The Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917--One Hundred Years of Memory and Myth
In Canadian history, the Battle of Vimy Ridge stands as one of the most celebrated and mythologized combats of the Great War. It was initially hailed a great victory, a turning point, and a celebration of Canadian nationalism. “CANADIANS LEAD IN TRIUMPH” said the Globe and Mail in huge type on April 11, 1917, and reprinting from the New York Times: “April 9, 1917 will be in Canada’s history one of the great days, a day of glory, to furnish inspirations to her sons for generations.” That same day, the Toronto Star headline said: “Canadians Took 3,600 Prisoners on Vimy Ridge” and in a front page article: “Berlin Expert Says Battle Will Be Decisive.” On April 12, the Star trumpeted “CANADIANS SCORE AGAIN.”
However, the four-day attack on Vimy Ridge was not truly a battle, but only a part of the much larger Battle of Arras, which lasted from April 9 to May 16, 1917. Some historians contend that only Canadians focus on the taking of Vimy. The Battle of Arras was conceived as a diversion for French troops attacking German positions farther south, with the hope that they could break through and surround the German lines.
The planned assault did mark the first time that all four Canadian divisions fought together, though they were still under the command of the British General Julian Byng. Canadian troops were known as the Byng Boys, and Byng himself would take the title Byng of Vimy when he was raised to the peerage in 1919. He later served as Governor General of Canada from 1921 to 1926.
Future Soldiers of the Empire. Toronto Star Archive, Toronto Reference Library.
Vimy Ridge is a height of land seven kilometers long overlooking the plain of Douai in northeastern France. It is a natural stronghold and in 1917 it lay just behind the German trenches of the Western Front—the line of trenches that stretched from Belgium to Switzerland for most of the war. To the east of the Ridge were the Lens coal mines, which the Germans had been using to supply their war effort. Germans had held the area for most of the war and previous British and French efforts to recapture Vimy and the territory beyond had failed.
Map from Guide Book to the Pilgrimage to Vimy, page 78. Humanities & Social Sciences Department, Toronto Reference Library.
Sunday, April 8, 1917, Easter Sunday, was mild and clear, but by the early hours of April 9, the weather had changed. The attack began at 5:30 a.m., and troops advanced through wind, snow and sleet. The objective of the Canadian Corps was Hill 145, a high point on Vimy Ridge. They moved swiftly, and with great initial success.
I made my way over to the ruins of the village of Thélus on our left, and there I had my lunch in a shell hole with some men, who were laughing over an incident of the attack. So sudden had been our advance that a German artillery officer who had a comfortable dugout in Thélus, had to run away before he was dressed. Two of our men had gone down into the dugout and there they found the water in the wash-basin still warm and many things scattered about in confusion.
-Canon F. G. Scott, DSO, Senior Chaplain to the 1st Canadian Division
From Guide Book to the Pilgrimage to Vimy, page 52. Humanities & Social Sciences Department, Toronto Reference Library.
The early success was costly and not assured. The 1st Division lost one in eight of their advancing soldiers. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions secured their positions, but German opposition was strong, and there were many deaths. The 4th Division, at the centre, came under heavy attack, as the earlier air bombardment had not destroyed the front lines of the trenches. When the bombing stopped, German troops came out of their dugouts and mowed down the advancing Canadian soldiers. German troops still controlled the Pimple, another high point of the ridge, and poured down fire. At last, the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) from the 4th Division was ordered into battle, and with fierce fighting, many losses and what has been called miraculous audacity, swept the heights and held Hill 145 by nightfall.
Over the next two days, there was sporadic and bloody exchanges, but no real German counter-offensive appeared. Canadians secured the last few areas of resistance on the Ridge, with the exception of the highly fortified Pimple. At 5 a.m. on April 12, three battalions of the 4th Division moved on the Pimple through blowing snow. The fighting was hard, but short. German troops retreated, and the Canadians held all of Vimy Ridge.
I went up to the battlefield the next day with the rations. For the first time, I saw ground so full of holes (our artillery had done too well) that no vehicle could advance, so there was no breakthrough to the enemy’s unfortified rear. One could see above ground, a head, or a foot or a hand and little to show where a trench had been. The dead were already buried where they had died. Soon after the battle, the pipe bands of the Corps were massed in a field one afternoon to play the world’s greatest concert. We could hear them from our rest billets and hoped the enemy could too.
