J. Castell Hopkins, Canada at War: A Record of Heroism and Achievement, 1914-1918 (Toronto: Canadian Annual Review Limited, 1919). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Empty Shell Casings from the Bombardment of the German Stronghold at Vimy Ridge, 1917.

 

The Germans, in an effort to end the war before the Americans arrived, threw all their might on the Western Front. They controlled Vimy Ridge, a salient located between Lens and Arras, France that overlooked the British army and protected mines and factories in a strategic area of occupied France. Neither the French nor British had been able to dislodge the Germans from this strategically important high ground ever since 1914.

City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A98-96, Box 4).

Trench, Vimy Ridge, 1917.

Extensive trenches were dug out of the forested landscape of Vimy Ridge. Despite suffering hundreds of casualties, Canadian soldiers made an enormous contribution to the Allied effort to capture Vimy Ridge and maintain the salient. In so doing, they established an enduring reputation for ability and bravery during battle. The campaign was not only a defining moment in Canada's military history, but also in the development of an autonomous Canadian nation.

The task would fall to the Canadian Corps, commanded by Britain's Lieutenant-General Julian Byng. To prepare for the attack, the Corps trained in new tactics which emphasized careful preparations and artillery support, including meticulous rehearsal on carefully laid out mock-ups of the objectives, creeping artillery barrages with the assaulting troops following immediately behind the falling shells, and machines guns used in an indirect fire role (as with artillery employed in this fashion, the gunners did not see the targets but aimed by adjusting the elevation and line of fire of the gun calculated using ammunition firing tables). The creeping barrage had originally been introduced by the Canadians at Courcelette in September 1916. The organization and tactics of "storm troops" and trench raiding parties were developed by Victor Odlum in the 1st Canadian division in 1915. The Canadian Corps later instructed officers of the French army in these new tactics.

City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A98-96, Box 4).

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge, 1917.

The war had a devastating effect on the landscape. Land mines and a relentless cascade of artillery bombs created enormous depressions and shell holes in the vicinity of Vimy Ridge.

Beginning at exactly 5:30 a.m on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, the Canadian artillery unleashed a massive barrage on the German positions on Vimy Ridge. The shelling was meticulous in its timing and devastating in its intensity . The targets were specific: artillery and machine gun emplacements and wire entanglements. Lt.-Col. D.E. Macintyre later recalled: "The sustained uproar of this combined and concentrated bombardment was so violent that it quaked the earth for miles... An Air Force observer of this battle later told me that the overhead canopy of our artillery fire was so dense that he saw a number of our low-flying aircraft explode like clay pigeons as they collided with shells in flight. It was like flying through a storm of gigantic and deadly hailstones." (1) After the initial bombardment, the Canadian troops surged forward behind a protective curtain of artillery fire, employing the creeping barrage. The assault overwhelmed the German defences. Despite 10,602 casualties, of whom 3,600 would die, the Canadians succeeded where the British and French had failed: they took Vimy Ridge.

National Archives of Canada (PA-001332, photo by William Ivor Castle).

Canadian Soldiers Returning from Vimy Ridge, May 1917.

 

For the whole Canadian Corps, Vimy Ridge was a resounding victory. Proud of their accomplishments, many soldiers admitted that, for the first time, they felt Canadian rather than British. Some historians have even argued that Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge.

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