114: Vimy


O Canada



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 114. This week is something of a special episode as we will break from our usual programming to instead discuss something that happened 100 years ago, the Battle of Vimy Ridge. This battle occurred between April 9th and 12th 1917. This action would be part of the larger Battle of Arras which was the British portion of the Nivelle Offensive launched by the French army to the south. We will not be discussing either the Battle of Arras or the Nivelle Offensives today, that will come later this year. However, we will be discussing the Battle of Vimy Ridge mostly because it is very important to Canadians. It would be this battle that would be chosen to commemorate the entire war for Canadians and because of this they often discuss the events there outside of the context of the larger battle that was taking place around it. For those who remember our discussions about Gallipoli and what it meant for Australia and New Zealand both at the time and over the last century I think the place that Vimy fits in Canadian history is very similar. Today we will start with a bit of information about Canada before the war, before we jump into what they did during the first two years of the conflict. Then we will transition the story to Vimy by discussing how the Canadians got there, what they did to the area once they arrived, and then how they prepared for the attack which they were about to launch. Then the attack will begin, which we will discuss in some detail. We will then close out our episode by discussing how Vimy came to be the most important battle for the Canadians since it was not the first, largest, or greatest success by Canadian troops during the war. All of that and more will be covered during this episode, and for those wondering about the Romanian front, we will jump back there next episode to finish off that story. But that is the future, lets focus on the now, which is Vimy.

Before the war Canada was part of the British Commonwealth, it is important to say that it is not a colony, a mistake I made in the early episodes of this podcast and for which I received many any emails. Because it was part of the Commonwealth it had a good amount of autonomy in everything except for foreign relations and the military, both of which was handled in London. The country was still mostly a frontier country with a lot of open areas, small villages, and room to roam. There was only one rail line connecting the cities of Eastern Canada to the Pacific, although there were others being built. When the war started Canada had an army of just more than 3,000 regulars and 74,000 part time militia and these men did not have any real military tradition, there was little knowledge in the leadership about how to prepare for war, and there was little experience leading men in combat. Growing the number of men available to the military was a hotly debated topic before the war due to it being a period of strong isolationist movements after the Boer War. During that war there were Canadian troops sent to South Africa, but when the fighting was over many Canadians questioned the benefit. Much of the resistance to a stronger military came from the French Canadians, and as had been the case for quite some time there was friction between French Canadians and British Canadians that would run high several times during the war. This friction would come to a head later in the war when the topic of conscription in Canada was discussed, but that is not something that we will cover today. While these discussions about how large of a military Canada should have were still happening when the war started there was widespread support for the war, especially among British Canadians, many of whom saw themselves as British first and Canadians second.

Much like the British army when the Canadian army began to grow rapidly it was made up almost entirely of citizen volunteers with no military training before the war. These came predominantly from Western Canada, with almost half of the troops at Vimy coming from west of Ontario, an area which had less than a quarter of the total population of the country which translates into a much higher volunteer ratio. These were young men who had lived most of their lives in the open country, who were used to hard work, and were not at all used to the type of discipline that the British Army demanded. This was a quality that they shared with their Australian and New Zealand cousins with soldiers from all three countries thought to be undisciplined and unruly by their British counterparts. Because of this the British leaders thought very little of them, and boy would they be prove wrong. These units were led by the Canadian Minister of Militia Sam Hughes who had some good quality, but still had his downsides. One of these downsides was his desire to use Canadian goods to arm and provision the troops, with many of these items found to be inadequate for the war. One example of this was his belief in the Ross Rifle which was a Canadian rifle known for its accuracy, because of this accuracy it would become one of the premiere sharpshooting rifles of the war. However, it had some pretty big downsides, the biggest one was that it dealt very poorly with mud, dirt, and dust which was everywhere on the battlefield. In a battle situation, not being able to count on your rifle to work is never something that soldiers like and because of this the Canadian troops were almost entirely re-outfitted and re-armed when they got to Europe. Also when they arrived in Britain they found that the initial plan was to break up their units to use the men as spot reinforcements for British units. The reason that the British wanted to do this was obvious however the Canadian leaders fought fiercely against this happening. Because of their presistance the Canadians were kept together first in divisions and then later as part of the Canadian Corps at Vimy, then as part of a Canadian Army in the last years of the war. The first Canadian division would arrive in France in Spring of 1915, in time to take their place in the line north of Ypres before the German gas attack during th eSecond Battle of Ypres. During this battle they would perform well and Canadian troops would take part in several battles on the Western Front, including the Battle of the Somme. Their Cavalry Corps was also active during these years, something that Patreon supporters can hear about in the Special Cavalry episodes. They would always acquit themselves well on the battlefield, which meant that when they were assigned to attack Vimy Ridge there were high hopes that they would be successful.

