100 years ago today, for the first time the Canadian Corps’ four divisions came together on the battlefield. The Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 1917) was fought over what historian Tim Cook describes as an “open graveyard,” as it was the sight of over 100,000 previous French casualties. Over the course of four days, the Canadians Corps succeeded where earlier Allied assaults had failed. They overtook the heavily-fortified, seven-kilometre ridge and pushed the Germans back to the Oppy–Méricourt line. In the process, 3,598 Canadians were killed and another 7,004 were wounded. Years later, Vimy Ridge would be seen as Canada’s most important battle of World War One.
I have mostly avoided talking about Vimy Ridge because it is the most heavily discussed, analyzed, and mythologized battle in Canadian history. After all, what is there to add when even the debate over whether Vimy was “the birth of a nation” appears to have come full circle? Nevertheless, to honour the occasion, I created a massive resource post full of information, resources, pictures, videos, art, for all those interested in the battle and the legacy of Vimy Ridge.
Leading Up to the Battle
The Germans took control over Vimy Ridge, an escarpment located northeast of the city of Arras, in October 1914. Given that Vimy was in their possession for so long, the Germans were able to construct a strong defensive position there. French forces attempted to capture the ridge in the Second and Third Battles of Artois in 1915, but were unsuccessful and the area fell into a stalemate.
So what broke the stalemate? Strategic planning and innovation. The British Army set their sights on Vimy Ridge as a part of their Arras offensive. The commander of the Canadian Corps was Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng of the British Army. Byng and his staff came up with an extensive build-up and attack plan. 1st Canadian Division commander Arthur Currie was part of the planning team. He focused on the lessons learned from French experiences in the region, particularly at the Battle of Verdun. Since this was to be a huge military operation, Byng brought together the four Canadian Corps, along with the British 5th Infantry and the 51st Highland Divisions. These six divisions totaled 170,000 men against 35,000-40,000 Germans (from the Sixth Army).
Instead of just riflemen going over the top, the infantry were divided into specialized roles such as machine-gunners, rifle-men, and grenade-throwers to maximize devastation. This enabled the soldiers to carry on with their specific attacks even if their officers were killed or communication failed. All soldiers carefully studied maps and aerial photographs of the area; usually only higher level units received these. The soldiers repeatedly rehearsed for the offensive and used models to better understand the battlefield. On March 20th, the Canadian and British artillery began to bombard the German positions. One week before the battle, April 2nd, they turned up the pressure even more. They had a new type of shells; ones that were more destructive as they exploded on contact. The Canadians also developed a highly effective counter-battery plan and during the battle they destroyed 83 percent of the Germans’ guns.
Artillery fire was a key component of the overall battle plan. The Allies had already learned the hard way that higher positions and machine guns generally result in a slaughter of the advancing infantry unit. To avoid this, the Canadians were instructed to advance behind a creeping barrage—as they advanced forward the soldiers were protected by a blanket of artillery fire that also moved slowly or “creeped’ forward just ahead of them. The creeping barrage prevented the Germans from getting to their machine guns easily and isolated them in their trenches. The barrage at Vimy advanced 60 metres every three minutes.
“Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated,” – Sir Julian Byng.
A map of the battle plan for Vimy Ridge. [Source]
- 1st Division: Capture the Germans forward defensive line (the black line).
- 2nd Division: Capture the main German trench position in front of town of Thelus (along the red line).
- 3rd Division: Capture La Folie Wood and capture positions south of Hill 145.
- 4th Division: The hardest task, capture Hill 145 and the eastern slopes of the ridge. Hill 145 was the highest point in the area and the most heavily defended.
- Key Strategies: Creeping barrage + leapfrogging. After an attack, occasionally the barrage paused in an area to allow troops from behind to catch up and move ahead of the unit that just did an assault. This kept momentum going.
When the attack began at 5:30am on Easter Monday, the first wave of Canadians, around 15,000 of them, went over the top and were greeted by an absolute mess of rain, sleet, and snow. Despite the terrible weather and great odds, in one day the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions all achieved their objectives. The 4th division managed to capture Hill 145, but there were still some German positions active along the eastern part of the ridge. They took care of that the next day. At that point, Vimy was under Canadian control. On the last day, they attacked “the Pimple” and advanced towards the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle. The Allies were expecting a counter-attack, but at that point the Germans said “to hell with this” and retreated to the Oppy-Méricourt Line.
