The French still recall Verdun; the British have the Somme; the Anzacs, Gallipoli. When the Americans began fighting on their own they would remember Belleau Wood as a place of honor, but for the Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge remains the most important battle of the Great War. This battle, fought from April 8 to April 12, 1917 marked the first time all four all-Canadian divisions had been assembled in one place for one assault. They would make the most of their opportunity.
After spending 1916 mired in offensives on the Somme and counteroffensives down in Verdun, the Entente forces decided to move the war back north to where it all began in the chalk fields, ridges, and valleys near and around Ypres. The assault on Vimy Ridge would be a set piece battle part of the larger 1917 Arras Offensive and it would begin in similar fashion to most battles to this point in the war.
Once all the Canadian forces, strengthened by some British corps of engineers and other specialists gathered at the mustering point, the deluge of supplies began to arrive. Thousands of shells for the guns, food for the men, and all the other necessities of a Great War battle poured into the depots behind the lines. Of course, as usual, this let everyone who took a moment to notice an attack was obviously brewing in the area. Still, this battle would take into account several lessons learned by both sides in 1916.
For the Germans, they began abandoning single line trenches in favor of defense in depth networks which gave their troops greater survival ability under massive bombardment. The Somme taught the Germans the futility of attempting to hold a front line of trenches. Unfortunately for the Germans, the area to be attacked during this battle had little in the way of defense in depth positions established given that the surrounding sector had been so quiet for the better part of the last 18 months. They would start preparations, but wouldn’t have time to get much done.
The Canadians drew on lessons in tactics and strategy learned in the meat grinder of Verdun. This included multiple wave attacks reinforced by close artillery support. The French generals who had successfully broken the German siege of Verdun actually gave a series of lectures detailing the methods they had used in the counterattack which threw the Germans back and regained the territory originally lost around the fortress city. Many Canadian corps commanders attended these lectures and the plan of attack for Vimy Ridge bears the French stamp of the new tactics.
The four Canadian divisions began training for the assault in rear areas as early as February 1917. This training included one extremely important new wrinkle. The allies had learned at great cost the majority of officers and commanders tended to lead from the front of their troops and so became early casualties. This was a problem because those officers were the only ones who knew what the plan was. Once they were killed, attacks often dissolved into little more than disorganized brawls and rarely accomplished anything lasting.
For the Vimy Ridge assault, the Canadians instituted a new policy. Every officer, commissioned and non-commissioned alike all the way down to platoon sergeants would cross train and learn the job of the man above him in the chain of command and the job of the man immediately below him as well. This proved a fateful change of strategy because now enough people knew enough of the plan to ensure that even when the top commanding officers were killed, the attack could go forward with a reasonable chance of success.
The battle began with the usual preliminary bombardments starting 20 March 1917. While the bombardments commenced, British and Canadian miners finished laying underground mines below the German lines to be a nasty surprise for the Germans once the assault began in earnest.
At 5:30 AM on 9 April 1917, the engineers blew the mines, destroying several German strong points and creating a kind of trench across no man’s land. This explosion signaled the supporting Canadian artillery to open up the hurricane bombardment where every gun in the line began firing at maximum rate. Despite sleet and snow, the Canadians managed to advance perfectly. Some units followed tanks in early examples of the later common combined arms attacks.
By 6:30 AM, three of the four Canadian divisions had reached their first objectives known as the Black Lines. After a planned pause to reset their lines of attack, the divisions moved on towards their secondary objectives, the Red Lines. These fell as well and for a time, the Canadians held the bombed out village of Vimy itself. Unfortunately, a German counterattack drove them out of the village but was unable to achieve much more in the way of sweeping the Canadians away.
During the early morning hours of 10 April, the Canadian commanders moved a sizable reinforcing force up to the front to join where the attack had stopped. These new troops leapfrogged the Red line and began an assault on the Blue line, which they took by 11:00 AM. The original troops then leapfrogged THOSE troops and took the Brown line which ended up falling by early afternoon. By nightfall and despite a German counterattack, the entire area of Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands with the exception of a single hill known as “The Pimple.”
After spending 11 April consolidating their gains and digging in against further counterattacks, the Canadian 4th Division renewed its assault on The Pimple and by 6:00 PM on 12 April, the entire ridgeline and surrounding villages and hamlets were in Canadian hands.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is the greatest source of national pride for Canada to come out of World War One. Recently, however, some revisionist historians have begun to question just how Canadian the attacking force really was. Regardless, the largest Canadian monument to the men of the Great War remains proudly at Vimy Ridge to this day.
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