The Battle of Vimy Ridge saw the Canadian Corps sweep away firmly entrenched German defenders on 9 April 1917 in a famed attack upon the heights which crucially overlooked the plains of Artois.
Situated some 12km northeast of Arras, Vimy Ridge gained early importance during the war on account of the heights which overlooked the Allied-held town. The Germans had seized control of the ridge in September 1914 and constructed deep defensive positions which comprised of bunkers, caves, passages and artillery-proof trenches, heavily protected by concrete machine gun emplacements. With such formidable defensive precautions in place, the German army rapidly set about the steady destruction of Arras, pounding the town with heavy artillery with impunity.
The French had attempted to take control of the ridge throughout 1915 but were repulsed with the loss of some 150,000 casualties. The British relieved French in March 1916 and were in turn pushed back along a 2km front before they could commence aggressive planning.
The Arras offensive was scheduled for the spring of 1917 and as part of this offensive the Canadian Corps under the command of British General Julian Byng (pictured left) were tasked with the capture of the ridge. In preparation for this the Canadians constructed miles of tunnels through which troops could pass in readiness for the opening of the attack without coming under shellfire. Aerial reconnaissance was liberally used as well as obtaining air superiority.
Listening devices were installed in ‘No Mans Land’ and 11 miles of telephone cable and 22 miles of telegraph cable was laid on the ridge. Troops were trained to a fine edge. Every soldier new the plan of attack so if an officer was killed the NCO could take over and if the same fate succumbed him the troops knew exactly what to do.
Machine guns were used in a different way. At this point they were primarily used in a defensive role but now they were to be used offensively. Effectively they were used in the same fashion as artillery dropping their fire into the German trenches and thus keeping the Germans heads down.
Also to increase the size of his force, Julian Byng was given command of the British 5th Division bringing his total force to 105,000 men.
At dawn on the morning of Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, the Canadian attack comprising four divisions began following a heavy three-week British artillery barrage and was supported by a well-devised creeping barrage.
Within thirty minutes the Canadian 1st Division, under Arthur Currie, had succeeded in capturing German front line positions and within a further half hour the second line had similarly passed into Canadian hands.
The entire ridge was wholly under Allied control by 12 April after Hill 145, the highest feature on the ridge finally fell. The operation was judged a spectacular success and the single most successful Allied advance on the Western Front to that date. The ridge remained in Allied hands for the remainder of the war.
As always, it came at a cost: 10,602 Canadians were wounded during the attack, and 3,598 killed. The opposing German force suffered even more heavily: 20,000 casualties.
Julian Byng was moved up to command the British XX Army and later served as Canadian Governor-General. Arthur Currie was now given command of the Canadian Corps and was knighted for his wartime services.
Four Victoria Crosses were awarded as a consequence of fighting at Vimy Ridge: to Private William Milne, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Captain Thaine MacDowell and Private John Pattison.
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