Victoria Cross Recipients
Four members of the Canadian Corps received Victoria Crosses (the highest military decoration awarded to British and Commonwealth forces) for their courageous actions during the battle. Click on their image or names below to learn about what they did and what happened to them (they didn’t all make it home).
- Private William Johnstone Milne of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion.
- Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton of the 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion.
- Private John George Pattison of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion.
- Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell of the 38th (Ottawa) Battalion. (Click here to read about his badassery during the Battle of the Somme).
- 3,598 Canadians died and 7,004 were wounded.
- The German Sixth Army suffered an unknown number of casualties.
- Around 4,000 Germans became prisoners of war.
- Both Byng and Currie were promoted. Byng was given command the British 3rd Army. Currie was knighted and got Byng’s old job.
The Arras Offensive/the Second Battle of Arras (April 9 – May 1, 1917) was launched in the hopes of ending the war by the summer of 1917. However, despite the fact that several of the battles, including Vimy, were technically successful in achieving their goals, the Allies were unable to achieve a breakthrough. Arras is considered a failure. The war fell back into a stalemate and Allied victories came with a high cost—150,000 casualties. Our success at Vimy Ridge did not change the course of the war. Hence outside of Canada, Vimy Ridge isn’t seen as all that significant.
While Vimy Ridge was celebrated as a great success by civilians at home, it did not suddenly unite the country behind the war effort. Prime Minister Borden was delighted at the victory, but horrified at the staggering ~10,000 casualties. With so many dead or out-of-commission, Vimy may have helped to aggravate tensions at home. In April of 1917, Canadians were deeply divided over the war. English Canadians were generally pro-war and the Canadian Corps was largely comprised of Anglo-Canadians. French Canadians generally held the opposite opinion; they saw the Great War as a British imperialist war of little importance to Canada. English Canadians labelled them cowards. Volunteers were becoming harder to find; conscription loomed. With Britain asking Borden for more and more troops, the issue would come to a head in the tumultuous election of 1917. Borden and conscription won the day. Anti-war protesters rioted and were shot at and killed by soldiers in Quebec City. If any feelings of unity came about as a result of Vimy Ridge, it certainly wasn’t during the war.
View over the crest of the ridge showing the village of Vimy (c. May 1917). [Source]
The Vimy Ridge Memorial
On July 26, 1936, the Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial was unveiled by King Edward VIII before a crowd of over 100,000 people, including 6,000 Canadian veterans. Designed by Walter Allward, a famous Canadian sculptor, it took 11 years to complete and cost $1.5 million. It’s not just a monument to those who died at Vimy, but to all of the 11,285 Canadian First World War soldiers killed in France whose final resting places are unknown. Their names are inscribed into the Memorial. “It is adorned by 20 allegorical figures representing faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge, and hope.” Queen Elizabeth II rededicated the monument on April 9, 2007 at a ceremony that commemorated the 90th anniversary of the battle.
On April 9, 2017, a commemorative ceremony was held at the Vimy Ridge Memorial to mark the 100th anniversary. Prime Minister Trudeau was joined by French President Francois Hollande as well as Britain’s Princes Charles, William, and Henry. As many as 25,000 people attended the ceremony. One of the most striking commemorations involved rows and rows of boots placed in the field at the memorial in remembrance of the Canadian soldiers who died there.
“One hundred years later, we must say this, together. And we must believe it: Never again.” – Prime Minister Trudeau.
For full coverage of both Trudeau’s speech and the anniversary commemoration, click here.
Weird Fact: Hitler visited the Vimy Ridge Memorial in June 2, 1940 during his tour of France. Ever wonder how the Memorial survived World War II unscathed? The story goes that it was Hitler’s favorite World War I monument because it was “a monument to peace, not a celebration of war.” He had troops from the Waffen-SS guard the general area around Vimy Ridge so that it would not get destroyed.
