Without Peer: Canadians At Vimy

PHOTOS: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA001135; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA004666; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA001238

PHOTOS: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA001135; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA004666; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA001238

From top left: Mules are used to pull a rail car loaded with ammunition along a railway track near Vimy Ridge in April 1917; following the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Arthur Currie (right) was promoted to lieutenant-general, knighted and appointed to succeed Sir Julian Byng in command of the Canadian Corps; Canadian soldiers push a truck out of the muck near Vimy Ridge.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge holds a special place in the Canadian mind. This April, thousands of schoolchildren, their teachers, parents, relatives of Great War veterans, and representatives from veterans organizations and governments will go to France to mark the 90th anniversary of the battle. The media coverage will be massive, and the refurbished memorial will be revealed to as much acclaim as when it was first dedicated in 1936 before a vast crowd of veterans and their families. That event was described as a “pilgrimage,” an interesting term that suggested the quasi-religious nature of the ceremony and the importance of the Vimy victory in April 1917.

Thus, Vimy matters, but why? Why–almost a century after that attack launched on Easter Monday of 1917–does the taking of Vimy Ridge still resonate so powerfully in this not very military nation?

Canadians see Vimy as a nation-building event, a key marker in the development of Canadian nationalism. Some see it as the scaling of the ridge, almost the equivalent of Wolfe’s men climbing from the St. Lawrence up the cliff to the Plains of Abraham. Almost all consider the Vimy battle as a decisive event of the Great War, a war-winning victory. And every Canadian sees Vimy as an all-Canadian triumph that demonstrated the superiority of “our boys” over the enemy, yes, but also over our allies. All these points need a close look.

But first, the scene must be set. In April 1917, the Great War was not going well for the Allies. The Russian Empire, dissolving in revolution, teetered on the brink of leaving the war, and the French armies, battered beyond endurance in a succession of battles, verged on mutiny. Britain and the Dominions alone seemed resolute, but casualties greatly outpaced new recruits to the colours. Many in Canada had begun to call for conscription, though the government had yet to move. The only bright spot for the Allies came on April 6 when United States President Woodrow Wilson brought his nation into the war. The U.S. was not prepared, however, and it would be more than a year before large numbers of “doughboys” began to reach the trenches.

Victories in the fighting were scarce for the Allies, and the Germans’ weapons, tactics and leadership seemed to dominate the battlefields of Europe. In mid-March, the Germans shortened their lines, withdrawing on a 100-mile stretch of the Western Front to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line which ran south from Arras to St-Quentin. There, defence in depth–the enemy’s new doctrine–would be put into practice.

Allied plans for attack had to be altered, and the British Expeditionary Force now took on the task of outflanking the enemy’s new defence line. The Battle of Arras, as it came to be called, involved two British armies, the 1st and the 3rd, and the goal, while never explicitly stated, was attrition or the wearing down of the enemy forces. The Canadian Corps’ attack at Vimy Ridge was one part of this larger British drive.

The high ground, of which Vimy Ridge was the major feature, dominated the Douai Plain of northern France and looked out over Lens to the east and Arras to the south. The ridge itself, except for Hill 145 and The Pimple at its northern end, rose gradually from west to east. The sharp drop was at the eastern edge, behind the main German positions, and the ridge was important primarily because its possession gave–or denied–a view of a great swath of German-held territory. Vimy Ridge had been seized by the Germans in October 1914 and then assaulted–without success–by the French in 1915 and the British in 1916. Fought over so viciously, the ground had been torn up by shellfire, by sappers sinking mine shafts to plant explosives (more than a hundred British mines had been exploded in 1916), and by ever-deeper trenches and dugouts. When the Canadians arrived at Vimy, efforts to seize the ridge had already cost 300,000 casualties. As one infantryman later remarked, Vimy “was the central point of an immense graveyard.”

The German Sixth Army had had ample time to develop its defences atop the ridge. There were three main defensive lines with trenches and deep dugouts, all protected by belts of barbed wire and concrete machine-gun posts. The chalky soil of the ridge had been carved up with tunnels and communication trenches, and the enemy’s second line, situated one to two miles east of the ridge, featured vast bunkers, some of which could hold a battalion in safety. The third line, five miles to the rear, relied on heavily fortified positions. And there was a fourth defensive belt under construction further back, the Drocourt-Quéant Line that Canadians would encounter during what would become known as Canada’s Hundred Days in 1918. The fatal flaw in German planning was that counter-attack divisions were 12 to 24 hours march to the rear. If the Canadians could crack the enemy defence lines on Vimy Ridge, they would not be driven off.

