The taking of Vimy Ridge, parties of Germans leaving their dugouts as Canadians advance. From the Archives of Ontario.
90 years ago today, on what was Easter Monday 1917, Canadian troops pushed forward and kicked off the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The German army fortified Vimy Ridge with tunnels, three rows of trenches behind barbed wire, massive amounts of artillery, and numerous machine gun nests. The French and British had suffered thousands of casualties in previous attempts to take it; the French alone lost 150,000 men in 1915.
The Allied commanders decided to launch another assault in 1917. The duty was given to the still relatively fresh, but previously successful, Canadians. For the first time, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps were brought together. They were joined by the British 5th Infantry Division.
The Canadian Corps’ commanders were determined to learn from the mistakes of the French and British and spent months planning their attack. They built a replica of the ridge behind their lines, and trained using platoon-level tactics, including issuing detailed maps to ordinary soldiers rather than officers or NCOs alone. Each platoon was to be given a complete picture of the battle plan and given a specific task, rather than vague instructions from an absent general. This new approach in battle planning, a departure from generations of British military protocol, came from the French experience at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. They also employed older techniques such as the detonation of large mines under the German trenches, as well as the digging of long “subways” (tunnels), the ends of which were detonated at zero hour, giving waiting platoons closer access to the German line.
On April 2, 1917, the Canadian Corps initiated the largest artillery barrage in history up to that point. They shelled the German trenches for a week, using over one million shells. The German artillery pieces were hidden behind the ridge, but by observing the sound and light from their firing, the Canadians were able to locate and destroy about 83% of the German guns. The Canadians also made many night trench raids during this week, although General Arthur Currie thought this was a stupid risk and a waste of men. The German troops called this period the “Week of Suffering”. The attack was so loud, the sound of guns could be heard plainly in southern England, some one hundred miles from the front.
At dawn on Easter Monday, April 9, the 27,000-man Canadian Corps attacked. The first wave of about 15,000 Canadian troops attacked positions defended by roughly 5,000 Germans, followed by the second wave of 12,000 Canadians to meet 3,000 German reserves. Nearly 100,000 men in total were to take and hold the ridge. The first wave advanced behind a creeping barrage, known specifically for the battle as the Vimy Glide. This tactic had been used earlier by the British at the Battle of the Somme, but there it had outpaced the soldiers. The Canadians perfected the technique. The troops walked across no man’s land, just behind a continuous line of shells (an improvement over previous battles, in which both sides had often shelled their own troops). On the experience of advancing under heavy machine gun fire from the rear, Corporal Gus Sivertz of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles said:
â€œWe were dancing a macabre dance as our nerves just vibrated to the thousands of shells and machine gun bullets… whizzing over. I felt that if I had put my finger up, I should have touched a ceiling of sound. â€
Several new and untested methods of counter-battery fire were also used successfully at the start of the battle. This disabled a large portion of the German artillery and protected the advancing infantry. The Canadians also used a new technique, indirect fire with machine guns, which pinned German troops down in their trenches and provided cover for their own troops.
After less than two hours, three of the four Canadian divisions had taken their objectives; the 4th Division, however, was held up by machine gun nests on the highest point of the ridge, known as Hill 145. The 87th Battalion suffered 50% casualties. The 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, who had been intended to function in a supply and construction role, were sent in as reinforcements and the hill was captured by the end of the day.
It is said that upon learning of the victory, a French soldier exclaimed, “C’est impossible!” (“It’s impossible!”), and upon learning it was the Canadians who had won it, replied “Ah! les Canadiens! C’est possible!” (“Ah! The Canadians! It is possible!”).
Victorious Canadians celebrating after fighting on Vimy Ridge. From the Archives of Ontario