The Battle At Vimy Ridge

The message of Vimy Ridge is one of bravery and sacrifice. The battle, which took place on April 9, 1917, is commonly highlighted as a turning point in Canadian history, where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a unified fighting force for the first time. While 3,598 Canadian soldiers were killed during the battle, the impressive victory over German forces is often cited as the beginning of Canada’s evolution from dominion to independent nation. The Vimy Foundation is working to spread the word to Canada’s youth — through initiatives like the Vimy Prize and the Vimy Pin — so that all Canadians understand the importance of Vimy to the nation’s identity.

To underscore the sacrifices made by Canada, which suffered 60,000 fatalities during the First World War, France granted Canada 107 hectares of land at Vimy to build and maintain a memorial. That iconic site is today considered one of the most stirring of all First World War monuments, and certainly Canada’s most important war memorial.

Victory At Vimy Ridge

The Canadian Corps attacked Vimy Ridge 98 years ago. The German position had successfully resisted earlier Allied attacks, and it was heavily defended. But the Canadians took the ridge and in the process made the Corps’ great reputation.

By 1917, Canadians had been fighting for two years. The raw levies that held the Germans off at Ypres in April 1915 now were experienced soldiers. But the key to the success at Vimy came when Byng sent General Arthur Currie of the First Canadian Division to study the methods of the French. Currie learned they emphasized reconnaissance and used air photos extensively, distributing them widely. When they attacked, their objectives were geographical features, and the French rehearsed their tactics. Currie recommended the Canadians, like the French, follow suit. In the battle for Vimy Ridge, Currie’s ideas played the decisive role.

Every man at Vimy knew his task. Indiscreetly, Pte. Ronald MacKinnon of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry wrote to his father:

“We have a good bunch of boys to go over with and good artillery support so we are bound to get our objective alright. I understand we are going up against the Prussian Guards.”

When the assault troops went over the top at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, they attacked in snow and sleet, the wind driving into the enemy lines. Their attack began with “the most wonderful artillery barrage ever known in the history of the world,” one officer wrote. Behind the barrage, the men moved forward over the badly broken ground, “now walking over the open in all directions,” wrote Padre F.G. Scott. “German prisoners were being hurried back in scores.”

Stunned by the Canadians’ success, the Germans retreated. The Corps, having sustained 10,602 casualties, dug in after a gain of 4,500 yards.

Byng received a promotion to command Britain’s Third Army. Replacing him was the 41-year-old Currie, the first Canadian to command Canada’s army in the field.

J.L. Granatstein OC, FRSC
Historian J.L. Granatstein is former director of the Canadian War Museum

Significance of Vimy Ridge

“NATIONS ARE MADE BY DOING GREAT THINGS TOGETHER” – RENAN

Canada’s celebration of its victory at Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917 owes much to a French historian and philosopher, Ernest Renan. “Nations,” he told his students, “are made by doing great things together.”

As dawn broke on that morning at Vimy, close to a hundred thousand Canadians poured from trenches, dugouts and tunnels, surged up a slope and conquered an enemy position considered impregnable by its German defenders and, frankly, by Canada’s allies. Only one of the four Canadian divisions failed to conquer all its objectives by noon on the 9th but by April 12, a cheeky telegram from a brigade commander “I am King of the Pimple” told Canadian commanders that the job was complete.

Canadians should remember that Vimy Ridge was not their triumph alone. British artillery and the elite 51st Highland Division helped make victory possible. A visit to the nearby French military cemetery, Notre Dame de Lorette, reminds us that ten times as many French soldiers died to bring the Allied line to the edge of the Ridge as well as providing visitors on a clear day with the best view of the Canadian objective.

It was a costly victory. Ten thousand Canadians lay dead or wounded on the 9th: the worst day’s losses for Canada in the war. A British military advisor, Major-General Willoughby Gwatkin, had warned Sir Robert Borden’s government that voluntary recruiting could only keep two divisions in the line. Vimy’s losses forced Canada into the deeply divisive policy of conscription: forcing young men to serve, a policy that divided Canadians more deeply than ever before. What choice did Sir Robert Borden’s government really have? With the congratulations of his fellow premiers ringing in his ears, could he even think of announcing that Canada’s fighting army would be cut in half? Canada’s fragile unity was another casualty of Vimy Ridge.