Vimy ridge had been on the front line since the Race to the Sea in 1914. It was a ridge about 4.5 miles long that row about 480 feet high. It was the last natural defensive line before the Douai plain which had important German rail lines crisscrossing it. Since October 1914 it had been the witness of several French attempts to retake it from the Germans, especially during the First and Second Battles of Artois in May and September 1915 when it took center stage in the French attacks. It had proven to be a tough nut to crack through, and since those attacks it had only gotten more difficult. The Germans had spent over 2 years improving their fortifications on the ridge, and in Spring 1917 they had introduced a new method of defense, a defense in depth, which was designed specifically around the situation the Western Front. However, on this section of the front the German commander would not properly use these new techniques and would instead default back to the old style of having a strongly held front line. These troops would be vulnerable to the Canadian artillery, which would place a critical role in the eventual success of the attack.

Preparations for the Vimy attack would have set its roots when the Canadian Corps were moved into the area in October 1916. When they arrived the Canadians found that the area stank of death, and everywhere there was evidence of all of the previous battles. Rusty wire, shell holes, and worst of all dead and decaying bodies could be found just below the surface. Their command was General Byng, who was notified in November that his troops would be assaulting the ridge early in 1917. Byng would be the right man for this job, even though he was not Canadian he would generally thought very highly of by both the troops and their Canadian officers both at the time and later. The soldiers had all winter to give thought to their coming task and to prepare for it. They would be responsible for capturing all 4 miles of the ridge and to do this they would have 4 division all of which were bigger than the typical British division with 21,000 instead of 15,000 men. The person in charge of getting all of these troops prepared was General Arthur Currie who was put in charge of first analyzing the battles up to that point in the war, with particular focus on the Somme and Verdun, to try and put together some lessons that could be applied to the Canadian effort. Currie was a perfect fit for this job, with a strong tactical mind as well as being a good administrator and planner. He would eventually find himself in command of all Canadian forces later in the war. For the men in the trenches the winter was miserable for all involved, it would be below freezing for over a month straight and the ground would freeze to a depth of 2 feet, when it was not freezing these ground would just turn into the typical sea of mud that would be present on so many battlefields on the Western Front.

As always, the artillery would be critical. It was under the command of Major Alan Francis Brooke, who would go on to be the Chief of the British Imperial General Staff during the Second World War as Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, so he had some skill. For 2 weeks the artillery would fire on the German positions, with the fire rate doubling during the second week. All of these shells, which escalated up to 3,000 per minute during the last few days would destroy 83% of the German artillery and cause serious issues for the front line German troops as they tried to move food, water, and reinforcements into the front lines. The German troops would come to call the second week of the bombardment the Week of Suffering due to the constant barrage. However, it would be the bombardment on the day of the attack that I find to be most impressive. I have posted a bombardment map from the Vimy attack in the show notes for this episode, and it looks quite impressive. Every 3 minutes the bombardment would move forward 90 meters, with breaks at each major objective to let the infantry catch up. This was not the first time that the creeping barrage was used, and the British and French had been trying to get it right for almost 2 years, here at Vimy would be one of the first times that they nailed it perfectly. They were helped by the errors in the disposition of the German defenders which we have already touched on, the German commander, von Falkenhausen, kept most of his men in the front lines and well within range of the Canadian guns, making them vulnerable to first the preparatory bombardment and then the creeping barrage. The guns would fire for 2 weeks before the attack and then go silent at dusk the night before, they would reignite their fire the next morning.

