90th anniversary of famous battle — “I think myself that was where Canada was born”

by Bruce Cherney

A survey commissioned by the Dominion Institute revealed that only 41 per cent of the respondents were aware of this nation’s most important victory during the First World War — a defining moment in Canadian history. Another 55 per cent were unable to name the famous First World War poem penned by Canadian medical officer Capt. John McCrae.

Fortunately, the percentage of people able to name the famous victory has increased since a 1998 survey. Forty-one per cent of those surveyed by Innovative Research Group were aware that the victory was called the Battle of Vimy Ridge, compared to 36 per cent in 1998.

Only 45 per cent of those surveyed were aware that McCrae’s poem was In Flanders Fields. In this case, the percentage of those able to name the poem had declined by five per cent since 1998.

When asked to name two famous Canadians from a four-person list that included Americans Gen. Douglas MacArthur (an astonishing 24 per cent said he was a Canadian hero) and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, forty-one per cent correctly named either Gen. Sir Arthur Currie and Air Marshall Billy Bishop. On the other hand, only 39 per cent named both Currie and Bishop correctly.

Although Vimy Ridge is termed by historians as this nations’ “coming of age,” nearly four-in-10 of those surveyed did not consider the battle worth remembering.

The lack of knowledge — despite weeks of extensive media coverage — should be noted as particularly troubling since thousands of Canadians were at Vimy Ridge in France on Easter weekend to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the battle and the just-completed restoration of the Canadian memorial on the site.

In France, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Vimy Ridge was “central to the story of our country ... Of all the ties that bind us, few are stronger than those forged right here ... during the Battles of Arras and Vimy Ridge.”  

At Kandahar, Afghanistan, Canadians troops bowed their heads to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the battle. On Easter Sunday, the Canadian troops in Kandahar were also mourning the deaths of six of their comrades who were killed by a roadside bomb. Two others were injured.

“We found our way among nations in 1917,” said Col. Mike Cessford, deputy commander of Task Force Afghanistan, in a Canadian Press report. “Now we are finding our way on the international stage.”

The battle began in the early morning dawn of Easter Monday, April 9, 1917. The four Canadian divisions on hand for the attack numbered 100,000 men — the first time Canadians fought together as a national unit. 

Although the battle did not end the war and was but a small portion of an overall British offensive, it was the only significant victory during the entire Allied Arras offensive launched by the British 1st and 3rd armies.

To put the battle into perspective, the war wasn’t turning out well for the Allies. What the Allies drastically needed in the spring of 1917 was a victory — any victory — to shore up sagging morale.

Thousands of French and British troops had already perished at the approaches to Vimy Ridge. One soldier remarked that the ridge “was the central point of an immense graveyard” due to the 300,000 British and French casualties resulting from two attacks.

But by using new  and imaginative tactics developed by British Gen. Julian Byng, the commander of the Canadian forces, and Currie, a strategy emerged that within four days allowed Canadian soldiers to accomplish what others had failed to do in three years. 

When Byng was given his command weeks before the battle, he had no knowledge of Canadians, but promised he would do his best with “these people.” Recognizing the Canadians’ egalitarian streak, Byng was slack with salutes, was willing to share rations and wasn’t afraid to explore the front lines. Out of respect for the British general, the men he commanded began to refer to themselves as “Byng’s Boys.”

At the outbreak of the First World War, Canadians had little knowledge of soldiering — they were farmers, lawyers, school  teachers, miners, carpenters, etc. 

Some of the so-called better prepared men of the Canadian Expeditionary  Force had served in the militia and were disparagingly called “Saturday Soldiers.”

Most of the men who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force were in their late teens or early-20s, and a significant portion of them were immigrants to Canada from the United Kingdom. At the outbreak of war, 60 per cent of the volunteers had been born in either England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. Yet, these British-born were increasingly seeing themselves as Canadian; forged into a cohesive unit after two years of heavy fighting in their adopted country’s uniform.

It should also be noted that Byng was just one of many British officers who participated in the Battle of Vimy Ridge — the Canadian army had few experienced high-ranking officers in its ranks. At the start of the war,  Canadians with Boer War experience and militia training were often appointed to led the troops.

