This article is an edited transcript of The Battle of Vimy Ridge with Paul Reed, available on History Hit TV.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought between 9 and 12 April 1917 as part of the Battle of Arras in northern France, is widely regarded as a defining moment for Canada.
Vimy Ridge was the first time the entire Canadian Corps, which was composed of at least 75,000 to 80,000 Canadian soldiers across four divisions, fought together. Essentially, the entire Canadian Army that was on the Western Front at that time all went into action together.
A defining moment for a young nation
With all four divisions in action, the Vimy Ridge saw men from every part of Canada going into battle at the same time. Canada was a young nation that had heavily relied on immigration.
At the beginning of the Great War, 70 per cent of the men who served in the Canadian Army were born in Britain and would have probably identified themselves as British first.
Vimy Ridge was the beginning of a budding Canadian consciousness.
Until then the Canadian Corps had been used in a piecemeal fashion, division after division, and the reputation of the Canadian soldier had steadily grown. At Vimy that reputation was confirmed.
Vimy Ridge was a dominant position that had had proved incredibly hard to capture. The French had suffered somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million casualties trying to take the position in 1915 while the British had never had a go at it – they’d held the line there simply because it wasn’t on their radar at that point.
The Canadian Corps stormed the ridge, utilising the experience the whole army had developed throughout the previous year and in five days it was captured. It was a great victory for the Canadians, but a victory, as with so many World War One battles, that came at a heavy price – more than 10,000 Canadian casualties.
How did the Canadians storm a ridge that had proved so hard to capture?
Victory at Vimy Ridge owed much to preparation. For one thing, unlike previous efforts the Canadian attack utilised tunnels. A growing appreciation of the value of artillery was also key.
Julian Byng, the British officer who commanded the Canadians at Vimy, had learned the lessons of the previous year and knew how important artillery was. He didn’t just have his own Canadian gunners assisting him in the attack on Vimy Ridge, he also had a huge amount of British artillery loaned to him. Something like a million shells were fired.
One of the very first monuments to go up at Vimy was an artillery monument – a big block with a cross on the top and shells around its base. It commemorates the role of artillery at Vimy Ridge because it was such a crucial aspect to the victory.
Nonetheless, on the ground, no matter how effective your artillery is, no matter how good your planning is, if your troops are not up to the task then you’re probably not going to succeed.