Vimy was followed by other Canadian victories, some of them even greater feats of arms. Sir Arthur Currie, Canadian Corps commander after Sir Julian Byng, the victor at Vimy, was promoted, boasted that he had won an even better victory at Lens when he persuaded his British commander-in-chief to let the Canadians capture Hill 70, forcing the Germans to counter-attack at enormous cost in German soldiers’ lives. Currie’s arguments for smarter tactics carried weight chiefly because of Canadian success at Vimy. The Vimy experience provided a pattern for future successes. The Canadians had rehearsed tirelessly before the battle. They dug trenches and tunnels and piled tons of ammunition for the heavy guns that pulverized German trenches and wiped out most of the German artillery hidden behind Vimy Ridge. The motto for Canadian success was “thorough”. Nothing that could help soldiers succeed would be ignored. Digging trenches and tunnels and lugging artillery shells through miles of wet, muddy trenches was brutally exhausting work. Soldiers grumbled and complained but they needed to win the war before they could go home. Exhaustion was a small part of the price.

The Vimy victory shaped a Canadian way of making war. Other nations might celebrate flamboyant valour or dogged sacrifice; Canadians built on the conviction that only thorough preparation could spell success. At Hill 70, at Amiens, in crossing the Canal du Nord and even by capturing Passchendaele in October 1917, Canadians could take pride in their “ever-victorious” Canadian Corps. No one claimed that their general, Arthur Currie, was a charismatic commander. Few soldiers realized that he took his best ideas from men in the ranks of his Corps.

In August 1918, Borden and other premiers from the British Empire agreed that the war was destined to last two or three more terrible years. It ended on November 11. At Valenciennes on November 1, with Vimy-style tactics the Canadians collapsed the last German defensive line. Ten days later an Armistice was signed. Canadians had done a great thing and, with French and English, First Nations and recent immigrants, they had done it together. As Renan had foreseen, Canadians had shaped a nation. Back on Vimy Ridge, a grateful France gave them land to commemorate their success and their sacrifice. Let us remember the cost and the achievement.

Desmond Morton OC, CD, FRSC
Hiram Mills Professor of History Emeritus, McGill University
Desmond Morton is a member of the Vimy Foundation Advisory Board

Regiments At Vimy

Battle of Vimy Ridge – Battle Honour Regiments

At the outset of the First World War the Canadian Expeditionary Force was by and large formed out of newly created units in addition to the Regular Forces and Reserve units (Permanent Forces and the Militia in 1914 terminology). These new units were traditionally designated as numbered battalions, for example the 37th Battalion. This created a huge problem at the end of the war. With the inevitable disbanding of the units of the CEF military officials came to realize that the history and battle honors won by these new units would be lost forever. A special commission was thus established in order to aid in the preservation of these honours through the linking of disbanding units to Regular and Reserve units with the Canadian Military.

The list of Regiments displayed is a combination of Permanent Force units that fought and won the Battle Honour Vimy, 1917 and the Regiments that perpetuated that Battle Honour from the numbered battalions of the CEF.

 

Primary Reserve Unit

Location

1st Hussars London, ON
24th Battalion Victoria Rifles of Canada Montreal, QC
48th Highlanders of Canada Toronto, ON
Governor General’s Foot Guards Ottawa, ON
The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada Hamilton, ON
The Black Watch of Canada Montreal, QC
The British Columbia Dragoons Kelowna, BC
The British Columbia Regiment Vancouver, BC
The Calgary Highlanders Calgary, AB
The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa Ottawa, ON
The Canadian Grenadier Guards Montreal, QC
The Canadian Scottish Regiment Victoria, BC
The Cape Breton Highlanders Sydney, NS
The Essex and Kent Scottish Windsor, ON
The Governor General’s Horse Guards Toronto, ON
The King’s Own Calgary Regiment Calgary, AB
The Lake Superior Scottish Regiment Thunder Bay, ON
The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Edmonton, AB
The North Saskatchewan Regiment Saskatoon, SK
The Nova Scotia Highlanders Truro, NS
The Ontario Regiment Oshawa, ON
The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Edmonton, AB
The Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment Kingston, ON
The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada Winnipeg, MB
The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada Toronto, ON
The Queen’s York Rangers Toronto, ON
4e Bataillon, Royal 22e Regiment Laval, QC
6e Bataillon, Royal 22e Regiment Saint-Hyacinthe, QC
The Royal Canadian Hussars Montreal, QC
4th Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment London, ON
The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Hamilton, ON
The Royal Montreal Regiment Westmount, QC
The Royal New Brunswick Regiment Fredericton, NB
The Royal Regiment of Canada Toronto, ON
The Royal Regina Rifles Regina, SK
The Royal Westminster Regiment New Westminster, BC
The Royal Winnipeg Rifles Winnipeg, MB
The Saskatchewan Dragoons Moose Jaw, SK
The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Vancouver, BC
The Sherbrooke Hussars Sherbrooke, QC
The South Alberta Light Horse Medicine Hat, AB
The Toronto Scottish Regiment Toronto, ON