Currie was typical of the Canadians who went overseas. Prior to the war, he  had been a school teacher, a real estate agent and a “Saturday Soldier.” Yet, he became an adept military tactician. 

Byng gave Currie the task of preparing a report on the lessons that could be learned from past battles. Currie recommended that attacking in waves be abandoned and smaller less vulnerable platoon units be formed. Each platoon and section would be given clearly defined objectives and the soldiers would be trained accordingly. 

Byng was enthusiastic about Currie’s recommendations and further endorsed the idea that infantry companies be given independence of movement. Each infantry company of four platoons was given the go-ahead to fight their own mini-battles on the field. This was a novel concept in a war that had previously seen men mowed down by the thousands because they were expected to act like robots. 

“In the event any Division or Brigade being held up,” Byng wrote in the Corps’ operational orders, “the units on the flanks will on no account check their advance, but will form defensive flanks in that direction and press forward themselves to envelop the strong point or centre of  resistance which is preventing the advance. With this objective in view reserves will be pushed in behind those portions of the line that are successful rather than those who are held up.” 

This was also revolutionary. No commander to this point had believed in exploiting weak points and reinforcing success instead of failure. 

Byng and Canadian Major-General Edward Morrison also developed technical artillery skills and modified what had been learned from the French. 

“The field and horse gunners, accustomed to fighting under circumstances which enable them to observe every round, had to cease at scoffing at corrections for temperature, barometric pressure, velocity and direction of wind, wear of guns and type of shell and fuse,” wrote Andrew McNaughton, a Canadian artillery officer who was instrumental in preparing counter-artillery techniques. “And the heavy artillery, used to utmost deliberation, had to learn speed. Accuracy of fire on unseen targets, and the ability to shoot close over the heads of our own infantry, had to be acquired, and an organization built up which could effectively handle large masses of artillery.” 

Byng also used raids, patrols and analysis of aerial photographs taken to compile intelligence. 

A massive construction program was undertaken to expand the tunnel system developed when the French and British held positions at Vimy Ridge. Twelve subways were built through which attacking troops could move to their jumping off points while being protected from enemy shells. 

Chambers were also cut into the subways to house brigade and battalion headquarters, munitions dumps and dressing stations. Over 800 tonnes of ammunition, rations and engineer stores were stockpiled. 

Currie helped perfect the use of a “creeping barrage.” The idea behind this tactic was to have artillery shells land in front of the advancing troops at 100-metre intervals every three minutes, keeping the German soldiers off guard.

In addition, every soldier knew his objective and had seen maps of his objective, a clear departure from the British practice of reserving battle plans for officers. This meant that the death of an officer would not impede the advance. If necessary, even a lowly private would be able to take charge. 

A full-scale replica of the battlefield was built behind the lines where units practiced their missions. Mounted officers with white flags simulated movement of the creeping barrage and lines of various colours signified objectives. 

A Lewis machine-gunner in the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles later said that “when we finally reached the top of the hill, we not only landed in exactly the right place, but we were in the right section of those trenches we were supposed to be in.”

According to Brig-Gen. William Griesbach, who was with the 1st Brigade at Vimy, Canadian troops were well-trained, well-led and committed to learning.

The Canadian barrage against the ridge used 245 heavy guns and howitzers and more than 600 pieces of field artillery. British artillery added another 132 heavy guns and 102 field pieces. One million shells were expended when the bombardment finally stopped. “It was like water from a hose,” said one Canadian. 

In the first phase of the shelling that started on March 20 and lasted until April 2, the Canadians had purposely used only half of their artillery to keep the Germans guessing about their strength and intentions. 

Despite not using all the artillery available, the Germans called the barrage the “week of suffering.” 

After the barrage, few of the identified German guns remained intact. Gaps in the wire in front of the German trenches were opened using shells with newly-developed fuses that exploded upon impact with barbed wire. 

The Canadian attack was to be mounted in four stages using four infantry divisions with a British division held in reserve. They would face seven front-line German divisions. 

Using a strict timetable, the Canadians would be fighting on an 11-kilometre front. “There it lay, facing Canadian lines — a low ... escarpment of sullen grey, rising softly from the plain below,” wrote Canadian author Pierre Berton in his book Vimy, “a monotonous spine of mud ... devoid of grass or foliage ... At first glance it didn’t seem very imposing, but those who knew its history and looked ahead to that moment when they must plough forward ... toward that ragged crest aflame with gunfire, it took on an aura both dark and sinister.”

