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This essay will describe the events that took place at Vimy Ridge during World
War I. Britain and France both attempted to take control of the Ridge which was
currently occupied by the German Army and both failed. It was left to the Canadian
Army to take the Ridge. This essay will prove that after many struggles, and careful
preparation, Canada was defined as a Nation at Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge was a key to the German defence system. It rose 61 m. above
the Douai Plain which favoured the Germans because there was a gradual incline
on the West. This meant that the Canadians would have to attack over open ground
where they would become prime targets for German artillery, machine guns and rifle
Military mining played a big role in the battle of Vimy Ridge. Engineers built a
network of tunnels under no-mans land. They also dug subways totalling more than
5 km. in length, through which assault troops could move to their jumping-off points.
The subways provided protection from enemy artillery fire, and permitted the
wounded to be brought back from the battlefield. Chambers were cut into the walls
of the subway for brigade and battalion headquarters, ammunitions stores,
communication centres and dressing stations.
The taking of Vimy Ridge fell to the Canadian Corps under the command of
the British General Julian Byng. He appointed the Canadian born Major General
Arthur Currie as the Commander of the 1st Canadian Division. Currie believed
“Thorough preparation must lead to success. Neglect nothing.”. He left nothing to
chance, every stage of the attack was planned to the very last detail. General Currie
had a full scale model of Vimy Ridge built to train his soldiers. They got the locations
of every trench, machine gun and other valuable information about the enemy by
using aerial photographs taken by the Royal Flying Corps and information from
intelligence raids across enemy lines. Over 1,400 Canadians lost their lives
retrieving this information. The key positions of the model were marked with flags
and coloured tape. Currie had his soldiers practice and rehearse every step they
would take on the day of the attack, so when the day came, the troops would be fully
informed about their objectives and their routes. Maps were given out to guide even
the smallest units. The soldiers were also trained to use the enemy machine guns
so when the enemy guns were captured, they would know how to use them.
The German defence system was made up of three defensive lines. They
consisted of a maze of trenches, concrete machine gun strong points that had
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communication trenches and connecting tunnels. There were also numerous
underground chambers that were capable of sheltering entire German battalions
from Allied shells.
Once the plans were in place and Currie’s troops were trained, they were
ready to launch the assault on the 7 km. German front. To reach their final
objectives on the far side of the Ridge, the Canadians would have to capture the
commanding heights of Hill 135 and Hill 145, which formed the crest of Vimy Ridge.
The operation would be conducted in four stages. At planned intervals, fresh troops
from each division would advance into the German defence zones.
On March 20, 1917, a massive artillery barrage was launched. The barrage
involved 245 heavy guns and howitzers, and more than 600 pieces of field artillery.
The British Army added 132 more heavy guns and 102 field pieces. On April 2nd, the
bombardment was stepped up. By the time its infantry set out, a million artillery
shells had battered the Germans.
The infantry attack was launched at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of April 9, 1917.
They used the “creeping artillery barrage”, which would lay a curtain of gun fire just
in front of the advancing 20,000 soldiers. They were part of the first wave of the four
Canadian divisions. The other three divisions were using the same tactics to reach
their assigned targets at the same time as the 1st Division. Each soldier carried at
least 32 kg. of equipment, plus the weight of the mud accumulated on their uniforms
and equipment. This made it difficult for the men to climb in and out of the trenches
and craters. Most Canadian losses came from the machine guns in the German’s
intermediate line. Even so, three of the four Divisions captured their part of the
Ridge by midday, right on schedule. The 2nd Division was the only one that didn’t,
but the British 13 Brigade under the command of the Canadians assisted them and
they ended up taking control of their part of the Ridge also.
The 4th Canadian Division’s primary objective was Hill 145, which was the
highest and the most important feature of the whole Ridge. Once taken, it would
give the Canadians a commanding view of German rearward defences in the Douai
Plain as well as those remaining on the Ridge itself. Because of its importance, the
Germans had fortified the Hill with well-wired trenches and a series of deep dug-outs
beneath its rear slope. The Brigades of the 4th Division were slowed by the fire from
the Pimple, which was another important height, but still managed to clear the
summit of Hill 145 which placed the whole of Vimy Ridge in Canadian hands.
Two days later, Units from the 10th Canadian Brigade successfully stormed
the Pimple. The Germans had accepted the loss of Vimy Ridge as permanent and
had retreated back more than three km.
Though the victory at Vimy came quickly, it did not come without cost. There
were 3,598 dead out of 10,602 Canadian casualties. Battalions in the first wave of
the assault suffered tremendously. No level of casualties could ever be called
“acceptable”, but those at Vimy were lower than the normal casualties of many
major assaults on the Western Front. They were also far lighter than those of any
previous offensive at the Ridge. Earlier French, British and German struggles there
had cost at least 200,000 casualties. Care and planning by the Corps Commander,
Sir Julian Byng, and his right-hand man, Arthur Currie, kept Canadian casualties
The Corps captured more ground, more prisoners and more guns than any
previous British offensive in two-and-one-half years of war. It was one of the most
complete and decisive engagements of World War I and the greatest Allied victory
up to that time. The Canadians had demonstrated that they were one of the
outstanding formations on the Western Front and masters of offensive warfare. This
helped unite many Canadians in pride at the courage of their citizens and soldiers,
and established a feeling of real nationhood.