Vimy Ridge (April 1917)

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Since the beginning of the war of position, in October 1914, the 145 metre high Vimy Ridge had been a strong point in the German defences north of Arras. It gave them a commanding view over the battlefields around Arras and the western part of the coal basin which both remained in Allied hands. Gun batteries installed on the opposite slope and guided from observation posts on the top of the ridge could fire on the Allies' lines at Arras with impunity. Because of its strategic importance, the ridge was heavily fortified with several lines of trenches punctuated with concrete shelters and, above all, huge underground facilities made possible by the chalky nature of the terrain.

Between late 1914 and the end of 1916 all Allied attempts to gain possession of the German position on Vimy failed, including the French attacks of May 1915 and the British offensives launched from Gohelle Plain, in the sector of Loos, around Hill 70.

For the first time the four Canadian divisions of the British Army were to fight in the same army corps, during the offensive which was to be launched in early April 1917 at Arras. This was a British offensive designed to pin down the German units on that part of the front several days before the main French offensive on Chemin des Dames Ridge. While the British units were expected to concentrate their advance to the east of Arras, along the river Scarpe, the Canadians were given the task of taking Vimy Ridge.

The Canadians prepared their operation with extreme care and attached huge importance to the logistics of the offensive. Entire sectors of the German lines were reconstructed by the Canadians so their men could train in conditions similar to the ones they were going to encounter during the attack. Tasks were also allocated with great precision, down to company level, and great attention was paid to aerial reconnaissance photography in order to understand every detail of the German defences. Above all, considerable effort was expended over a period of several months to create a network of twelve tunnels, excavated to various depths (at least ten metres underground to escape destruction from German artillery), the longest measuring nearly a kilometre in length. Most of the tunnels ran straight up to the front to provide the assault troops with a secure passage across no man's land and to facilitate contact with the rear for the speedy evacuation of the wounded and transport of supplies and reinforcements. Equipped with electric lighting and, for some, narrow-gauge rail transport and running water, the tunnels led to large bunkers where food and munitions could be stored. Additional galleries were also dug in order to place mines under the enemy's front line to create debilitating explosions immediately prior to the forthcoming assault. On the evening of 8 April 30,000 soldiers of the Canadian Army Corps began to make their way to the front line.

Preliminary shelling began in mid-March with 600 guns pounding the German positions with an average of 2,500 tons of munitions a day. At 5.30 a.m. on 9 April, Easter Monday, the bombardment escalated and shortly afterwards, in blizzard conditions, while the British were streaming out of the quarries of Arras, the Canadian infantry launched its assault, supported by the artillery which cleared a path before the soldiers and the tanks. Thirty minutes later the Canadians had taken part of the German front line and, within the hour, parts of the second line too.

By the middle of the afternoon, despite heavy losses inflicted on the first waves of infantry by the machine guns around the Schwaben Tunnel which had not been knocked out by the shelling, the Canadians had taken control of most of the ridge. After a rest during the night, they continued their advance and gained possession of Hill 145 (where the magnificent memorial stands since 1936) in the morning of 10 April. Two days later the whole of the ridge was under Allied control and the Germans were forced to fall back into the coal basin and withdraw their gun batteries which were now exposed to Allied fire. The Canadians took 3,400 prisoners in three days along a fourteen kilometre stretch of the front. It was an outright victory, obtained at great speed, but losses were high: the Canadians suffered 10,602 casualties including 3,598 killed.

Compared to the confused, bloody and ineffective battles fought along the Western front between 1914 and 1917, the success at Vimy had a great effect on public opinion in Canada where the whole idea of participating in the war was being challenged, notably in Quebec, after the initial euphoria of the many volunteers who signed up. Vimy was undoubtedly a significant moment in the emergence of the Canadian nation.

Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France

Archive pictures

Soldats canadiens et tank avançant près de la crête de Vimy (avril 1917)

[PA-004388] Library and Archives Canada (jpg - 0.12 MB)

Soldats canadiens et tank avançant près de la crête de Vimy (avril 1917)

Soldats canadiens consolidant leurs positions sur la crête de Vimy (avril 1917)

[PA-001085] Library and Archives Canada (jpg - 0.12 MB)

Soldats canadiens consolidant leurs positions sur la crête de Vimy (avril 1917)

Tir de mortier pour écraser les réseaux de fil de fer barbelé ( Vimy, avril 1917)

[PA-001380] Library and Archives Canada (jpg - 0.1 MB)

Tir de mortier pour écraser les réseaux de fil de fer barbelé ( Vimy, avril 1917)