-Garrett Daunt O’Connor, military engineer with the Canadian Expeditionary Force
Vimy Memorial window, Memorial Hall, Kingston, Ontario. Unveiling of memorial tablets, Humanities & Social Sciences Department, Toronto Reference Library.
Vimy Ridge was a needed victory and a boost to Allied morale, but it was not the turning point in a war that would continue for another year and a half. More than 3,500 Canadians died in the four days of the assault on the Ridge, with another 7,000 wounded. The number of German casualties is undetermined, but over 4,000 were taken prisoner. When the Battle of Arras concluded in May, the Canadians still held the Ridge, but the larger breakthrough did not happen and the line of the Western Front had changed only a few scattered miles.
Working parties had gone the length and breadth of the Ridge shovelling great quantities of quicklime in and over enemy dugouts as a means of burning up and destroying the unburied bodies that drew rats and flies and created an intolerable health hazard to the whole countryside. Bodies were also quick-limed atop the ground wherever Hell’s fury had struck them in groups or in machine-gun nests…. Hundreds of once brave soldaten of the Vaterland, piled like cordwood, were being cremated, and nauseating smoke rose from the funeral pyres with only the wind to scatter the ashes.
-Victor Wheeler, 50th (Alberta) Battalion
Captured German trench. Leonard Youell Archive, Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre, Toronto Reference Library.
The Canadian victory was more significant for its tactics than the actual ground gained. The detailed planning and disciplined execution were new, and they were effective. The months before the battle were filled with planning, probing of enemy lines and gathering of intelligence. Battle plans were rehearsed and rehearsed again. Maps were given to all troops, and everyone was briefed.
This detail in the planning of the attack was unique for the First World War. Prior to the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, the practice had been to give very few of the attackers details about the planned assault and to rely on the leadership of the officers to direct the men as the battle unfolded. However, if the officers were killed, the assault troops often lost direction and the attack floundered. It had been a lesson learned at great cost in the Battle of the Somme.
-from Winning the Ridge, by N. M. Christie, page 7.
From Over There with the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, page 8. Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Library
After the war, it was at Vimy that Canada built a great monument to her war dead. Over the years, the memorials and tributes waxed and waned. But the notion of nation building persisted.
From dugouts, shell holes and trenches, men sprang into action, fell into military formations and advanced to the ridge—every division of the corps moved forward together. It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then, and I think today, that in those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation.
-Brigadier General Alexander Ross, commander 28th (North-West) Battalion from History of the 28th Battalion, 1961.
Recent historians have questioned the use of Vimy as a symbol of nationhood, pointing to other more important battles, and to the divisive political climate it aroused in Canada. After visiting Vimy wounded in France in April 1917, Prime Minister Robert Borden believed Canada needed to institute compulsory military service. In May, anti-conscription riots broke out in Quebec. Borden eventually passed the Military Voters Act, giving the vote to all members of the armed forces and the Wartime Elections Act, which enfranchised women relatives of men serving in Europe, but disenfranchised those who had emigrated from enemy countries. The resulting conflicts and consequences continue to play out down to the present day.
So, how to think about Vimy Ridge in 2017:
Significant Battle or Limited Assault?
Glorious Victory or Bloody Stalemate?
Founding National Myth or Expedient Political Metaphor?
More on Vimy: Read, Learn, Explore.....
THOUGHT EXCHANGE PROGRAM
The Vimy Trap: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War
with author Jamie Swift
Tuesday April 18, 2017
7:00 pm-8:30 pm
Beeton Hall, Toronto Reference Library
789 Yonge Street, Toronto
Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age by Ted Barris
Vimy Ridge and Arras: The Spring 1917 Offensive in Panorama by Peter Barton
Winning the Ridge by N. M. Christie
Her Darling Boy: A Tale of Vimy Ridge by Tom Goodman
Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment edited by Geoffry Hayes et al.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge: Wall of Fire by Michael Krawchuck
The Vimy trap: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War by Ian McKay & Jamie Swift
Check out a full list of books, eBooks and other materials on Vimy at Toronto Public Library.
For more information on Canadian's personal connection to Vimy, see our post Family Ties to Vimy Ridge.