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Canadian Preparations for the Battle of Vimy Ridge

Aim

To give students an understanding of how the Canadian Corps prepared for the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the importance this extensive planning played in Canada's victory.

Objectives

Students will be expected to:

  • demonstrate an understanding of how the Canadian Corps prepared for the Battle of Vimy Ridge;
  • demonstrate an understanding of how the Canadians' battle preparations played an important role in determining the outcome of the battle.

Target Audience

This activity is suitable for students in grades seven to twelve (12 to 18 years of age).

Sequence of Events and Anticipated Time Frame (60 minutes)

[This activity can be modified to fit available class time.]

  • Introductory Brainstorming (10 minutes)
  • Expert Group Research (35 minutes)
  • Class Debriefing (15 minutes)

Class Materials

Additional Resources

Background Information

By early 1917, the First World War had been raging for two and a half years with no end in sight. On the Western Front, the Allies and the Germans had fought to a stalemate, with each side only being able to make small gains at a great cost in lives.

New technology was a primary reason that fighting in the First World War was particularly harsh. The only chance soldiers had to stay alive in the face of powerful machine guns that could fire thousands of bullets per minute was to dig down into the ground. On the Western Front, these defences grew into opposing trench systems facing one another across a blasted "no man's land" stretching almost 1,000 kilometres across Belgium and France.

Vimy Ridge was captured by the Germans in the early months of the war. A long, high hill that overlooked the surrounding plains, it was a key strategic position and the Allies wanted it back. Hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers had become casualties in earlier attempts to recapture Vimy Ridge but it was still in German hands when Canadian troops were transferred to the lines in front of the ridge in late 1916. Lieutenant-General Julian Byng, head of the Canadian Corps, and Major-General Arthur Currie, key advisor and commander of the 1st Canadian Division, knew the challenge they faced and set out to make very detailed plans and preparations to maximize the chances of success.

These efforts were extensive. A replica of the battlefield was constructed to allow the troops to train and familiarize themselves with the attack plan. Repeated trench raids were undertaken to gather intelligence on enemy defences in the lead up to the attack. Extensive tunnel systems were built or enlarged to allow troops, supplies and wounded to move out of sight of the enemy. Transportation systems to the rear were improved to facilitate the moving of men and supplies in advance of the battle.

Artillery preparations were very important as well. Not only were the enemy defensive positions pounded mercilessly for a week in advance of the battle, new technology was used to locate enemy artillery positions by using different observation positions to triangulate the sound and flash the big guns made when firing. That way the Canadians' own artillery could destroy the enemy gun positions, reducing the resistance the infantry soldiers would encounter in their advance on the ridge. At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, 1917, all these preparations would bear fruit and help the Canadian Corps achieve an impressive victory.

Introductory Brainstorming (10 minutes)

Explore the students' existing knowledge on the First World War, by asking questions like:

  • When was it fought?
  • Where was it fought?
  • Who were the combatants?
  • What were conditions like for the soldiers?
  • What contributions and sacrifices did Canadians make in the war?
  • Do any students have ancestors who served in the war?

You could write down key words as this is done and incorporate them into a thought web. Once you have established what the students already know about the war, explain that the class will be learning about how the Canadians achieved their resounding success at Vimy Ridge, France, in April 1917, and how the extensive preparations allowed our country to be triumphant where our Allies had previously fallen short.

Expert Group Research (35 minutes)

Break the class up into 'expert groups' of three or four students, with different groups responsible for researching one aspect of the Canadian preparations for the Battle of Vimy Ridge:

  • trench raids on enemy positions
  • tunneling operations
  • soldier training
  • air support efforts
  • behind-the-lines transportation improvements
  • artillery efforts

Have the students look at and read the descriptions.

Selection of Pictures and Creation of the Story (45 minutes)

Have the groups explore the information given in the Class Materials section (if time allows, they could also refer to content in the Additional Resources section) and then detail why their particular preparation element was important, what dangers it may have held and how it helped the Canadians succeed when the actual attack began. A sketch or diagram could also be made in the expert groups to illustrate the points they have discovered.

Once the story is complete, ask the students to present their final projects to the class.

Class Debriefing (15 minutes)

Once the expert groups have conducted their research and recorded what they have learned on their topic, lead the class in a debrief exercise where each group shares what they have learned with one another. You can mention any additional information you may wish to add or correct any misconceptions that may have arisen during the activity.

This activity can serve as an introduction to Veterans Affairs Canada's other learning activities on the Battle of Vimy Ridge itself.

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