By the winter of 1917, the Canadian Corps, led by British Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, was an experienced formation. It had fought well in the costly battles on the Somme in the autumn of 1916, and its divisions, brigades and battalions were well led. A majority of its men had been born in Britain, not the Dominion, but its spirit and sensibility increasingly was Canadian. Its four divisions had learned their trade over two years of fighting, mastering trench warfare, learning how to make the best use of infantry, and studying how to employ aerial reconnaissance, gas, and the war-winning weapon, artillery, most effectively. The Canadian Corps was a learning institution, an organization that sought answers to the question that plagued strategists: How could the advantages that favoured the defence on the Western Front be overcome?

Every commander wrestled with that question, but some of the answers came from the 1st Canadian Division’s practical, analytical, and open-minded commander, Major-General Arthur Currie. Sent by Byng to study how the French had fought at Verdun in December 1916, Currie’s report pointed to good reconnaissance as the key, along with efforts put into familiarizing every soldier with the objectives sought and then practising each man’s role. Maps and photographs went down to platoon level, and each of the poilus (a widely used term of endearment for the French infantry) could operate every infantry weapon–and those belonging to the Germans as well. The French relied on fire and movement, with infantry consolidating on captured positions and fresh troops, moving in rushes and leading the assault forward, employing machine-gun fire and grenades to keep the enemy’s heads down.

Many British officers had drawn similar conclusions from their ally’s tactics, but it is fair to say that Byng implemented them with greater vigour than most. His Canadian Corps reorganized, its companies now made up of four platoons, each of four sections, and each employing fire and movement. Officers stressed individual initiative, and platoons became more self-reliant, a policy that brought specialists, like Lewis gunners, bombers and rifle grenadiers, back into the platoon and made it capable of integrated action.

But throughout the British Expeditionary Force, of which the Canadian Corps formed part, the rifle and bayonet remained the key. Johnny Canuck temperamentally might have had more innate flexibility than the Tommy (informal for a British private soldier), but the template for attack that each used was very simillar. What was different, as Brigadier-General William Griesbach of the 1st Brigade was wont to say, was that the Canadian Corps was well-trained, well-led, and driven by a commitment to learning.

Currie’s findings reached every man. One soldier wrote to his brother a few days after the Vimy battle, stating that “we were organized for the attack on the new French system.” Private Frank Teskey, who served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, said his unit had received “instruction in this new system at training school. I was appointed a scout. My job–remain on right flank of our platoon when we ‘went over’ & keep in touch (with the) platoon next to us & also if we got held up, to go forward and find out the obstacle, cut any barbed wire etc.”

This was a tactical change for the better.

Byng and his staff, the key ones Imperial officers trained at the British Army’s staff colleges, had a plan for the assault on Vimy ready by the beginning of March 1917. The intention was to jump off on Easter Monday, April 9, in a four-stage attack, designed to employ the Canadian Corps’ four divisions arranged in order, from the 4th on the left to the 1st on the right of the Canadian line. Each division would attack with two brigades up at 5:30 a.m. The first objective, the Black Line, encompassed the Germans’ front-line trenches, to be seized within 35 minutes. Then, the troops were to pause for 40 minutes to consolidate and regroup. Within a further 20 minutes, the Red Line, the final objectives for the 3rd and 4th divisions, were to be in the Canadians’ grasp. The reserve brigades of the 1st and 2nd divisions, plus a British brigade, were then to assault towards the Blue Line, taking the Germans’ second-line defences which were centred on the village of Thélus. Finally, after a halt for precisely 96 minutes, the same brigades would advance to the Brown Line, the final objectives, some 4,000 yards beyond the start line.

If everything went to plan, the Canadian Corps’ action would be concluded by 1:18 p.m. Byng’s orders took into account the need to prepare for German counter-attacks. Machine-guns in profusion had to be brought forward quickly and defensive lines readied hastily on the newly won ground.

