Vimy Ridge: Canada emerges, at a cost

By Steven Fouchard 

The Battle of Vimy Ridge, which began 100 years ago in April 1917, is widely viewed as the fire in which the Canadian nation was forged.

Given the cost paid – 11,000 casualties, 3,000 of them fatal, over four days – it is understandable that some take a less romantic view of the event. Many historians regard the outcome of Vimy to have been less than significant, strategically speaking.

Nonetheless, it also a matter of historical record that this battle united members of all four Canadian divisions into a single formation for the first time. Additionally, Canada, which had joined the fight automatically alongside the British as a part of the empire, was invited to sign the Treaty of Versailles as an independent entity at the war’s end. The treaty also included provisions for the establishment of the League of Nations (later the United Nations), which Canada would co-found, further establishing an independent identity.

Vimy Ridge itself, located about 200 kilometres north of Paris, France, had served as an effective defensive position for armies dating back to the Romans. German forces took the ridge in 1914 and had held it against several earlier Allied assaults, including a particularly costly one by the French themselves that resulted in more than 100,000 casualties.

Though the Canadians were commanded by a British officer, future Governor General Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, one of his most valued subordinates was Canada’s own Major-General Arthur Currie. Currie is noted for being a critic of the simplistic tactics being employed, which saw troops emerging from trenches and simply charging headlong into enemy fire.

Extensive preparations for the Vimy assault took place over the winter of 1916. The troops trained vigorously and prepared using models of the enemy positions. Allied artillery shelled the Germans for more than a week prior to commencing the attack, which softened the German defences and kept them off guard as to exactly when it might begin.

The battle began on April 9, Easter Monday, 1917, with the Canadians making their precisely-timed advance under the cover of artillery fire, which allowed German positions to be captured just as they emerged from cover.

Though a key ridge was in Allied hands by noon, the remaining two points, known respectively as Hill 145 and ‘The Pimple,’ would prove even more difficult. The former was captured on the morning of April 10, the latter two days later.

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