One bit of preparations that the Canadians spent a lot of time on was digging, and not just trenches but tunnels, some of which were quite large. There were a huge number of tunnels dug in front of Vimy Ridge and by March one author would compare the area to Swiss cheese. There would be a dozen large subways linking the front lines to the rear and in total there would be 6 kilometers worth of tunnels. The subways were large, with some of over 6 feet high and 3 feet wide, more than enough for several men to walk though shoulder to shoulder. These were supported by timers every meter, were subject to detailed mapping efforts to aid in movement, were at their shallowest 20 feet below ground with several being even deeper, and then also had countless galleries reaching out on either side. These galleries were up to 150 square feet and were used to hold things like battalion and brigade headquarters, dressing stations, munitions dumps, everything that was needed to keep an army going really. They were also used as transportation tunnels linking the Canadian rear areas to tunnels that led right up to the front lines, and sometimes out into No Man’s Land. They also provided a safe way to reach the tunnels that were used as listening posts and had large explosive mines at the end to be detonated before the attack. Some of the subways and tunnels also had electricity and they were critical highways for electrical, telephone, and water lines that went from the rear to the front lines. There were 21 miles of electrical cable buried both in these tunnels and in the trenches, 22 water pumping stations running 54 miles of pipe, and in total about 1100 miles of telephone cable all of which were laid down before the attack. In the days and hours before the attack the tunnels would take on their primary purpose which was to house the second wave of Canadian troops which would mass inside of the larger tunnels waiting to move forward. Having a protected highway in which these units could assemble and then be unleashed right into no man’s land protected them from the possibility of being hit by German artillery. It also made communications and coordination between the attacking units and officers in the rear much easier since they were safe places to base telephone lines in. Overall, the ability to move men and material into the front lines without issues would play a huge role in the success of the attack.

Another important piece of the Canadian preparation puzzle were raids. Over the course of the 4 months before the attack there would be at least 55 raids launched by the Canadians. These raids had a huge variance in size with some being just a handful of men and some of the largest being 1700. For the three weeks before April 9th these raids would be launched nightly. There were several purposes to these raids, the first was to try and capture German soldiers who could be interrogated to gain intelligence. It also kept the Germans off balance, they knew that their section of the front could be hit any night, which kept men from resting properly with the knowledge that they could be woken up by Canadians in their trenches. On the opposite side of that feeling it also made the Germans used to the Canadians being between the lines, this meant that on the night of the attack if there were a few Canadians seen between the trenches the Germans might just assume it was another raid and not the major attack that it was. While these raids were by and large successful, and certainly got the more inexperienced Canadians more experience, they were also costly with about 1,700 men and officers being killed or wounded. This would hit some units harder than others, which would reduce their fighting strength in the days and weeks before the attack. However, both Currie and Byng believed that the benefits of the raids were more than worth the cost.

These were just some of the preparations for the attack, preparations that went on for months. After Currie had analyzed the previous battles he put in place a training and preparation system that would include all of the following activities. First there were maps created of the terrain to be assaulted. These were then used to make large terrain models of the sector, then there were full scale models created behind the lines where colored tapes were used to mark trenches, obstacles, and other items of note. These were then used to drill the troops over and over gain, so much so that they many men complained that they were completely and utterly bored with the idea by the end. There were also very detailed maps of every German stronghold, redoubt, and barbed wire line created and mass produced, something like 40,000 of these maps were printed in total and they were sent to officers within the Canadian Corps all the way down to section leaders. This level of distribution was unhread of at the time, men that close to the front, and at that low of a level were just not given detailed maps. However, Currie wanted to do this to make it easier for these section and platoon leaders to know how they fit in with the plan, and how they needed to carry out their piece of it. It helped to coordinate units during the attack and it also increased morale. Even man, all the way down to the newest Private, was being given specific information about their role in the attack. This showed the men that they were trusted by their leaders, and that those officers thought that they were smart enough to be told all of the information and that they could be trusted to use it. This was a big deal at the time, even if it sounds a bit silly these days. Another piece of preparation was finding the German artillery so that counterbattery fire could be dropped on them. To do this the Canadians used several techniques, one of which was sound ranging. This was done by having a series of microphones placed all along the front line, all which were hooked up via wires to recorders back at headquarters. When a German gun would fire the intervals between when the sound hit each microphone was analyzed and through a bit of geometry the position of the German guns could be determined. It took time to get it all right, but by April, if it was a clear day, the Canadians could determine the position of a German gun to within a 25 yard circle in about 3 minutes. They also used flash spotting which involved men along the front with surveying gear and a reporting system that lit up lights back and headquarters when they spotted flashes. Both of these could be combined to get the position of an enemy gun pretty close, close enough for counterbattery fire and far better than other previous methods. Another feature of the Vimy battle, and one that was also used during the raids beforehand was indirect machine gun fire. This was a concept put forward by a Canadian, Raymond Brutinel, with the idea being that you could do with machine guns something similar to what the artillery was doing. The machine guns could also be pointed up into the air so that the bullets had a higher trajectory and would then fall down on the enemy. They would hit with just as much force as if they were being directly fired, but they could be fired over obstacles and over the heads of attackers. This steel rain was extremely dangerous for the Germans, and was an easy way to increase the danger to exposed soldiers in the moments before the attack hit the German lines. Speaking of the attack, let’s talk about the final run up to the attack.