Much depended on the artillery. Indeed, artillery preparation was the key to victory. The enemy trenches were blasted by a bombardment that began on March 20 and intensified on April 2, one week before the assault. Special attention was paid to the German barbed-wire defences, these to be destroyed by shells fitted with the new No. 106 fuse that exploded on contact with the wire. So effective were they that only a few units reported difficulty moving forward on April 9. Enemy guns were located by aerial spotting, sound-ranging, and flash-spotting, and put out of action by counter-battery fire, this whole process managed by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew McNaughton. By the hour of attack, 83 per cent of the 212 German guns had been neutralized.

Guns in profusion had been made available for the Canadian Corps’ needs: eleven heavy artillery groups, comprising 245 guns, and 15 field artillery brigades with 618 guns. Vickers machine-guns, 150 of them, fired indirectly on enemy strongpoints. Even more firepower was available on call. Most of the guns, like most of the logistical effort backing up the front-line battalions, came from British army resources. Major Alan Brooke, later Chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff, devised the fire plan.

The guns had another vital role. A creeping barrage would move forward in 100-yard steps, all carefully timed. The advancing infantry had to be careful to remain behind the barrage or risk destruction from friendly fire.

A huge quantity of shells had to be amassed, stored and moved forward at the appropriate time. So too did food, 600,000 gallons of water each day, engineer stores, ammunition, medical supplies, forage and everything else the 100,000 men of the Canadian Corps and their 50,000 animals required. A system of tramways carried light supply trains forward into tunnels dug by the corps’ five tunnelling companies. Equipped with lighting, telephones, and water, these tunnels sheltered many of the troops during the buildup for the attack.

Those outside lived in the muck. Gunner Wilfred Kerr wrote that “the trenches were knee deep in mud…like gruel; it flowed about one’s puttees, soaked them, filled one’s boots and penetrated one’s socks until he was obliged to scrape it out between his toes with a knife.”

While the preparations gathered speed, the attacking battalions practised their roles again and again. Rehearsals took place on roughly similar patches of ground to the rear, with taped lines showing objectives. The aim was to have every soldier know his role. Surprisingly, this worked. One Lewis gunner in the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles said later that “when we finally reached the top of the hill, we not only landed in exactly the right place, but we knew we were in the right section of those trenches we were supposed to be in.” A colonel added that he had gone over the plans so often “I didn’t have to look at my maps, to tell you the map location of where I was at the time.”

While training continued, raiding parties went out each night to rattle the Germans, already battered by “the week of suffering” inflicted by the relentless artillery fire underway from April 2. Some raids succeeded, but a 1,700-man raid on the German defences of The Pimple, a high point on the ridge, resulted only in heavy casualties for the attackers, losses significant enough to weaken the 4th Division’s attack on April 9.

The Germans knew an attack was coming, but Byng hoped to achieve tactical surprise and to mislead the enemy. The rate of gunfire could be altered, for example, and the guns eased off after midnight on Easter Monday. Nor was there the traditional final bombardment that heralded Allied attacks. Officers learned the hour of the attack on Easter Sunday and briefed their men soon after. At 5:30 a.m., first light, with a northwest wind fortuitously driving snow into the faces of the German sentries, everything was in place. The men waited stoically for zero hour, wrote Lieutenant Stuart Kirkland, who noted that his Ontario battalion stood in waist-deep mud until, 15 minutes before zero hour, “I took two water bottles of rum and gave each of the men a good swallow, for it was bitter cold….”

The attack began with a huge artillery barrage, “the most wonderful artillery barrage ever known,” Kirkland wrote. “It was some fireworks,” said Gnr. Fred Sims of Lethbridge, Alta., as each gun fired four rounds a minute. In all, the guns fired 40,000 rounds on April 9–some fireworks indeed. Gnr. Harold Panabaker, working with a Forward Observation Officer, was in one of the deepest Vimy tunnels, and even underground the sound of the opening barrage was “like a vast roll of thunder.”

The 15,000 infantry in the first wave of 21 battalions left their start lines on a 7,000 yard frontage. All carried their rifle and bayonet, gas mask, 120 rounds of ammunition, grenades, a water bottle, possibly a haversack with iron rations, and a pick or a shovel, and the infantry had to lug some 50 to 75 pounds on their backs. The mud, churned up by continuous shelling, slowed the advance, but the infantrymen pushed ahead. Pte. Arthur Southworth wrote home that “all you could see was smoke, Fritz running and some whole ones, but mostly pieces of them, going up in the air.” The artillery pounded the enemy batteries and main defensive positions, and the effective creeping barrage let the infantry stay close to the wall of shrapnel.