Nation-Making Vs. Myth-Making
“It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” – Canadian Brigadier-General Arthur Edward Ross.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge became significant to Canadian military history and nationalism long after the Great War ended. 50 years after the battle, 1967, is when “the birth of a nation” idea began to take hold. Swept up in the patriotic fervour of Canada’s centennial year, veterans and historians alike began write extensively about how Vimy Ridge was a defining moment in Canadian history. Vimy, Canadian nationalism, and the popular narrative that Canada went from colony to country during World War I came together during this time. Even Prime Minister Pearson mentioned the “birth” metaphor during his speech at the Vimy Memorial that year.
Over time, the Battle of Vimy Ridge has become increasingly symbolic and mythologized in Canada. Unfortunately, as the myth of Vimy has grown, so has falsehoods such as “Vimy changed the course of the war” and “only Canadians fought at Vimy.” Eventually, many historians began to attack the notion that Canadian nationhood came on that storied battlefield. At the core of this argument is that battles don’t make countries; people make countries. However, some feel that to say Canada wasn’t forged at Vimy undermines the ultimate sacrifice that thousands of men made there. Others feel that to use Vimy as propaganda for encouraging modern warfare is more disgraceful because if anything Vimy should be a symbol of peace, not more bloodshed.
The Heritage Minute for Vimy Ridge is a good example of a popular falsehood about the battle. At the end of the video, the narrators says, “It was the first significant victory of the war.” Uhh…
Whether or not these counter-arguments have taken hold is debatable. Why? As I said before, the debate has gone full circle. A popular sentiment I have noticed lately is that it doesn’t matter whether or not Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge. What matters is that this idea is so entrenched in our national consciousness that arguing over its importance is kind of pointless. I don’t know if I agree with that, but it will be interesting to see how future historians rewrite the history of Vimy in the years to come.
If you push aside all of the myths and claims of nationhood, the Battle of Vimy Ridge still stands out as a key moment in Canada’s military history for a variety of reasons. It was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought alongside each other and together they accomplished something that others could not. It led to a Canadian, Sir Arthur Currie, taking over command of the Canadian Corps. Even though it did not change the course of the war, it stands out as a highlight in the failed Battle of Arras. Moreover, Vimy ties into and perpetuates the coming of age narrative that Canadians have about the Great War. It may have added to the growing division at the time between English and French Canada. These things are not inherently bad, rather it adds to the complexity of Vimy Ridge’s significance.
Additional Resources (Art and Videos)
- Return to Vimy (A fantastic nine minute film that contains archival footage of the Canadian Corps preparing for VImy and can really bring WW1 to life for students).
- Think Like a Historian: Vimy in Pictures
- Think Like a Historian: Vimy in Newspapers
- Think Like a Historian: Vimy in Letters (Francis Bathe)
- Why the Battle of Vimy Ridge Matters – The National
What are your thoughts on Vimy Ridge and its legacy?
“Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917,” Canada at War. Accessed from: http://www.canadaatwar.ca/page9.html
Berton, Pierre. Vimy. Toronto: Anchor Canada (1986).
Cook, Tim. “The Battle of Vimy Ridge, 9-12 APRIL 1917,” Canadian War Museum. Accessed from: http://www.warmuseum.ca/the-battle-of-vimy-ridge/
Cook, Tim. Vimy: The Battle and the Legend. Toronto. Penguin Random House Canada (2017).
Everett-Green, Robert, “Vimy Ridge: Birthplace of a nation – or of a Canadian myth?” The Globe and Mail (April 5, 2017). Accessed from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/battle-of-vimy-ridge-first-world-war/article34515113/
Granatstein, J.L. “Vimy Ridge Myth #4: Canada became a nation at Vimy,” Maclean’s. (April 7, 2017). Accessed from: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/vimy-ridge-myth-4-canada-became-a-nation-at-vimy/
The Canadian Press. “Justin Trudeau, dignitaries pay homage to fallen Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge,” Toronto Star. (April 8, 2017). Accessed from: https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/04/08/thousands-to-gather-in-france-for-100th-anniversary-of-vimy-ridge.html
“Vimy Memorial,” Canadian War Museum. Accessed from: http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/after-the-war/remembrance/vimy-memorial/