lead, and the advance on the Zwischen-Stellung – the RED Line – began promptly at 6:45 a.m.

The final phase of the 10th Battalion’s part in the Vimy advance went remarkably smoothly. At a cost of just 6 casualties, and in only 22 minutes, the battalion went forward and secured its objectives. The wind was now blowing sheets of sleet directly into the faces of the enemy, and the extra artillery had pounded the enemy trenches with devastating effectiveness. Enemy counter-fire by now had fallen off to almost nothing, and what few shells were falling were being dropped on pre-arranged targets back behind the former Canadian front line.

German hold-outs were now being rousted out of dug-outs; those reluctant to give up were given what was termed the “Tenth Battalion Solution” – a flare was fired into the dugout to convince them to come out. In one dugout, being used for an aid post, such a flare found its way into an ammunition supply. A 10th Battalion soldier noted that “The wounded came running out on their stumps” following the explosion.

(Left) Canadian troops walk over a scale model of the ridge during rehearsals. (Right) Vimy Ridge had been battered into a featureless morass by the time the Canadian Corps advanced over its crest on April 9th.  The true significance of the feat of capturing the heights cannot be discerned from photographs of the terrain. Library and Archives Canada photographs

Follow up battalions now passed through, as the attack on the BLUE and BROWN Lines was pressed, but for the 10th, it was all over. Later in the day, a few curious soldiers wandered up slope and from the crest of the ridge itself, it became clear that the entire German Army was pulling back, its artillery teams furiously limbering up and racing off to the east.

By nightfall, the bulk of Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands, with the exception of “The Pimple” on the extreme left flank – a position that would hold out for three days. The Canadian Corps lost 10,602 men. The 10th Battalion suffered 101 killed on the 9th of April, with 252 wounded and 21 missing – 374 all told, most of them suffered in the first 15 minutes of the assault.

Vimy Ridge did not signal the end of the war, nor even the beginning of the end – the war would continue for a full year and a half afterwards. The majority of the battalion’s battle honours were granted after Vimy, as were both of the battalion’s Victoria Crosses. Almost half the battalion’s fatal casualties for the entire war occurred after Vimy Ridge.

Nonetheless, the battle itself has gained considerable significance in Canada. Despite not being the greatest military achievement of the Canadian Corps as far as strategic importance or results obtained, it was the first instance in which four divisions fought as a cohesive formation. While about half the soldiers in the C.E.F. had been British-born in 1914, by 1917 there was a growing sense of national pride in the ranks, and even a noticeable shift, according to one historian, towards the “flatter tones” of mid-Atlantic and Canadian accents. Historian John Pierce has noted that: “The historical reality of the battle has been reworked and reinterpreted in a conscious attempt to give purpose and meaning to an event that came to symbolize Canada’s coming of age as a nation.” It is now accepted in many military and general histories that Vimy was a major contributor to Canadian national identity, and even nationhood itself – a necessary step on the way to legislation such as the Statute of Westminster in 1931 that permitted Canada to conduct its own foreign policy independent of Great Britain.

No greater reflection of its importance can be observed than the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, located on territory permanently ceded to Canada atop the Ridge itself as a gift from the people of France. The battlefield park, preserved tunnels, trenchlines and craters, and the impressive, towering monument with its statuary and list of missing soldiers, dominating the skyline over the Douai Plain, is a permanent memorial to not just the sacrifices of the Canadians who fought in the First World War, but to the notion that Vimy Ridge had been symbolic of Canada’s participation in the war as an equal partner, in deed if not in fact. The memorial was unveiled by King Edward VIII in 1936, after 11 years of construction, in front of an assembled crowd of 50,000, many of whom were veterans of the French, Canadian and British armies that fought there.

Explore Our History