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The Battle of Vimy Ridge: How Canada Came of Age in World War I

The Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought from April 9-12, 1917, is remembered as a defining moment in Canadian history that saw the young nation emerge onto the world stage. It was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together as one formation, resulting in a decisive Allied victory that had eluded previous British and French attempts. More than a military triumph, Vimy Ridge has become an enduring symbol of Canadian national identity, achievement and sacrifice.

Canada Enters the Great War

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada, as a dominion of the British Empire, was automatically at war as well. The Canadian government quickly raised an initial force of 30,000 volunteers to send overseas, which eventually grew to more than 600,000 men and women serving in uniform by the end of the conflict.

The early battles of 1915-16 had resulted in staggering casualties on the Western Front for little gain. The Canadians first saw major action at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, where they endured the first mass use of poison gas by the Germans but still managed to hold the line. By 1917, the war had become a stalemate of trench warfare and attrition, with Allied and German forces facing each other across a blasted no man‘s land.

The Strategic Importance of Vimy Ridge

Vimy Ridge was a strategically important 7-kilometer long escarpment near Arras, France that overlooked the Allied lines. Its highest point provided sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, making it valuable observation point and staging ground for the Germans.

The French Army had suffered an estimated 150,000 casualties in previous failed attempts to capture Vimy in 1915. A British offensive in May 1916 briefly took the ridge but was forced to withdraw. By 1917, the Germans had heavily fortified Vimy with multiple trench lines, concrete bunkers, barbed wire, and machine gun nests, turning it into a seemingly impregnable fortress.

Meticulous Planning and Preparation

The four divisions of the Canadian Corps, commanded by British Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng, were tasked with capturing Vimy Ridge in April 1917 as part of a larger British offensive known as the Battle of Arras. Determined not to repeat the mistakes of previous Allied assaults, the Canadians planned the operation meticulously.

Key to their preparations was a nearly two-month long artillery barrage involving over a million shells to soften up German defenses. A maze of tunnels was also dug beneath the ridge to allow troops and supplies to move forward safely. Each platoon was given detailed maps and objectives, with officers and NCOs studying scale models of the battleground. Troops also rehearsed the attack over taped-out trenches and terrain behind the lines.

Other tactical innovations included greater flexibility for junior officers to make decisions in the field, counterattacking strongpoints that weren‘t captured, and coordinating infantry advances with a "creeping barrage" of artillery fire. As historian Tim Cook describes: "The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the best-planned and successful battles of the war to that point."

The Battle of Vimy Ridge Unfolds

At 5:30am on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, the creeping barrage began and the first wave of 15,000-20,000 Canadian soldiers went "over the top" towards the ridge. Advancing behind the barrage, the Canadians quickly captured most of the German forward defenses. By the afternoon, they had seized the crest of the ridge itself. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting in trenches, dugouts and craters continued for the next three days as the Canadians mopped up the final pockets of German resistance.

When the battle ended on April 12th, the Canadians controlled the entire ridge at a cost of 10,602 casualties, including 3,598 killed. The heaviest losses were suffered by the 1st Division with over 2,500 casualties, while the 4th Division had the least with 1,694.

It was a stunning victory that made headlines around the world. As Brigadier-General Alexander Ross famously declared: "In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation." The French newspaper Le Petit Parisien wrote "The Canadians have just achieved one of the finest feats of arms in the war."

Nation-Building and Identity

More than a military triumph, Vimy Ridge represented a coming of age for Canada, still a young country that had only gained semi-autonomous status from Britain in 1867. It proved that Canadians could fight as well as any army in the world and were no longer just a colonial adjunct to the British Empire.

"Vimy became a nation-building moment," says author and historian Tim Cook. "It becomes part of our national narrative, part of how we see ourselves as Canadians – that we can come together and do great things." The battle also helped unify the country behind the war effort and strengthened a sense of shared Canadian identity amid its linguistic and regional differences.

Memory and Meaning

After the war, the Canadian government expropriated the Vimy battlefield and in 1922 held a competition to design a memorial for the site. The winning entry by Toronto sculptor Walter Allward features two pylons representing Canada and France with 20 symbolic figures, including one bowing her head in grief and another breaking a sword. It took 11 years to complete and was unveiled by King Edward VIII in 1936 in front of a crowd of over 100,000 people.

Etched on the memorial‘s walls are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France who have no known grave – a testament to the staggering human cost of the war. Today, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial serves as a site of remembrance and pilgrimage that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. It was designated a Canadian National Historic Site in 1996.

The Vimy Foundation, founded in 2006, also works to preserve the legacy of Vimy Ridge through educational programs and initiatives like the Vimy Pilgrimage Award. "Vimy represents one of those iconic moments, an event that shaped us as a nation," says the foundation‘s president Christopher Sweeney. "It‘s something all Canadians should be aware of and reflect on."

An Enduring Legacy

The Battle of Vimy Ridge remains seared into Canadian national consciousness more than a century later. It is seen as a defining moment when Canadians proved themselves on the world stage and a young nation came of age. The bravery and sacrifice of those soldiers helped forge a new sense of Canadian identity that endures to this day.

As historian Desmond Morton writes: "The Canadians had demonstrated they were the best offensive troops on the Western Front. More important, they had achieved a victory that none of the great powers fighting in the war – not France, not Britain, not Germany – had been able to attain. In a war that produced few decisive results, let alone victories, Vimy Ridge was an exception."

Every year on April 9th, Canadians pause to remember the battle and the thousands killed or wounded in capturing the ridge. While not the costliest engagement for Canada in numerical terms, Vimy continues to loom large in the public memory as a symbol of the wider war‘s impact on the nation. The striking memorial atop Hill 145 serves as a permanent reminder and expression of loss and remembrance.

A century after the guns fell silent, the battle‘s legacy lives on – in the soaring stone figures of the Vimy Memorial keeping watch over the now peaceful countryside, in the poppies worn proudly on Remembrance Day, and in the hearts of a grateful nation that will never forget their valor and sacrifice. As the memorial inscription reads:

"To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada."

Sources:

  • Cook, Tim. Vimy: The Battle and the Legend. Toronto: Allen Lane, 2017.
  • Barton, Peter, Peter Doyle, and Johan Vandewalle. Beneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers‘ War 1914-1918. Montreal: McGill-Queen‘s University Press, 2004.
  • Berton, Pierre. Vimy. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.
  • Hayes, Geoffrey, Andrew Iarocci, and Mike Bechthold, eds. Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007.
  • Morton, Desmond. When Your Number‘s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Toronto: Random House, 1993.
  • Sweeney, Christopher. "How the Battle of Vimy Ridge Defined Canada." The Globe and Mail, 7 Apr. 2017.
  • "The Battle of Vimy Ridge." Veterans Affairs Canada, 14 Feb. 2019, https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/first-world-war/vimy-ridge.