In April 1917, the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army prepared to launch major operations against the German lines on the Western Front. The BEF would go first, its attacks near the city of Arras, the French next on the Aisne River. As part of the BEF assault, the Canadian Corps would attack Vimy Ridge, one of the key topographical features in northern France.
The Canadian Corps of four divisions, totalling some 100,000 soldiers, had been planning the operation since the previous November. The enemy held the Ridge strongly and had beaten off French attacks in 1915 and pushed British troops out of their trenches in sharp assaults the following year. To dislodge the formidable Germans would require a major effort.
Logistics constituted the first problem. The Corps’ planners tackled the task of getting huge quantities of shells to the guns, along with food, ammunition and other supplies of all kind. Roads were constructed, improved and maintained. Trucks had to be found, good drivers trained. Fifty-thousand horses were fed, watered and led by soldiers to carry supplies forward. Engineers constructed a pipeline capable of delivering more than two million litres of water a day for the horses and soldiers. Twenty kilometres of tramways, essentially a light-rail system, were built to move supplies forward. Tunnellers bored into the soft chalk of the Ridge to create subways well below the surface in which troops could shelter; other tunnels held huge mines.
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At the same time, the infantrymen intensively practised their parts in the attack behind the lines. Soldiers in the 3rd Canadian Division, for example, trained for five weeks. One wrote home a few days after the Vimy battle that, “We were organized for the attack on the new French system.” Maj.-Gen. Arthur Currie, commander of the 1st Division, had studied the tactics used by the French at Verdun, and his report led to changes. Instead of the massed groups that had fought on the Somme in 1916, the Canadian infantry platoon was now a combination of riflemen, light machine gunners and bombers, augmented as necessary with snipers, scouts and possibly a heavy machine-gun detachment and engineers. The platoon commander now led a group of specialists and directed tactics as required.
The attacking battalions trained repeatedly behind the lines over ground marked out with white tape to make it as much like the coming battlefield as possible. Company commanders directed the troops while mounted officers simulated a rolling artillery barrage as they moved ahead of the infantry. Forty thousand maps and countless air photos, carefully marked, were handed out to the infantry showing what lay to their front. Soldiers studied Plasticine models with every enemy machine gun and dugout carefully marked and, as aerial patrols brought in new information, the soldiers kept up to date. Every man knew his role.
This training worked. One machine gunner said later, “When we finally reached the top of the hill, we not only landed in exactly the right place, but we knew we were in the right section of those trenches we were supposed to be in.” The planning, training and logistical preparations the Corps’ staff had mandated was unprecedented in the British Expeditionary Force.
The orders called for the Corps’ attack to be made on a 6.5 kilometre front by the four Canadian divisions, fighting together for the first time in the war. The attack had four objectives, each indicated by a coloured line. The first, the Black Line, called for the capture of the enemy’s forward defences. The Red Line, the next objective for the divisions attacking on the left, demanded the taking of Hill 145 on the crest of the Ridge. On the Corps’ right two more objectives remained: the Blue Line, which included Thélus, Hill 135 and woods overlooking the village of Vimy; the fourth objective, the Brown Line, aimed at the German second main line.
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The Corps’ plan laid down a strict timetable. The four divisions in numerical order from south to north would attack at 5:30 a.m. They had 35 minutes to take the Black Line, followed by a 40-minute pause to re-form. There was then 20 minutes to reach the Red Line. After a further pause of two and a half hours, the 1st and 2nd Divisions would take the Blue Line and then, following another pause of 96 minutes, they would capture their final objectives on the Brown Line.
All this sounded much like impossible objectives and absurd timings. But it was not. The massive artillery support for the attack would creep ahead of the infantry during the attack. The new No. 106 fuse, effective against the German barbed wire, was available in quantity. Machine guns, ammunition and supplies would be brought forward to drive off any enemy counterattacks. And eight tanks would join in the attack, although in the end these cumbersome vehicles proved of little use. The plans were in place.
