The Battle of Vimy Ridge

Vimy Ridge was considered one of the most important tactical features on the whole of the Western Front. Its capture was vital to the French General Staff.

When the Germans failed to take Paris in the early days of WWI, they fell back along the Ridge, a nine mile barrier that dominated  the area.  The Ridge's natural features were advantageous to a defending force.  The French had made several heroic attempts in 1915 to capture this ground but were driven back with fruitless loss of life.  The British had taken over the front in 1916 but with no more success with taking the Ridge than the French.

By 1917 the Germans had built tunnels and deep dugouts fortifying the position with three main defensive lines, rows of razor wire and a net work of concrete machine gun nests.  Now the Canadians were to have a try at capturing it.

On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917 at 4 am the troops were in position.  The battle opened at dawn in a driving snow storm.  In the first phase there was fierce hand to hand combat, but most of the opposition came from enemy snipers and machine gun crews.

By the late afternoon the 1st, 2nd & 3rd Divisions at great cost, achieved their objectives. The 4th Division assigned to Hill 145, the highest point and most important part of the Ridge, achieved its objective 2 days later with considerable casualties.  All that remained was the northern tip know as the Pimple.

The Pimple was a maze of German trenches, tunnels and deep dugouts, it had withstood many Allied raids.  Its capture was a combined operation by the Canadian and British Corps.  It would be a defining moment for Canada, bringing the Dominion into an Nation unto itself.

On April 12, 1917 at 5 am, the attack opened in a gale of sleet and snow. The Germans both surprised and blinded by the driving sleet were over powered. By daylight the Canadians and the British 73rd Brigade had driven the Germans off the Ridge.  Accepting defeat, the enemy withdrew to strong positions on the plain, leaving behind guns and ammunition which the Canadians took advantage of.

The ground was never again occupied by the Germans. The Canadian success had resulted in the capture of more ground, prisoners and weapons that any previous British offensive on the Western Front. This was the first time that Canadian Divisions had fought altogether as a corps, with planning and preparations by their own commanders. Born that day in their breasts was a pride in themselves and their country.

Canadian Machine Gum Placement on Vimy Ridge

What Made Vimy Ridge a Success

General Byng and his commanders had laid careful plans with much preliminary training and preparations.  On March 2, 1917, in preparation for the up coming attack, artillery units from Canada, Britain and South Africa unleashed a continuous barrage from more than 375 heavy guns and howitzers along with 700 pieces of field artillery. The aim was to pulverize the entrenched Germans. At the same time the detonation of tons of explosives that had been placed in freshly dug tunnels under the enemy positions added to the mayhem. All this was not just to destroy the German gun emplacements, but to also cripple the moral of the German soldiers who were forced to take cover in their trenches.

The non stop shelling continued for 10 days, at night the machine gun crews would take over so that the artillery batteries positions would not be disclosed.  The incessant harassing fire would prevent the Germans from preparing damage caused by the artillery, the bringing up of supplies and the evacuation of their wounded.  Then just as it started, the barrage suddenly stopped, another tactic to shatter the spirits of the enemy.  For on April 2, 1917 another even greater artillery offensive was launched and would continue until April 9th.    

Empty Crates from Artillery Barrage fired on Vimy Ridge

About 1 million shells-50,000 tons of explosives pounded the German defenses. The combination of weeks of pummeling by the pre-attack artillery barrage and harassing all night machine gun assaults caused sleep deprivation and shell shock.  Many of the German soldiers were left dazed, terrified and ready to surrender.

One of the greatest contributions made to the Battle of Vimy Ridge was by Colonel Andrew McNaughton, who implemented the creeping barrage.  This was a technique where by the allies would fire artillery shells first over the heads of their own troops to land in enemy trenches just before the Canadians arrived. This action would earn Colonel McNaughton a promotion to the rank of Brigadier General and put him in charge of Allied Artillery for the duration of the war.

This superb combination of tactics and combine actions was unquestionably the factors in the success of the battle. The Canadian win had given a significant boost to Allied moral, while demoralizing German troops who thought the Ridge impregnable.

References: Valor At Vimy Ridge Canadian Heroes of World War I - Tom Douglas
               Amid the Guns Below - Larry Worthington