On April 8, the artillery barrage slowed. On April 9, it stopped and there was an eerie silence for about 15 minutes. At 5:30 a.m., the silence was shattered when the artillery barrage re-commenced. 

“Imagine the loudest clap of thunder ever heard,” recalled Lieutenant E.L.M. Burns, “multiplied by two and prolonged indefinitely.” 

“I looked and saw the German front line crashing into pieces; bits of men, timbers, lumps of chalk were flying through the air, and, blending with the shattering line of fire,” wrote Gus Silvertz of the 3rd Canadian Division. “We didn’t dare lift our heads, knowing that the barrage was coming flat over us and left in three minutes ... I guess it was the most perfect barrage of the war, as it was so perfectly synchronized. Then it suddenly jumped 100 yards and we were away. Instead of a German trench there was only a wide, muddy depression, stinking of explosives.” 

Silvertz said there wasn’t much opposition, but recorded that men were still dropping around him. “The man next to me smiled and leaned over to say something ... He put his mouth almost to my ear, there was a helluva noise going on, he never finished the sentence, never made a sound, just pitched on his face.” 

At 7 a.m., the 1st Division had reached  its primary target. The 3rd reached the crest at 7:30 a.m. Encountering heavy  fighting, the 2nd arrived at their objective by 8 a.m. The 4th Division faced stiffer opposition in front of Hill 145, the highest point of the ridge. It was dark on April 10 when the Nova Scotia battalion, which had previously been used as a labour force, took the German defenses. 

To take Hill 145, troops slated to assault The Pimple — the other prominent height on the ridge — had been thrown into battle. 

The Pimple, originally to be attacked by British troops, was stormed two days later by Canadians. Brigadier-general Edward Hilliam, an Alberta rancher, would lead his men onward to take The Pimple. 

“The men of the 44th Battalion (recruited in Winnipeg) move out to the assault in a blinding snow storm,” wrote Lieut. Russenholt. “The expanse of mud is well nigh impassable — and slows down the advance to 20 yards a minute ... The powerfully reinforced enemy garrison in the German reserve line has escaped the fury of the barrage in well-protected dugouts — and now presents a determined resistance.” 

Hilliam’s report following the successful attack was signed, Lord Pimple, to emphasize the accomplishment. 

After The Pimple was taken, the Germans withdrew to the plain in back of Vimy Ridge. The Canadians still expected counter-attacks, so began preparations, including firing on points of assembly. “The effectiveness of this barrage firing in preventing assembly for counter-attack and in causing casualties to the retreating Bosche has been proven by prisoner statements,” said the report of the 12th Machine-Gun Company. 

In a war where success was measured by a few  metres, the Canadians had advanced a staggering 4,095 metres. But, the victory was costly. The Canadian army suffered 10,602 casualties at Vimy Ridge: 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded.

Among the fallen was Winnipegger Pte. Harry Brown. He was one of two message carriers coming from Hill 70 back to battalion headquarters. Brown successfully delivered his message, but his companion died along the way. Brown was wounded on his return from headquarters, but managed to deliver a message to an officer before collapsing. He later died of his wounds and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.  

“Soundness of plan, thoroughness of preparation, dash and determination in execution, and devotion of duty on the part of all concerned” had led to the victory, according to the commander of the 1st Army. 

The victory at Vimy Ridge was called “Canada’s Easter gift to France” by a Paris newspaper. In gratitude, the French in 1922 would donate 91-hectares at Vimy  Ridge in perpetuity to Canada. Today, a  massive monument in recognition of the  Canadian success stands on Hill 145. 

“Canada will be proud that the taking of the coveted Vimy Ridge has fallen to the lot of her troops,”  said King George V at the time. 

“April 9, 1917, will be in Canada’s history one of the great days, a day of glory to furnish inspiration to her sons for generations,” wrote the New York Times.

“We achieved something that nobody had done before,” wrote Private James Matheson, 34, who was wounded and shipped to England for treatment after the battle. “I think myself that was where Canada was born.”