The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack (1866-1952) painted c1918
The men are loading a QF 4.5 inch howitzer
Canadian War Museum
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Vimy Ridge is a steep cliff five miles to the north-east of Arras, in France, giving an uninterrupted view for many kilometres in all directions. The battle of Vimy Ridge took place between 9th and 12th April, 1917 as part of the first phase of the British-led Battle of Arras. The objective was to take control of the escarpment which had been held by the Germans since 1914. The main participants were the Canadian Corps against three divisions of the German Sixth Army. 97,000 Canadians were supported by 73,000 British troops and opposed 30 to 45,000 Germans.
It was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together. These men had been drawn from all parts of the country and it was the fact that they fought as a cohesive unit that made the battle important for Canada and a symbol of national unity. It was also a symbol both of Canadian triumph and sacrifice. The widely held belief in Canada is that her national identity and sense of nationhood arose from the victory at Vimy Ridge.
Late at night on 8th April and in the early hours of 9th April final preparations were made for the attack, following three weeks of heavy bombardment by the British. At 0530 hours the barrage began. Mines laid under no man’s land and German trenches were detonated. The Canadian Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, advanced behind a creeping barrage, light artillery firing shells ahead of the troops to prevent the enemy seeing them and shooting at them. This tactic was intended to allow the enemy little time to leave their dugouts and protect their ground.
At first the Germans were able to defend their positions, despite heavy losses, but as the Canadians advanced, many of the German guns were overrun. They were unable to be moved to the rear because the horses used to haul them had been killed in the initial gas attack. Although the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907 prohibited the use of chemical weapons in time of war, more than 124,000 tons of gas were manufactured by the end of the First World War. The French were the first to deploy them in World War I, using tear gas.
By nightfall three days later Vimy Ridge was under the control of the Canadian Corps, which had lost 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded. The number of German casualties is unknown, but around 4,000 men became prisoners of war.
Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian soldiers and at least two Orders Pour le Merité, the highest Prussian military honour, to German commanders.
The Germans did not attempt to recapture the ridge, which remained under British jurisdiction until the end of the war.
In 1922 France gave Canada the use in perpetuity of 250 acres of the battleground site to serve as a memorial park. The ground is riddled with tunnels, trenches, shell craters and unexploded armaments but part of it has been made safe and accessible to visitors. Today the trenches look benign and belie the horror of trench warfare.
Mother Canada mourning her dead
Part of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is Canada’s largest overseas war memorial.
It is sobering to travel in this part of France and to see the war cemeteries for those thousands of young men, German, British, Canadian and so many more, who died believing they were fighting a just war. The saddest and most poignant of all are the headstones which bear the words ‘Known unto God’, particularly when a single grave contains the remains of two or three men.
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