Ask the wizened, grey-headed old man who lives in a cottage near Watling Crater, guarding the relics of battle that lie where they were left in '17.
He will peer at you and shrug his thin shoulders; then he will point to the Vimy Memorial, to the Beacon of Light on Notre Dame de Lorette at the white-stoned cemeteries.
“No one will ever know what Vimy cost,” he will tell you, “but this I can say: It was too much.”
Can you imagine yourself being told that this is your last day of life, while around you stand men with rifles, and a stem voice tells you you will be shot at six o’clock?
That old man at Vimy who peers at you with war-weary eyes had such an experience three times.
When the Germans came, his master, the owner of the immense estate known as La Folle Farm, was in Arras. The German officer in charge of the advance patrol seized this chap, who was head gardener, and demanded the proprietor. He was told, quite truly, that the gardener did not know where his master had gone.
Seething with rage, the German had the man’s arms bound, had him thrust against a wall, gave him one hour to prepare for death.
The man stood there, watching the grim soldiers who waited, their rifles ready. He was too frightened tt> speak. Another German officer arrived, asked questions, had the man loosed. Suddenly he altered his decision, had him retied, and said he should be shot two hours later.
Again the gardener went through an agony of apprehension. There seemed no hope, and the soldiers muttered about him, wishing that the first sentence had been carried out.
A third officer arrived and asked questions. The man was again released from his bonds and questioned. His ignorance about his master’s absence enraged the newcomer as it had the others, however, and for the third time the Frenchman was sentenced to die within two hours.
This time he had no hope at all, and tried feebly to repeat his prayers. An hour passed. Another half hour. The firing party was assembled, and he was being led to a post to which he was to be tied, when his master arrived !
The Germans listened to the proprietor as he told them that his gardener was absolutely truthful in what he said, and he talked with such eloquence that the man was released. But his hair had gone white in the eight hours!
Then he was taken back as a prisoner, and for four and a half years his existence was a hell on earth. What price Vimy? He can tell you plenty.
The proprietor of La Folle Farm was a wealthy man and he had buried 100,000 francs in his garden before going to Arras. After the war he returned to the ghastly waste and wreckage that had been his estate, and dug patiently to find his money. It was gone. Some soldier, probably by accident, in a hasty digging of a trench or through a shell upheaval, found the treasure—what a find!
Vimy Ridge, says a French historian, is the famous hill that runs in a S.S.W. direction between Lens and Arras, and is crossed by the main road connecting the two cities. It rises to a height of 475 feet above sea level, sloping gently into the Scarpe Valley near Arras, but falling sharply on the eastern side to the Douai plain. It is nine miles in length, and dominates the entire area, forming a natural rampart in the richest coal fields of France. The Ridge was one of the most important strategic positions on the Western Front.
The First Attack
The line was established at Vimy, October 8, 1914, running in front of the Ridge via Berthonval Farm, Carency and Lorette Ridge.
The first attack on the Ridge was made the next May. General Joffre wrote:
“In the last days of April, the French Tenth Army, acting in concert with the British First Army, will undertake an important attack north of Arras with a view to piercing the enemy’s line. In order to carry out this attack the Tenth Army will be strongly reinforced.”
The British Official History of the war states:
"In front of the centre of the French line, between Notre Dame de lorette and Roclincourt, and at an average distance of 5,000 yards from it, lay Vimy Ridge, which forms the eastern edge of the plateau. Here the ground falls to the plain of Douai even more abruptly than it does from Notre Dame de Lorette, on the northern side, to the plain of Flanders. The main attack of the French Army was to be delivered on a frontage of four miles, with the crest of Vimy Ridge, between Farbus and Soudiez, as its objective. The occupation of the Ridge was to be the first step in breaking the German line, and preparatory to an advance into the plain to the line Cambrai-Douai.”
The attack was postponed on account of misty weather until May 9. The French had 293 heavy guns, and 780 field guns and howitzers.
The French attack in the centre was brilliant. The Moroccan Division, flinging away all heavy equipment, depending largely on the bayonet, advanced, between La Targette and Carency, 2y¿ miles in less than three hours. No other attack ever made at Vimy was so fierce, so overwhelming. But when they had reached Hill 140 and sent patrols into La Folie Wood, the French reserves, to take care of such an opportunity were 73 miles away.
Four German divisions had been holding Vimy. By night they had two more. By May 15 they had thirteen divisions in the Vimy sector.
The Moroccans, minus support, were driven from the Ridge after three days occupation. You can see their Memorial today, at Hill 140. On May 15 the French attacked again, at Neuville St. Vaast, the Labyrinthe and Souchez. They made but small house-to-house gains. They attacked again June 7, and secured both the Labyrinthe and Neuville St. Vaast. On June 16 they made a final effort, but were repulsed.
French losses for this battle for Vimy Ridge from May 9 to June 16 were 35,008 killed; 65,062 wounded; 2,463 missing; a total of 102,533. The Germans published their losses as 49,466 of all ranks, but have admitted the loss of all records of those who died of wounds. The French captured 7,441 prisoners.
This was the result of the first attack.
The Fayolle Division alone, in this fighting, captured 3,100 prisoners, and buried 2,655 enemy dead. They lost 3,335 all ranks of their own. Twenty guns were captured from the Germans and 102 machine guns.
On Sept. 25 the French attacked again, and made very slight gains. This was to be a grand attack, and the British attack at Loos was to divert the German attention and make more sure the anticipated grand French success. Instead, the French reserves were this time brought too near the front and suffered terrible losses from early shell fire, while the constant delays in their assaulting gave the German forces ample time for preparations in defense. General Joffre, after being advised of the losses, gave Foch the following instructions: “Stop the attacks of the Tenth Army, taking care to avoid giving the British the impression that we are leaving them to attack alone, or the Germans that our attack is slackening off. Economize ammunition.”
