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The Battle of Vimy Ridge

The 1916 battles of Verdun and the Somme produced a casualty toll of almost two million men. Yet this war of attrition and stalemate had almost two years to run.

Early in 1917, the Allies launched another massive offensive, ever determined to achieve the elusive breakthrough. This time the plans called for a French offensive in the south between Reims and Soissons, combined with British diversionary attacks about Arras.

The Germans, meanwhile, withdrew to strong new defences, the Hindenburg Line, in March 1917. In so doing they exchanged a long, bulging line, a consequence of their losses on the Somme, for a well-situated shorter one which they fortified with powerful defences, many concreted positions and huge swathes of barbed wires protecting several lines of defence, themselves several kilometres in depth.

The Canadian share of the British assault was the seizure of Vimy Ridge. The task was formidable. For the Germans it was a most important element in their defence system and they had fortified it well. The slopes which were in their favour were interlaced with an elaborate system of trenches, dugouts and tunnels heavily protected by barbed wire and machine guns, and defended from a distance by German artillery. Attempts to take Vimy had failed in the partially successful assaults by the French in 1915; but these attacks had succeeded in pushing the Germans back to a position where they had very little room to manoeuvre, with the Douai Plain now immediately behind them.

Canadian commanders, however, had learned well the bitter lessons of assault by vulnerable infantry. This time the preparation was elaborate and the planning thorough. Arrangements for a battle commenced in October 1916 and staff officers were sent off to learn from the experiences gained elsewhere on the front, including Verdun, where the French had pushed the Germans back, almost to their start point. Engineers dug great tunnels into the Ridge; roads and light railways were improved, and a vast mass of supplies of every type was readied. The operation was to be supported by a huge concentration of artillery of all types, including large numbers of heavy guns and howitzers. The men, too, were fully prepared. As for the Somme, the area was simulated behind the lines and troops practised their roles until every man was familiar with the ground and the tactics expected of him. This time more information was available, aerial photographs were widely distributed; and of course the men had been hardened—in all ranks and at all levels of command—by their experiences on the Somme.

Preliminary bombardment, designed to conceal the exact time and extent of the attack, began on March 20. It was intensified from April 2 with such crushing blows that the enemy called the period "the week of suffering." On the night of April 8, all was ready and the infantry moved to the prepared forward positions.

The attack (delayed by a day because of the weather) began at dawn on Easter Monday, April 9. All four divisions [with the 5th (British) Division under Byng's command] of the Canadian Corps—moving forward together for the first time—swept up the Ridge in the midst of driving wind, snow and sleet. Preceded by a perfectly timed artillery barrage the Canadians advanced. By mid-afternoon the Canadian divisions were in command of the whole crest of the Ridge with the exception of two features known as Hill 145 and the Pimple. Within three days these too were taken. The fighting had been hard and costly—10,602 Canadian casualties, but the result was emphatic. Elsewhere on April 9, the dozen or so other attacking British divisions obtained excellent results.

The victory at Vimy Ridge is celebrated as a national coming of age. For the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps had attacked and triumphed together; four Canadians earned the Victoria Cross.

Later in the summer the Canadian Corps received its first Canadian commander when the recently knighted Sir Arthur Currie was promoted to lieutenant-general and succeeded Sir Julian Byng, who became commander of Third Army. A businessman from British Columbia, Currie, with only Canadian Militia background, earned the high esteem of professionals and rose from the rank of a lieutenant-colonel in the non-permanent militia in 1914 to commander of the Canadian Army Corps. It was a remarkable achievement; he and Monash (of the Australian Corps) were the only non-regular soldiers to achieve corps command in the British Army.

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