For a week before the attack every Canadian knew every detail of what they needed to know for the attack except for when it would happen. Along the front final preparations were happening, light railways were pushed as far forward and possible, bridges were either put across the rear Canadian trenches or put nearby in preparation. Huge munition and supply dumps were built up right behind the lines, ready to be move forward into the new positions. Starting on April 7th, men began to move forward. It started with the headquarters units, then as night fell thousands of men started to push forward to their jumping off trenches. They moved through communication trenches, or the lucky ones went through the subways. Then later more troops would move into the secondary lines, and then still more into the reserve lines. Eventually there would be 23 battalions in the front line, 12 more right behind, 9 more in reserve behind them. Unfortunately tne nice weather of the 7th gave way to unfortunate winter weather as the clock ticked down. This resulted in Canadians in their trenches standing around, often in freezing water and mud, waiting with snow joining in on the party later. As the hour approached the snows increased, reaching blizzard intensity occasionally, an intensity matched by the artillery. Over the course of the last week the artillery fired a million rounds until the night before and they went silent. Then three minutes before the attack they fired off gas round onto the German rear areas to disrupt reinforcements. Then 2 minutes before the infantry made their final preparations and bayonets were fixed. Then with 1 minute left a single artillery gun, the signal to the rest, fired, and suddenly the world was ripped asunder as thousands of guns fired almost simultaneously, it had started.

Each of the 4 divisions that would take part in the attack had slightly different plans based on the fact that the distance between the Canadian lines and their final objectives varied along the front. As a general rule the final objectives were closer on the left, and on the right their were further away. It was in the south that the 1st division would attack, with its objective 4000 yards away which was the furthest of any of the divisions. The plan was to launch the attack in 2 stages, with each having two lines of objectives within them. Each of these 4 locations would be designated by a line and a color and they functioned as a way to tell the units that it was time for the attacking troops to stop and consolidate their positions while the next wave of men prepared to carry the offensive forward. The first objective was called the black line, which ran along the initial German front line. When the 1st division attacked they would lose half of the men in the attacking units trying to capture this first objective, however they would still capture them quickly. In general, given the Canadian attacking plans, it was better for something to be captured quickly rather than cheaply. While this was a good accomplishment, capturing the first line of German trenches was not unheard of at this point in the war, the British and French had done it several times. Now it was time to continue forward, which was always the problem. When the Black Line was captured the men signaled, using flags, to aircraft circling overhead and that they had reached their first objective. They also stopped to fortify their positions while the artillery moved forward 200 yards to provide them with a curtain of steel to prevent any German counter attacks. While this happened the second wave of Canadians moved through the first wave and at precisely 6:55AM the advance resumed. The next objective, the Red line, was half of a mile from the Black line, a fair distance, but already the German defenders were beginning to lose cohesion. Reinforcements had not yet arrived at the front, and the rear area trenches were only lightly held. Because of this lack of strength the Canadians reached the Red Line in just 28 minutes. This meant that they were a mile beyond where they started, and it was still only 7:13AM. Up to this point all of the attacking had been done by the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the 1st Division, however since the 1st division front narrowed as it went forward only 1 Brigade would move through these troops to continue the attack. This would be the 1st Brigade and it was their job to take the final two lines of objectives. It would be 2 and a half hours though before they could attack and during that time the 2nd and 3rd Brigades dug in, consolidated their positions, took care of the last few German holdouts, and prepared the way for others to continue forward. During all of this time the artillery continued to fire. At 10AM the artillery and the infantry began to once again move forward. They quickly advanced the 600 yards to the blue line, waited at that point about an hour, then moved to their final objective, the brown line, by 1:30. Overall, the 1st Division’s attack had been a textbook success. The first waves had been hit hard by the German defenders, but successive attacks had been more successful and had suffered fewer casualties. They had captured everything they had been sent to capture, all in a single day, and they would be able to hold onto it against any German attacks. Unfortunately this would be the best experience of any of the 4 divisions on the 9th, even though they had to go the furthest.