French attacks had begun at noon and accomplished little. During the night of the 27-28th the French 33rd, with part of the 3rd Corps, advanced 2,000 yards and captured La Folie Wood, and Foch was granted permission to carry on. At 3 p.m. on the 28th, the 6th Division, of the 3rd Corps, gained Hill 140, which had been the German third line of defense.
They could not, however, retain what they had gained, as the flanks had not kept up with the central attack. By October 15 they were back to the original German front line and held there. Their losses, to that date, were 48,230. The Germans had lost during that period a total of 30,024 all ranks. What price Vimy?
The British took over in March, 1916. On February 8, the Germans had made their first attack on Vimy and had driven the French from half a mile of trench systems south of Central Avenue. On February 21 they attacked again and captured the “Pimple.”
The British found that the entire front line was being mined. Ten British and five French tunnelling companies worked desperately in countermining. On April 26, 1916, the first mine on Vimy went up, forming the first crater. On May 3, Momber, Love and Kennedy Craters were blown. Broadmarsh had been blown April 29. On May 15, at 8.30 p.m., five craters were fired, known afterward as the “Crosbie Group.” Fourteen officers and 93 other ranks were lost during the consolidating of these craters, all being members of the Pioneers. In five weeks of holding the line, the 25th British Division had 1,274 casualties.
At 7.45 p.m., on May 21, the Germans made their third attack on Vimy and carried the 25th British Division halfway down the Ridge.
The Germans had eighty batteries firing on a frontage of 1,800 yards with “200 shells per hour per battery.” Three German divisions had attacked the frontage of one British brigade.
The British tried to counter-attack, but all their reserves had been taken to the Somme and they were not recalled. They had lost, in two days, 2,475 all ranks. In the two days the Germans admitted losses of 1,344.
The net result of this German attack was that they occupied a portion of what had been the old French front line.
In October the Canadians came to Vimy. They carried on extensive raiding throughout the winter. On April 9, they attacked and captured the Ridge. Various figures have been given regarding their losses. It is generally admitted that 75,000 Canadians opposed 140,000 Germans.
Canadian Medical Service records state that 5,976 wounded Canadians were handled in the first twenty-two hours. Seven hundred and six German wounded were treated.
The complete Vimy fighting extended from April 9 to June 6. During that period the Canadians lost 912 officers, 20,461 other ranks.
In the thirty-eight days of fighting known as the Arras battles, 20,834 prisoners and 252 guns were taken. Sixty-one square miles of territory were captured. The total British casualties were 146,586 all ranks. The German casualties were | 132,000 all ranks.
Casualties of British airmen were highest in April, 1917. They were higher than that of any other month during the war, with 316 killed or missing. Yet only 29,500 hours were flown. The average was 92 hours per casualty, which is the lowest average made during the war, There were 3,151 planes engaged in France for the four weeks previous to April 27.
From April 9 to May 16, 4,261,500 rounds of ammunition were fired, or 109,800 tons.
“The Canadian casualties at Vimy,” stated a newspaper report, “were very light.”
Read extracts from battalion records: “Every officer save one in the Tenth Battalion was killed or wounded.”
“Eight officers of the 16th were killed, 13 wounded.”
“The 87th Battalion lost sixty per cent of its men in a short time.”
“Every officer of the 102nd Battalion was killed or wounded, and command of the unit fell on a company sergeantmajor.”
“How desperately the 73rd Battalion fought can be judged from the casualties. Every officer in A Company was killed or wounded; only fourteen other ranks were unharmed. One officer and twelve other ranks were left in B Company; fifteen other ranks survived in C Company; eighteen other ranks in D Company.”
The entire Fourth Division suffered very heavily.
No one will ever know. Visit the German cemetery at La Targette. There are 41,000 graves in that one alone, and they are still finding plenty of German dead.
Go over to Notre Dame de Lorette and see the French National Memorial. It has four features; the Cemetery, the Beacon, the Ossuary, and the Basilic.
In the Cemetery there are the graves of more than 18,000 identified dead. 12,077 were given to relatives for burial in home cemeteries. There are more than 16,000 unknown dead.
The Ossuary is formed of four-storied groups of oak coffins tinted in ivory, over twenty-five vaults. Under there is a room ten metres square containing the remains of nearly 40,000 unknown warriors.
The French themselves do not know how many of their men died at Vimy. One grim sentence in their war diary is enough. “Each night, at Souchez and at Carency, the death carts were heaped full.”
The British cannot tell you how many of their men actually died at Vimy. But go into the cemeteries around the Ridge and you will find 17,291 British graves—men of the United Kingdom only—without visiting the smaller burial grounds.
As for Canadians, just around Vimy: 666 Canadians buried at Aubigny; 828 at Ecoivres; 347 at Ligny-St. Flochel; 1,009 at Villers Station; 721 at Cabaret Rouge; 492 at Bully Grenay, and 171 in the Communal Cemetery as well; 163 at AblainSt. Nazaire; 677 at Barlin; 226 at Nouexles-Mines, and 71 at the Communal Cemetery there; 77 at Estree Cauchy; 276 at Bruay; 306 at Etrun; 296 at La Targette; 93 at Zouave Valley; 446 at Bucquoy. This list does not include the smaller cemeteries, or the one on the Ridge.
Canada’s Vimy Memorial, by far the most beautiful thing of its kind in all Europe, will cost about $1,250,000. That would not be enough to pay for more than half a day’s shelling at Vimy.
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