Australian War Memorial Tour of the Western Front 2007
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The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the opening battles in a larger British campaign known as the Battle of Arras during the First World War. It is also considered a major event in Canadian history for the key role the Canadian Corps of First Army played in the attack.
On March 25, 1917, the largest artillery barrage in history up to that point started. The German trenches were shelled for over two weeks, using over one million shells. The German artillery pieces were hidden behind the ridge, but by using observation balloons in the air and microphones on the ground to triangulate the sound and light from their firing (a technique known as "flash spotting"), the Canadians were able to locate and destroy about 83% of the German guns.
Official war photo of Vimy Ridge in 1917.
Photographer: Jack Turner
Source. Digital Collections website operated by the Government of Canada.
The Canadians also made many night trench raids during this week, although General Arthur Currie thought this was an unnecessary risk and a waste of men. Against this, the raids gained much intelligence which "enabled the Canadians to take their objectives with lighter losses than would otherwise have been possible". The German troops called this period the "Week of Suffering".
At dawn on Easter Monday, April 9, the assault divisions of the Canadian Corps attacked. The attack was so loud, the sound of guns could be heard plainly in southern England, about a hundred miles from the front. The first wave of about 15,000 Canadian troops attacked positions defended by roughly 5,000 Germans, followed by the second wave of 12,000 Canadians to meet 3,000 German reserves. Over 1,100 cannons of various descriptions, from British heavy naval guns mounted on railway cars miles behind the battlefield, to portable field artillery pieces dragged into place by horses, mules, or soldiers just behind the Canadian lines, fired continuously. Nearly 100,000 men in total were to take and hold the ridge. The first wave advanced behind a creeping barrage, known specifically for the battle as the Vimy Glide. This tactic had been used earlier at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and the Battle of the Somme but—again in the absence of voice control—required fine tuning. The officer sometimes credited for planning and coordinating the barrage was Brigade Major Alan Brooke, later better known as Field-Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during World War II.
Additionally, the heavy artillery was strongly reinforced, with nine British heavy artillery groups supplementing the 1st and 2nd Canadian Heavy Artillery Groups, making a total of 245 heavy guns and howitzers. The supporting field artillery was also reinforced to include "seven divisional artilleries ... eight independent field artillery brigades, ... 480 eighteen-pounders and 138 4.5-inch howitzers". Also available if required were "132 more heavies and 102 field pieces" and "a few heavy guns held under the command of the First Army". This fire power gave a density of one heavy gun for every 20 yards of frontage and one field gun for every ten yards: in contrast, the proportions at the Somme had been one heavy gun to 57 yards, and one field gun to every 20. The artillery was under the overall charge of Brig-Gen. W.E.B. Morrison, a gunner from Guelph (and a close friend of John McCrae).
On Z-Day, all went well. The mines were fired, a blanket of shells from the barrage crept towards the German front line, and the men of the Canadian Corps walked closely behind it. As insurance, heavy machine fire, calibrated to four hundred feet to their front, arced over their heads towards the German lines. Corporal Gus Sivertz of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles later recalled:,
We were dancing a macabre dance as our nerves just vibrated to the thousands of shells and machine gun bullets... whizzing over. I felt that if I had put my finger up, I should have touched a ceiling of sound.
After less than two hours, three of the four Canadian divisions had taken their objectives; the 4th Division, however, was held up by machine gun nests on the highest point of the ridge, known as Hill 145. The 87th Battalion suffered 50% casualties. The 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, who had been intended to function in a supply and construction role, were sent in as reinforcements and the hill was captured by the end of the day. The fight to take Vimy Ridge cost Canada dearly, but it would become clear that Canada won this battle because they made sure that they knew every part of land they were fighting on and prepared very well for what was to come. Additionally, the massed British and Australian divisions attacking along a 24-mile front on the Canadian Corps' north and south flanks achieved their preliminary objectives.
By April 12, the Canadians controlled the entire ridge, at a cost of 3,598 men killed and 7,004 wounded, for a total of 10,602 casualties. The German Sixth Army, under General Ludwig von Falkenhausen, suffered approximately 20,000 casualties. The Canadians also took 4,000 Germans as prisoners of war. The loss of the ridge forced the Germans to retreat to the lower plains that were far more difficult to defend. It also seriously undermined German morale, as they had long regarded the ridge as one of their most impregnable strongpoints. Domination of the ridge also denied the German the rich coalfields of the plain. The Hundred Days Offensive counter-attack to the German Spring Offensive would ultimately lead to victory over Germany by November 1918