Most Canadians know very little of the Great War and their nation’s role in it. But the taking of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 is the one event with which they are most likely to identify. It was a great victory, the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together and drove the Germans off a ridge that dominated the terrain in the area of Arras in northern France. Moreover, Vimy was such a great victory that it essentially won the war for the Allies. Or so it seems Canadians believe.
Could this be true? Certainly the Germans lost control of Vimy Ridge, a significant topographical feature that provided a glorious vantage point over the Douai Plain to the east. Assuredly, the Canadians’ tactics and courage in driving the Germans back had demonstrated that a well-planned and heavily-supported attack could defeat even strong enemy defences.
But Vimy did not win the war. Nor did it even point to victory in the future. The attack on Vimy was a part of a large British offensive on the Arras front. That attack was itself something of a diversion to force the Germans to keep troops in northern France so that a French attack, scheduled to follow soon after on the Aisne River, might succeed. In fact, both the British and French offensives made only small gains and were essentially setbacks at a heavy cost in lives. In such circumstances, the Canadian attack on Vimy, the one part of the British offensive that truly succeeded, stood out.
But Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s General Headquarters had not counted on success at Vimy as a possibility. There were only sketchy plans to take advantage of a victory, to turn a German setback into a rout by moving cavalry, tanks and infantry forward in a major push eastward. And once the Canadians had control of the ridge, such plans as existed seem to have been forgotten.
Very simply, in April 1917, the Germans were winning the war. They occupied Belgium and much of eastern France, they had driven Russia to revolution in March and, although the United States had just come into the war on April 4, it would be more than a year before American troops would be in France in substantial numbers. The Germans stood solidly on the defensive, beating off Allied attacks with heavy losses.
The success at Vimy was undoubtedly a bright spot, a victory in a long succession of Allied defeats. But it was no walkover, no sweeping victory. The attack cost Canada 10,602 casualties, including 3,598 killed, the largest toll in a battle of a few days in Canadian history.
As far as the Germans were concerned, meanwhile, Vimy was a tactical defeat, but not a very important one. The fate of Germany, as a Frankfurt newspaper observed, “is not bound up with the possession of a hill.” In truth, to the enemy Vimy was at worst a draw, primarily because it did not lead to a breakthrough.
In other words, Vimy mattered most to the Canadian Corps and to Canada. It made the Corps an elite formation, and it made the soldiers believe that they had done something great. That was all true, but Vimy did not win the war.
J.L. Granatstein is a historian and former Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum.
Read the rest of our debunked Vimy myths:
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