It’s the 100th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge! Did you know…
Today’s post is dedicated to the single most important military accomplishment in Canadian history. What follows is a very abbreviated report. The Vimy Memorial pictured below is the scene for the solemn commemoration today of this anniversary. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other dignitaries will there along with scores of Canadians who made the pilgrimage to witness this historical event.
* 1917 – See: Canadians Capture Vimy Ridge.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9th – 12th, 1917 was a significant turning point in World War I for the Allies, and it was masterminded and executed by Canadian soldiers alone. Among the Allies, the Canadian army was one of the smallest, but beware, Goliath, young David was coming for you!
Early in the ground war, German troops swept through northeastern France until they were stopped by British and French troops. From 1914 until 1917, the Germans owned a piece of high ground that commanded the area from miles around. The formidable French and British armies tried on several occasions to wrestle Vimy away from the Germans – and failed each time. In January of 1917, the Allied High Command asked The CO of the Canadian Corps to take Vimy. Why Canada you ask?
The Canadians were dragged into the war in 1914 by Britain since we were still a colony in the British Empire. Youngsters from every province of the Dominion of Canada volunteered to fight in Europe. They received basic training in Valcartier, Quebec. When they arrived in England, the British high command decided to retrain the Canadians (colonials as they were called) because the Canadian officers couldn’t possibly do the job right. As well, the Canadian Corps was assigned British officers. Basic training in England did not go well. The British officers were all from the upper class of nobility, while the Canadians were mere commoners – and colonials to boot. Those officers infuriated the Canadian boys almost to the point of insubordination.
Some Canadian historians suggest that those British officers unknowingly created the most potent military weapon in the Allied arsenal. The Canadians fought with terrible ferocity – taking out their hatred of their British officers on their German opponents. Diaries of German officers found later described the Canadians as ‘fearless devils’ and other similar terms. One diary said, “When we saw the Canadians coming, we prepared for the worst.” By 1916, the Canadians had earned the right to be called the Allied Shock Troops. This meant that Canadians were used to spearhead every major Allied offensive because they got the job done. By 1917 the only British officer remaining in the Canadian Corps was the Corps Commander, General Julian Byng. The four Canadian Divisions were commanded by Canadian Generals – and all officers below them were Canadians. So, it came as no surprise to General Byng when his boys were given the nod to take Vimy.
Byng turned to his top Canadian strategist, General Arthur Currie, to plan the attack. Currie urged Byng to demand that the operation would be an entirely Canadian mission – from the planning to the execution. They also demanded that all four Canadian Divisions be transported to the area to carry out the attack. The Allied commanders agreed and Arthur Currie got busy. It would be the first time all four Canadian divisions fought together.
For weeks, Canadian artillery bombarded the German positions on the Ridge. This was done when the French and British stormed Vimy earlier in the war, but as soon as the barrage stopped, the Germans left their tunnels and bunkers to fire down at the Allied soldiers climbing the ridge. No contest … but Currie had a better plan.
The Canadians pioneered a tactic called the “creeping barrage” or “rolling barrage”. That was the difference and it allowed for this great victory. Currie ordered the big guns to start pounding the ridge on that fateful morning in the snow and sleet, and he ordered the assault to begin at the same time. As the soldiers began their climb, the artillery was aimed higher – just above them. This continued throughout the climb – as the soldiers gained ground, the artillery targeted the areas just above them. Because the barrage never stopped, the Germans stayed safely underground. The artillery stopped when the Canadians had reached the top where they waited for the Germans to come out to play. Within three hours, the first objective on Vimy Ridge was flying a Canadian flag. The rest of the ridge was captured over the next three days.
Now that the Allies had control of Vimy, they could begin to drive the Germans back out of France and Belgium. The jubilation in Canada was understandably unbelievable. From that point onwards, the British were under tremendous pressure to give Canada her independence – but that had to wait until 1931. Some Canadian historians refer to World War I as Canada’s war for independence.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is Canada’s largest and principal overseas war memorial. Located on the highest point of the Vimy Ridge, the memorial is dedicated to the commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during the First World War. It serves as the place of commemoration for Canadian soldiers killed in France during the First World War with no known grave. France granted Canada perpetual use of a section of land at Vimy Ridge in 1922 for the purpose of a battlefield park and memorial. A 100-hectare (250-acre) portion of the former battlefield is preserved as part of the memorial park that surrounds the monument. The grounds of the site are still honeycombed with wartime tunnels, trenches, craters and unexploded munitions, and are largely closed off for public safety. A section of preserved trenches and a portion of a tunnel have been made accessible to site visitors.