Early in 1917, the Allies began planning a spring offensive along the western front.
The French would attack in the south between Reims and Soissons, the British in the Arras area. The Canadians were given the task of assaulting Vimy Ridge. The high ground was one of the keys to the German defence system.
Overlooking the Douai Plain, the ridge was the centrepoint of the defensive system at the junction of the Hindenburg Line and defence systems running north to the English Channel. The Germans had been fortifying the ridge since occupying it in October of 1914.
The German position consisted of three defensive lines anchored by concrete pillboxes. The trenches were all linked by communication trenches, where massive underground chambers were dug with some capable of housing entire German battalions. To wrest the heights from the Germans it would be necessary to capture both Hill 120 (The Pimple) and the highest part of the ridge, Hill 145.
Prelude to Battle
The key to success of the assault would be in the planning and training that preceded the attack. This level of meticulous planning was initiated by the commander of the Canadian Corps, Lt.Gen. Sir Julian Byng and his right-hand man, Maj-Gen. Arthur Currie. They planned to take Vimy Ridge in a frontal assault using all four Canadian divisions. Other armies had tried before but had been driven back with heavy losses. However, the elaborate preparations by the Canadians were to prove successful.
The Canadians moved to the Vimy front from the Somme in November of 1916. They went to work strengthening their trenches but at the same time carrying out numerous raids on the enemy line to gather information. A scale model of the battle area was laid out so that the assault battalions could familiarize themselves with the area they would be attacking.
Maps were given to even the smallest units so they would be informed of problem areas and objectives. Long tunnels were built leading up to the ridge. The tunnels protected the attacking troops from shell fire and provided a safe route for carrying the wounded. Most of the tunnels had electrical and telephone services as well as water pumped through miles of pipelines.
Rooms were cut into the walls to provide accommodations for battalion and brigade headquarters. Several rooms were set aside for dressing stations and others were used to store munitions and communication supplies.
With all this activity below ground, on the surface construction moved at a continuous pace. Miles and miles of roads and tramways were either repaired or constructed to allow for the expedient move of war supplies to the front and casualties to the rear.
To support the infantry assault, over 1,000 artillery pieces of various calibers were assembled. For the first two weeks prior to the assault, the artillery registered their guns without revealing their positions. The ground shattering preliminary barrage began on April 2, 1917, and over the next five days, over a million shells would hit the German front lines and support areas in the rear. The Germans called it, their "week of suffering".
More than 80% of the German artillery was destroyed. Trenches collapsed and barbed-wire entanglements were shredded by the new artillery fuse-shell that exploded on contact. The battle field was being readied for the coming conflict.
The Role of the 50th Battalion
The 50th Battalion from Calgary formed part of the 10th Brigade of the 4th Canadian Division. On the opening day of the assault it was being held in support on the far left flank of the 4th Division’s area. It was to be committed to the assault only if another area was in significant trouble.
The 11th Brigade on the far right flank was having difficulty in its task of capturing Hill 145. They were fighting valiantly towards the crest of Hill 145 and appeared to be close to victory. But a vicious counter-attack held them in check. At 10:30 that evening the 50th and 44th Battalion received orders to prepare to assault Hill 145. The next day the battalions moved back to their starting line through waterlogged and hastily repaired communication trenches.
On April 10th at 3:00 pm the assault began under an intense artillery bombardment. The Germans put up strong resistance but could not withstand the charge of the battalions. The 50th Battalion cleared the crest and moved down the eastern slopes. The end result was still in question as the Germans fought bravely to check the Canadian advance.
Held up by a German machine gun nest, Private John Pattison leaped forward and bombed and bayoneted the German machine gun crew holding up the advance. His fearless act encouraged the rest of the battalion to surge forward to the final objective. He was to receive the Victoria Cross for his courageous action.
By 5:30 that afternoon the fighting ceased and Hill 145 was in Canadian hands. In the attack on Hill 145 the Battalion suffered heavy casualties, losing over a third of its fighting force including eleven of its original twenty-six officers.
The Capture of Hill 120
This was not the end of the battle for the 50th Battalion. At 11:00 pm it was relieved by the 47th Battalion and wearily made its way back to its original starting point. The Battalion was then told that they were committed to spearhead the attack on Hill 120 (the Pimple) the following day, April 12th.
