The Battle of Vimy Ridge began on Easter morning 1917. Amid sleet, mud and shellfire, the soldiers of the Canadian Corps fought their way up the ridge to take the high ground overlooking the Douai plain.
This stunning victory followed years of failed attempts to retake the ridge, and months of planning and preparation for the operation. The ridge had fallen into German hands during the initial advances of 1914. Since then, around 150,000 French and British soldiers had fallen trying to retake it. The Germans had been fortifying their positions on the ridge for years with deep bunkers, overlapping fields of machine gun fire and layers of barbed wire. When the Canadians attacked, they faced around 8,000 entrenched German defenders.
A preliminary bombardment began on March 20 and lasted for thirteen days. In the meantime, Andrew McNaughton and his counterbattery staff were hard at work finding and silencing the German guns. The Royal Flying Corps provided aerial reconnaissance, returning with photographs of enemy batteries. The objectives set for the four divisions were four lines, the Red, Black, Blue and Brown Lines.
The battle began at 5:30am on April 9, with the first wave of around 15,000 men advancing under the creeping barrage of almost 1000 heavy guns. Most objectives were taken on schedule, and by afternoon most of the ridge was captured, with the notable exception of The Pimple, a high point at the North end of the ridge, where defenders held out until April 12.
By April 12, the Canadians had taken all of their objectives, as well as 4,000 prisoners. The Canadians held Vimy Ridge. This victory came at a high cost as 3,598 Canadians lost their lives, and 7,000 were wounded during the four-day battle. April 9, 1917 is still the bloodiest day in Canadian military history.
A key technological development that greatly contributed to the Canadians’ success at Vimy was the widespread use of the new 106 fuse in shells. This fuse made shells explode on contact with barbed wire, which marked a huge improvement from the shells used during the Battle of the Somme, which would often leave barbed wire untouched but create huge craters.
The most important tactical innovation used in this battle was the rolling barrage. Early in the war, when soldiers attacked a position, the artillery would bombard that position and then stop so that the soldiers could run over and take it. However, this caused problems, as often the time between the bombardment and when the soldiers actually arrived on the position allowed the defenders time to get prepared for the attack, and inflict devastating casualties on the attackers. The rolling barrage meant that the soldiers advanced at the same time as the bombardment. At Vimy, the artillery moved forward 90 metres every three minutes. This meant that soldiers had three minutes to catch up with the barrage and silence any defenders left.
Another important factor contributing to victory was the scale of preparations. The troops had been practicing and training for this battle for months. From frequent night raids to gain information on the opposing German troops, as well as night combat experience, to practice in the mock-up battlefield behind the lines, the Canadians were supremely ready for the battle. Each unit was told its objectives, as well as those of the units around it, so that they could take over should their neighbours get bogged down. Junior officers and NCOs were told the plans so that they could take over if their superiors were hit. 40,000 maps of the battlefield were also distributed to the troops.
Key people in the battle included Sir Julian Byng, the beloved commander of the Canadian Corps. Well-liked by his troops, who called themselves “the Byng boys”, Byng was a British officer, who would later be promoted to General and become Lord Byng of Vimy. Major Alan Brooke was the 33-year old mastermind behind the rolling barrage, and Sir Arthur Currie, who would soon become commander of the Canadian Corps, was in charge of the 1st Canadian Division during the battle.
The battle was a strategic victory, as Vimy Ridge was an important observation point over the whole of the Douai plain, a key industrial and railway region in Northern France. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was also the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps had fought together. This symbolically showed the strength of Canadians when they fought as one. It was also important that the Canadian Corps, this small colonial unit, had managed to do what both its former colonial powers could not do in retaking the ridge.