The 2nd Division, to the left of the first, had a shorter distance to go by about half of a mile. However the 2nd division had different challenges. The biggest of these was the fact that instead of the width of front narrowing as they went forward it would instead get wider. This made it more difficult to keep moving as they got deeper and deeper into the German positions. This also meant that instead of shifting from 2 Brigades to 1 Brigade at the halfway point they would instead be using 2 Brigades for the second half of the attack. Since the 2nd Division only had 3 Brigades the 4th Brigade was provided by the British 5th Division in the form of the 13th Brigade. By 6:25AM the troops had already reached the first line of objectives and had suffered very few casualties. For the most part the German units opposite of them had not been able to put forward any real resistance, with many of them being obliterated by the artillery and machine gun fire. In one of the German battalions only a single man would survive the morning. For the next attack the Germans were slightly more prepared, but not by too much, because the next objectives were captured in less than half of an hour. At 9:30 the Canadian 6th and British 13th Brigades took over the attack and moved forward. During this jump there were some severe casualties, not all of which were caused by the Germans. Instead there were several Canadian artillery batteries who dropped shells short during the attack, killing or wounding a number of Canadian infantry. This setback did not prevent the troops from achieving their goal and reaching the Blue line by 11:30, and the Brown Line, their final objective, by 12:42.

On paper the 3rd division had the easiest job of all of the Canadian divisions for April 9th. They only had to advance 1200 yards, much less than the divisions on their right, and they did not have any truly daunting positions to capture like the 4th division did on their left. Because of these advantages, the 3rd division’s attack would go off almost with a hitch, in fact the only problem was on their left flank and was not on their front but from the front of the 4th division. The issue was Hill 145, which we will discuss here shortly, however for the 3rd Division it caused their far left units to come under a crippling machine gun fire and they could not do anything about. This would cause them hundreds of casualties and hit some units, like the Canadian Black Watch, very hard.

This problem brings us to the 4th Division, the last of the Canadian divisions to take part in the Vimy attack. This division would be the only one that failed to capture all of its objectives either ahead or on schedule. All of the problems revolved around Hill 145. In the planning for the attack the Canadians had grossly underestimated the strength of the German positions on the hill and it would end up being the toughest and best-defended sector on the entire ridge. It also had some extremely steep slopes which were difficult to grapple with. The final issue was that the Germans had concealed several concrete machine gun positions that purposefully did not fire until the Canadian attack had begun, which meant they had not been targeted by any previous artillery fire. The final issue was one made by the Canadian officers in charge of assaulting the hill. They decided to not bombard a bit of trench right in front of the hill and right in front of the Grenadier Guards. The theory behind this choice was that if they destroyed the trench before the attack then troops would be vulnerable to German fire from further up the hill while they were attacking. So instead of destroying the trench they would leave it intact so that the Canadians would have the ability to shelter inside of it while preparing to launch the next attack up the hill. Instead of having this benefit though, it resulted in half of the Guards being killed or wounded in just 6 minutes. This completely stopped their attack, and it slowed the attack of the entire division since the Guards were positioned in the middle of their front. Their failure caused issues for all of the surrounding troops as they tried to push forward. All morning units around the hill would try and deal with the Germans firing on them from above, but attack after attack failed. It would not be until the afternoon when the Nova Scotia Highlanders, who were not even supposed to be participating in the fighting since 200 of them were back and England with the mumps, arrived and went forward that the Germans were pushed off of the hill. It had taken all day, cost hundreds of casualties, but finally Hill 145 was captured.

