Canada comes of age
In the late autumn of 1916, the Canadian Corps was in the line just north of Arras on the edge of the Douai plain facing Vimy Ridge – a strong point of the German defences in northern Europe. Reaching 110 metres at its highest point, and eight kilometres long, the great Ridge held such strategic importance for the Germans that they had carefully fortified it over the three years of the war. In fact, it was considered impregnable behind three huge defensive lines bristling with machine guns and barbed wire. Along it were four extra-strong fortifications: Hill 135, Hill 145, La Folie Farm and the “Pimple.”.
Beneath the Ridge, large underground chambers (complete with electric lights) and deep dug-outs protected the defenders from the most intense shelling. Between 1914 and 1916 the French and British had launched three massive attacks against the German position and had lost more than 150,000 men. The Ridge dominated this area of the Western Front, allowing the Germans unrestricted view of the Allied positions. Behind the Ridge were captured French mines and factories that the Germans used for their war effort. Of equal importance was the fact that the Ridge covered the junction of the Hindenburg Line (the strong new defences behind which the Germans had withdrawn in early 1917) and the German defence systems which ran north to the Channel coast.
For the Canadians, an attack on this position posed an incredible challenge. It was also their assigned task in the massive offensive planned by the Allies in early 1917, in conjunction with the British who were to attack on either side of the Canadians. If they were to have any hope of success in attacking across open ground in the face of the German defences and artillery, that hope lay in careful planning and preparation.
The Canadian Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, had four divisions who had spent five months in the Vimy sector before the assault began. They were probably among the best trained and equipped troops on the Western Front, and their experiences to that time had welded them into a remarkably cohesive national force. Byng planned an assault by all four divisions in line abreast, to be carried out in four stages according the German defensive positions. The German stronghold at the northern end of the Ridge (the “Pimple”) was to be attacked within the 24-hour period following the start of the main assault.
In January 1917 Byng had sent Major-General Arthur Currie as the Canadian Corps representative to a conference at Verdun, where recently the French Commander Nivelle had enjoyed some success as a result of the introduction of new tactics. Currie retuned to Byng with a number of proposals that were then incorporated into the Canadian training in preparation for the Vimy assault. Throughout the British Expeditionary Forces, change was being forced on commanders after the bloodbaths of earlier years. At last lessons learned were to be applied, and the Canadians were in the vanguard.
Vimy Ridge soldiers Preparing for battle
The Attack takes place
Follow up and fall out of the battle