Due to a lack of reinforcements the Battalion had to be reorganized into two companies of 150 men each. At 4:15 am the Battalion moved forward. There was a blinding snowstorm at the time and to further hinder the troops the mud was waist deep in places. The troops set off at 5:00 am and helped by significant artillery support, were able to break into the German positions.
The enemy put up a strong fight which raged throughout the day, but by 6:00 pm that evening, Hill 120 was secured and Vimy Ridge belonged entirely to the Canadians.
A total of four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian soldiers during the battle for Vimy Ridge, including the one to Private John Pattison. He was to die two months later in action at Lens, France.
The success of the operation must be given to the meticulous planning and thorough preparation by Lt.Gen. Byng, commander of the Canadian Corps, and to Maj-Gen. Arthur Currie, commander of the 1st Canadian Division. However, it was the splendid fighting qualities and devotion to duty by the volunteer soldiers of the Canadian Infantry, that was decisive.
The victory did not come without a cost however, in the four day battle for Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Corps suffered over 10,000 casualties, including over 3,600 killed.
Vimy Ridge Panorama
This trench Panorama was taken on 10 April, 1917 from Thelus Hill on Vimy Ridge, the day the ridge was captured by the Canadian Corps. The town of Vimy can be seen near the left end of the panorama, and the town of Willerval can be seen towards the right end.
The battle continued on the north-west part of the ridge for two more days until Hill 120 was captured. Drag mouse over the image to scroll. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
The Vimy Ridge Memorial
Vimy Ridge, located ten miles north of Arras France, is a largely unassuming feature which few passer-bys would notice, if it were not for the large imposing monument on the top that dominates the skyline. This monument marks the battlefield where 3,600 Canadian soldiers died in the most successful Allied advance up to that point during the First World War.
It is a tribute not only to those men who died in the battle to capture the ridge, but also to the 67,000 Canadians who lost their lives during the course of the war, and to all those who served in what became known as, "The Great War".
The Vimy Ridge monument was designed by Canadian sculptor and architect, Walter Seymour Allward, and took 11 years to build. Began in 1925, the project required 11,000 tonnes of steel and concrete for the foundation and 6,000 tonnes of Croatian limestone for the facing.
The limestone was brought to the site from an abandoned Roman quarry in Croatia for the pylons and the sculptured figures, designed by Mr. Allward to represent Hope, Faith, Justice, Honour, Peace, Sacrifice, Charity, Truth and Knowledge. For the Figure of Canada, Allward selected the finest block of limestone for the carving, a single block weighing over 30 tonnes.
Inscribed into the ramparts below the pylons are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who fell in service to their country, "but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death."
The battlefield itself, encompassing 250 acres, was a gift in perpetuity from the French nation to the people of Canada. Across the park were planted masses of Canadian trees and shrubs, transplanting a small piece of Canada into Northern France.
On July 26th 1936, King Edward VIII unveiled the monument in front of a crowd of 50,000 people.
Vimy Ridge meant more to the people of Canada than the liberation of a few square kilometres of French territory. In the grand scheme of the war, Vimy alone was not decisive.
However, to Canadians, the battle of Vimy Ridge is celebrated as more than a very successful battle. It was seen as an expression of emerging Canadian nationhood.
Vimy Ridge was the first action fought by the combined forces of the Canadian Corps in France. It was a victory of troops drawn from across Canada and united into a fighting force led by the British general, Lt Gen Sir Julian Byng. It was a decisive Canadian victory against a European Great Power, and moreover it was a victory against a position where the French and British Armies had known only defeat.
Alexander Ross, a Canadian Brig. General, is reported to have said: "It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then, and I think today, that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation."
Whatever Vimy Ridge was and is to the British or French: merely one of a series of bloody trench battles or simply one event in the larger British battle of Arras, for Canadians, its effect on the national psyche was profound. In a sense, Vimy marked Canada’s coming of age as a nation.
It was an unmistakable display of strength by a Dominion which had only 3,000 regular soldiers in 1914. It helped to secure Canada a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles, and it demonstrated what a united Canada could accomplish.
At the base of the Memorial, these words appear in French and in English:
To the valour of their
Countrymen in the Great War
And in memory of their sixty
Thousand dead this monument
Is raised by the people of Canada