When they reached the first enemy trenches, most battalions right on time, they found the Germans still in their dugouts. The enemy surrendered or was dispatched by grenades. There was “not very much excitement where I was,” a lieutenant in the 16th Bn. of the 1st Div. wrote. “I only saw two live Germans and two dead ones.” The barrage gave every man “the feeling of confidence,” Pte. William Elder wrote home to Huntingdon, Que., “and our only danger was our getting too close to it.”

One of the best accounts of the initial assault, never before published, was written by the PPCLI’s Pte. Teskey. He was in the first wave of 3rd Division’s attack just to the south of Hill 145. “(A) series of mine craters separated us from enemy front line. We occupied one lip of the craters & Fritz the other. I was atop of our lip (with) a good view of proceedings. Had to file across narrow ridges between craters & my job to lead one of these files. At 5:30 every gun we had let loose…. Din & roar. Germans 35 yards away. (The) lip I had to cross was 25 feet high. After short bombardment, signal for 1st wave to advance. No time to think! Ran into our own barbed wire–disentangled & went on. Had to stop as our artillery still playing barrage of shrapnel on enemy trench. Idea was for first wave to advance up underneath the shells & as soon as barrage lifts–rush the trench. Many of our own 1st wave hit by our own shells! Not doing their duty if no casualties! Our barrage didn’t get all Germans in front line. As we crouched down outside their parapet a shower of bombs came over. But as soon as we rushed in we were all ‘Kamerads’….”

As Teskey added in his letter written from a hospital bed, “Just before we reached our objective one of our own shells fell short behind me & hit my back…. I got into a shell hole. Getting back to our lines difficult–mud!”

Teskey’s experience was far from unusual. Maj. Percy Menzies noted that at “times it was very hard to know exactly where our barrage lines were and we officers had a hard time bringing back our own men out of our own fire. The ground was so terribly chewed up that it was almost impossible to recognize the landmarks on which we had counted.”

The brief pause on the Black Line let the attackers consolidate. Then the advance began again, progressing well on the right of the line. The Germans had now begun to react and snipers, machine-gun fire, and artillery caused Canadian casualties, but this scarcely slowed the advance. The Blue Line fell easily to the reserve brigades of the 1st and 2nd divisions, “in precisely the same manner as it had been worked out on the practice fields,” or so said the British official historians. The final objective, the Brown Line, reached after a downhill bayonet charge by men of the 6th Bde., was quickly in Canadian hands.

The Canadian Corps’ major difficulties came in the 4th Division’s sector on the left. At Hill 145 and The Pimple, dug-in German troops, who had the advantage of the highest points on the ridge, offered fierce resistance. The enemy had bunkers on a reverse slope that made them safe from artillery bombardment, and the 11th and 12th brigades battered against machine-gun strongpoints without much success. Indeed, German counter-attacks at times threatened their efforts.

Spearheading the 38th Battalion’s attack was Captain Thain MacDowell who had earned the Distinguished Service Order on the Somme. While with two runners, he found himself at a German redoubt well ahead of the main body of his men. He destroyed one machine-gun nest and forced another enemy gun crew to retreat. Then he spotted a German soldier entering one of the many tunnels on the ridge. MacDowell followed him into the tunnel and persuaded a German at gunpoint that he was the vanguard of a much larger force. He then bluffed two officers and 75 soldiers into surrendering, sending them above ground in small groups so that his runners could take them back to the Canadian lines. MacDowell held his position until relieved by his battalion, was promoted to major, and awarded the Victoria Cross. He was one of four Canadians to earn the VC during the battle. The others were Ellis Sifton, William Milne and John George Pattison.