The final piece of the puzzle was the capture of The Pimple, the highest point on the ridge. The original plan was to attack this position on the 10th, however the units that were initially supposed to launch this attack had been badly mauled on the 9th due to the fighting around Hill 145 which meant that the operation had to be postponed until the 12th. Once the attack was launched it met with the same level of success as the previous attacks. After the capture of this final position the battle was basically over. Overall the Canadian casualties numbered 10,000, with 3,500 of those killed. Capturing the ridge had been a great achievement, they had captured 4,000 Germans, 54 artillery guns, 104 trench mortars, and 124 machine guns to go along with it. However, it probably could have been so much more. Especially on the southern end of the front the Canadians had accomplished their goals so easily, and so quickly, that they probably could have advanced much further. This may have exposed them to harsher German counterattacks, outside of the range of Canadian artillery as well, but the troops could not advance beyond their final objectives without authorization, even though several Canadians would claim that the way in front of them was open and devoid of defenders. Overall, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a success, a bit costly perhaps, but a success none the less. Given the recent British track record of attacks a costly success was seen as far better than 1916s record of costly failures.

With the battle over the only question left to answer is how did Vimy find its way into Canadian society in such a big way. After the war France and Belgium worked with its allies to find sites throughout the two countries to try and find places where all could properly memorialized the events of the war. These areas were then given to the countries in perpetuity. Canada selected and was provide with 8 different sites. After the war there was some heated discussions without Canada about how these sites should be memorialized. Some believed that all 8 sites should be treated equally, some believed that one should be chosen as the national memorial site, with a larger and more encompassing memorial while the others were dedicated with smaller more local memorials. Initially the Canadians would plan to construct the same memorial at all 8 sites and they asked for submissions on what these should look like, everybody liked the design put forward by Walter Allward, however it was too large and ambitious to be put at 8 different sites so if they wanted to build it only one site could be chosen. So, with that in mind, why Vimy? Well that is a multi-faceted answer. First of all the battle was a successful attack, this was not a requirement, but it does add a kind of feel good narrative to the events. Second, Vimy was the first time that all of the Canadian troops on the Western Front would launch an attack together, with a single purpose and at a single location. This type of unity of purpose for all Canadian troops would play a big role in the narrative of the battle. Third, the battle was for the most part planned, executed, and the men were led by Canadians making this an almost entirely Canadian victory. The final reason, and I’m not sure if this was said as a bit of a joke, but I quite like it, is that it was also chosen because the location was easy to pronounce. As a man who is no stranger to mispronouncing French and Belgian place names, having your memorial at a place named Vimy made it far easier for Canadians to pronounce. Again, I don’t know if that is completely accurate, but it made me smile. So what was this moment that was created? Well it would be 230 feet wide, 200 feet deep, and 120 feet high and I think it is probably the most recognizable memorial on the Western Front. Its usage of two huge pillars constructed of Croatian limestone with figured carved on all sides makes for a lovely and powerful image. It would take 12 years to complete, not being done until 1936 and it bears the names of 11,285 Canadians who died in France and whose bodies were never recovered. I think that the best way to close out the episode is a quote from Pierre Burton from his book Vimy.

It is near the end of the book as Burton tries to explain how Vimy took the place that it did in Canadian culture. The answer ends up being somewhat simple, Vimy became so important because people wanted it to be. Canadians wanted and needed a focal point for their commemoration, memory, and grief and that could have been placed anywhere.

“What counts is that in the minds of Canadians Vimy took on a mythic quality in the post-war years, and Canada was short of myths. There is something a little desperate- a little wistful- in the commentaries of the twenties and thirties and even later, in which Canadians assured one another over and over again that at Vimy, Canada had at last found its maturity”