Canadians somehow believe that the capture of Vimy Ridge was planned, directed and fought only by Canadians. The British Expeditionary Force, British officers and British-born soldiers were nowhere to be found as the Canadians stormed and took the Ridge using wholly new Canadian-developed tactics.
Not much of this is true. In the first place, the commander of the Canadian Corps was Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng of the British Army. His key planners, the brigadier-general general staff and the assistant adjutant and quartermaster-general, were all able staff-trained British officers, as were their key subordinates. The main artillery planner was Maj. Alan Brooke, a superb British gunner who would become Winston Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the Second World War and a field marshal. The Vimy plan was Byng’s and the key details of the logistical build-up and the attack plan had been made by Byng’s British staff.
Yes, three of the four Canadian divisions were led by Canadians and, yes, a great many of the Corps’ officers had come from the Canadian militia. All these men had learned their hard trade on the battlefield. But what the Corps did not have was staff-trained officers, graduates of Staff College with years of planning experience. By 1918, the Canadian Expeditionary Force had produced substantial numbers of such officers, but not in April 1917.
Moreover, and contrary to the present-day myth, most of the men in the Canadian Corps at Vimy had been recent British immigrants to Canada. A Sessional Paper presented to the House of Commons showed that to the end of April 1917, 139,345 Canadian-born, English- and French-speaking men were in Britain and France alongside 155,095 British subjects born outside of Canada, as well as a substantial number of Americans and other foreign-born men. The Canadian-born would not constitute a majority of the Canadian Corps until very near the end of the war, after conscription had put 100,000 men into uniform.
To be fair, the tactics used in the set-piece attack on Vimy Ridge were new in some ways. The British Expeditionary Force and the Canadian Corps had learned hard lessons on the Somme in 1916, and the Corps’ senior officers, including Maj.-Gen. Arthur Currie, the commander of the 1st Division, had studied French tactics at Verdun. This led to new developments in the organization of infantry platoons, to the handing of maps and aerial photographs to every level of the infantry battalions, and to a first-rate creeping barrage (to which British heavy artillery contributed) that advanced 60 metres every three minutes. The Canadian Corps used these tactics extremely well at Vimy, and they were certainly among the very best corps in the British Expeditionary Force in employing them. But they were not alone.
The Canadians also developed very effective counter-battery gunnery, taking out the enemy’s guns so they could not halt the attack. The British had been working on this, using observer balloons, aircraft, flash spotting and sound ranging. The Canadians brought these measures to a high level and knocked out 83 per cent of the enemy guns.
Vimy was a great victory for the Canadian Corps, but it was one that could not have been won without the British Army’s enormous contribution.
J.L. Granatstein is a historian and former Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum.
Read the rest of our debunked Vimy myths:
Check out archival images from the battle:
20th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, taking ammunition to forward guns during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917.
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