Four thousand prisoners fell into Canadian hands, but many died before they reached prisoner cages. The PPCLI’s Lt.-Col. Agar Adamson wrote to his wife that his regiment had captured scores of prisoners, but “a German Major refused to be sent with prisoners to the rear, except in the charge of a Major.” Adamson was blunt: “He will trouble us no more.” That was not an unusual story. Prince Edward Islander Richard Rogerson, who had seen a friend killed near him, unabashedly recounted that he had taken no prisoners: “I have got my share of Germans. I got 14 to my credit in about two hours–some I shot with my rifle (and) more I drove the bayonit (sic) into and two I killed with a milles (sic) bomb (i.e., grenade)…. Once I killed my first German with my bayonit my blood was riled (and) every german (sic) I could not reach with my bayonit I shot. I think no more of murdering them than I usted (sic) to think of shooting rabbits.” Some of this might have been bragging to the home folks, but Rogerson’s account rings true.

As night fell, the Germans still held Hill 145. It was not until the 4th Div. sent in two companies of Nova Scotia’s 85th Bn., new to the front and intended only for use as a labour battalion at Vimy, that the Germans there gave up. The remainder of the Red Line positions facing the 4th Div., except for The Pimple, fell on the morning of April 10 after a bayonet charge by two battalions.

The Pimple had been designated for capture by British troops. Instead, on April 12, three battalions of the 4th Division’s 10th Bde. launched a night attack in a howling gale and seized the position in a hand-to-hand struggle from a German Guards regiment. “I am King of the Pimple,” said Brig.-Gen. Edward Hilliam. Vimy Ridge, including the site of the eventual Canadian memorial on Hill 145, was in Canadian hands.

The task now was to get the guns and every kind of materiel, food, and water forward. Gnr. Kerr recalled that his battery moved up two miles at about 11 a.m. on Easter Monday. “On the right side of the road, ahead of us and in rear, batteries and wagons, trucks and men were moving up; on the left side there was a stream coming to meet us, of bandaged men and men in stretchers.” Other batteries, as Gnr. Tom Walker told his wife, “had to wait until the engineers got a light railway laid before we could get (forward) at all. The mud was so soft & spongy it was absolutely impossible to take them up with horses. Then when we got on the ridge the Germans backed about five miles & we had to pull out on the plain in front of the ridge.” The German guns still in action fired on the advancing Canadians, and the commanding officer of the 3rd Bde., Canadian Field Artillery, Lt.-Col. Woodman Leonard, was killed at about 9:30 a.m. He had written in his diary the day before that he had “renewed my subscription to London Times for six months.”

YMCA officer William Fingland wrote home that “of course there have been heavy losses but it was a great victory, and every widow or mother of a man who fell should feel proud and happy the rest of her days that her loved one was willing to give his life in the interest (of) liberty and democracy….” Percy McClare of the 24th Bn. in the 2nd Div. told his mother that he “was in the whole of that battle and it was Hell.” But, he added, “I am glad to say that I was through it, as it will be one of the biggest things in Canadian history.” Medical officer Harold McGill said to his fiancée that “It was a wonderful battle, the best show I have been in. Our men trimmed the Boche in fine shape and our losses were not heavy.”

McGill was wrong and Fingland was correct, for the losses were terrible. Nursing Sister Clare Gass wrote in her diary on April 10 that “this morning hundreds of Canadian wounded admitted, so tired, but the majority with only slighter wounds.” Five days later, she added that the “casualties though reported as small from last week’s action have simply filled all the hospitals hereabouts to overflowing.” The Canadian Corps suffered 10,602 casualties in the Vimy fighting, including 3,598 dead. The 4th Div., not surprisingly, had the most casualties with 4,401 of its infantry–or one in three–killed or wounded. Whatever else it was, Vimy was no walkover.

So what then was Vimy? The carefully planned and brilliantly fought set-piece battle was a triumph of combined arms that produced a 4,500-yard advance, the greatest by the Allies to that point. The victory demonstrated how much the Canadians had learned since the Ypres battles of April 1915, and it proved that the men of the corps were without peer.

Unfortunately, the Battle of Vimy Ridge–April 9-12, 1917–did not alter the course of the war. There was no attempt to exploit the breakthrough achieved by Byng’s boys, no effort to send the cavalry streaming through the German lines. The enemy retreated a few miles to new positions and the struggle continued.

Vimy’s transcendental importance was for Canada. It was a great victory achieved by the army of a nation that was only then becoming aware of its nationality. That a majority of the soldiers and the key staff officers were British-born made no difference. The victory mattered to the soldiers because it persuaded them that they were as good as they wanted to believe they were. It mattered to Canadians at home who felt that their sons and their country truly were special. And they were.

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