The guns were the key to the attack. A careful bombardment, greatly aided by aerial reconnaissance, information from observation balloons, sound ranging, flash spotting to locate the enemy artillery, and the careful collection of intelligence from prisoners, inflicted 20 days of suffering on the defenders. British heavy artillery, added to the Canadians’ guns, gave a total of 480 18-pdrs and 138 4.5-inch howitzers.
The enemy guns were special targets for shellfire and gas, and the Corps’ staff proudly calculated that 83 per cent of 212 enemy batteries had been neutralized before or during the attack. With the German guns out of action, the attackers’ chances improved mightily.
The attack jumped off at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, under cover of a fierce artillery barrage, the Canadians moving with snow, sleet and rain blowing into the German lines. Mines laid beneath the German lines exploded a few seconds after zero hour. Thirty thousand troops in all had assembled, as many as possible in the subways; 15,000 men formed the first wave. As the shells fell on the enemy, remaining on the nearest trenches for three minutes of hell, the advance began over the muddy ground. The barrage advanced 60 metres every three minutes, and the infantry tried to keep pace.
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The 1st Division on the southernmost flank of the attack moved quickly, the infantry reaching the front-line trenches, where they found and killed or captured most of the defenders in their dugouts. The Black Line was in Canadian hands at 6:15.
The 2nd Division had similar success in its assault, but German machine gunners inflicted heavy casualties. Supporting tanks ground to a halt and were not helpful. Nonetheless, signallers reported that the Black Line was secure by 6:15.
The 3rd Division found that the barrage had almost completely smashed the defences, and its advance went well. The soldiers cleared the Black Line by 6:25.
As planned, the attack resumed after a 20-minute pause, the 1st Division advancing toward the Red Line with snow and smoke concealing the infantry. By 7 a.m., almost all the defences had fallen. The 2nd Division reached the Red Line at 8 a.m., taking many prisoners. The 3rd Division had similar experiences—in many places the opposition was light, the prisoner bag large but, where the enemy resisted strongly, casualties were heavy, the Germans launching local counterattacks. At their final objective, the troops consolidated their positions atop the Ridge, machine guns, wire and ammunition being brought forward.
The 1st and 2nd Divisions had more to do to reach the Brown and Blue Lines. Many of the troops “advanc[ed] as if on parade,” one officer wrote, met little opposition, and by shortly after 11 a.m., the Brown Line was in Canadian hands; by 3 p.m. the Blue Line was similarly secure.
Only the 4th Division ran into difficulty in its assault on the northern edge of Vimy Ridge. The men found the dugouts on their key objective, Hill 145, strongly manned. Some battalions ran into withering machine-gun fire, the attack broke down, and an enemy counterattack was barely driven off. By nightfall, despite herculean efforts, Hill 145 remained contested terrain. Not until the next afternoon was it secure, thanks to a wild charge down the Ridge’s eastern slope by two battalions.
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Now all that remained was The Pimple, the very northern tip of the Ridge, its defence provided by Prussian Guards. The Germans, surprised by a night attack on April 12, put up stout resistance, and there was hand-to-hand fighting, but at 6 a.m., the position fell. “I am King of the Pimple,” said the brigade commander.
The great Ridge was now held by the Corps. In four days, they had advanced almost five kilometres, killed untold numbers of the enemy, taken more than 4,000 prisoners, and captured many guns. “It was a wonderful battle,” one medical officer wrote, “the best show I have been in. Our men trimmed the Boche in fine shape and our losses were not heavy…” If only that had been true—3,598 Canadians fell in a casualty list of 10,602.
Vimy was a great Canadian victory in a British attack that made only minor gains. There was praise aplenty for the Canucks, and it did not take very long for great myths to form around the battle. In the next four columns, these myths will be dissected.
Myth #1: Only Canadians fought at Vimy
Myth #2: Vimy won the war
Myth #3: Canadians scaled a cliff at Vimy
Myth #4: Canada became a nation at Vimy
J.L. Granatstein is a historian and former Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum.