The Battle of Vimy Ridge remains an iconic event in Canadian history. Fought from April 9 to 12, 1917, it is celebrated in history books, resonates in popular culture and is firmly lodged in Canadian consciousness. The erection of Walter Allward’s stunning memorial on the ridge in 1936 has ensured that the battlefield remains a site of memory, mourning, victory and commemoration. Thousands of Canadians have made a pilgrimage to the memorial and, over time, despite the dangers of France being overrun during the Second World War and the ravages of weather, it has remained a focal point for Canadian war remembrance. The unveiling of the refurbished memorial in 2007 was accompanied by a pageantry of celebration and pride. The Queen, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and over 3,000 Canadians attended the ceremony, where T-shirts and hats were sold containing the tag line, ‘The birth of a nation.’
Vimy overshadows every other event in Canada’s Great War experience, and especially the series of battles that followed in the last two years of the war. After Vimy, the Canadians never lost a significant offensive operation. These campaigns added to the Canadian reputation as shock troops, soldiers who were thrown into the line to deliver victory on the most difficult battlefields. This they did at Passchendaele in October and November 1917 and during the Hundred Days campaign in the final months of the war. The former battle has recently been brought back into popular memory by the Paul Gross film of 2008, while the Hundred Days campaign remains relatively unknown, even though it was where the Canadians punched far above their weight.
Yet the critical battle of Hill 70, fought in August of 1917, and squeezed out between the victory at Vimy and the bog-fighting of Passchendaele, remains almost completely unknown to Canadians. Planned, orchestrated, and fought almost entirely by Canadians, it remains one of the most important Canadian battles of the Great War.
The Battle of the Somme from July to November 1916 had been a punishing and titanic struggle for the allied forces and the Germans. Despite the British rushing newly raised divisions to the front, which were supported by enormous firepower, the Germans had been almost impossible to dislodge from their deep dugouts and complex defensive system. When the enemy trenches were breached, reserve units counterattacked and drove the exhausted and much depleted British, Australian or Canadian forces from their precarious gains.
The Canadians had chewed their way forward over a three-month period of battle, but they had not got far, and the cost had been staggering at over 24,000 casualties. As they limped from the wreckage, they realized that new ways of warfighting had to be processed if they had any hope of capturing their next objective, the fortress of Vimy Ridge, in northern France.
The Canadian Corps was the Dominion’s primary land formation during the Great War. From a nation of not yet 8 million, an astonishing 620,000 Canadians enlisted to serve King and country, with the majority of them passing through the corps. This was a civilian army and there were few communities that did not contribute young men to the expeditionary force.
From May 1916, the Canadians were commanded by Sir Julian Byng, a much-respected British general who forged them into an effective fighting machine. After the Somme, Byng encouraged his soldiers to analyse the lessons of the battlefield and find solutions to mitigate the slaughter.
The infantry went through a series of reforms. Officers had often been shot down early in the Somme battles, with the survivors unable to push forward as no intelligence had been shared with them. Now, in the preparation before the Vimy offensive, the infantry were given maps, instructed over mock battlefields, and ordered to push forward, even if officers were knocked out. This decentralized command structure, where NCOs and even privates might lead in battle, was further assisted by a reorganization of the platoon structure, which armed the infantry with additional light Lewis machine guns and rifle grenades. This additional firepower would allow those at the sharp end to fight their way forward.
The artillery also evolved to meet battlefield challenges. The shellfire on the Somme had been extraordinarily destructive, but hundreds of thousands of the shells had been rendered nearly ineffective because their fuses had not been sensitive enough to explode on contact with the barbed wire. The new 106 fuse allowed for the better clearing of wire and obstacles in the run up to Vimy and new scientific principles, especially in sound ranging, improved the accuracy of destructive fire against enemy artillery pieces. A powerful creeping barrage was also planned to crash down just ahead of the advancing infantry. It would methodically tear through enemy trenches in a destructive march up the ridge, and either kill the defenders or force them into their deep dugouts. Either way, the Canadian infantry would have time to advance through the killing ground of no man’s land.
This new attack doctrine gave the Byng boys, as the Canadians liked to call themselves, additional confidence in storming Vimy. But the ridge was a fortress and one that the Germans had been strengthening since they captured it at the start of the war. French and British attacks against the position had failed, with rotting remains littering the western slope up which the Canadians would march. While the narrow ridge could not be held in depth, the Germans had criss-crossed it with deep trenches, concrete machine-gun emplacements, and kilometres of barbed wire.
As the battle approached, the Canadians constructed new gun pits, excavated underground tunnels, raided aggressively against the enemy lines, and even dug mass graves. No one expected the attack to be a cakewalk. In the week before the battle, the artillery laid down a punishing bombardment, with thousands of tons of high explosives hammering the cringing Germans. Entire portions of the front-line trenches were shattered; other defenders were driven insane; all were trapped in their dugouts, cut off from the outside world.
On the night before the battle, the Canadian infantry, some 15,000 strong in the first wave of attacks, with another 12,000 in support, moved into the deep tunnels, protected from the enemy’s gaze and his shellfire. Others filtered silently into the forward trenches, settling down into the muck. Soldiers clasped hands with those comrades who were left out of the line to rebuild the battalion should it be annihilated. Almost all wrote last letters to loved ones, and many carved their names into the walls of the chalk tunnels. Confident and prepared for battle, the Canadians knew there would be no victory without a payment in bodies.
The four Canadian divisions of the Canadian Corps were lined up across the seven-kilometre enemy front. From south to north, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th divisions prepared themselves to kill or be killed. It was the first time they had ever all attacked together in a single battle. The ridge was highest on the 4th Division’s front, with Hill 145 commanding the axis of advance. To the south, however, parts of the 1st Division’s front were flat, or even downhill, although they had the greatest distance to travel at about 4,000 metres.
At 5:30 a.m., 983 Canadian and British artillery pieces and mortars exploded in a cacophony of fury. The concentrated barrage was unlike anything seen before. Soldiers remarked of a seemingly solid ceiling of shells above their heads. Officers could not be heard above the sonic assault. Nonetheless, amid the cataclysm, the infantry moved forward in their measured pace, some watching the barrage crash down 100 metres in front of them, while others took solace in averting their eyes from the terror into which they walked.
Most German positions disintegrated under the weight of fire, but some survived. The Canadian infantry had to clear them out with grenades, bullets and bayonets. There was much savage fighting. Under shellfire and a driving storm of sleet, the Canadians pushed up the ridge, moving from smoking crater to crater, losing men to friendly fire and enemy bullets.
Most of the objectives fell to the Canadians throughout the day, but the 4th Div. was torn apart on the highest slopes of the ridge, where the Vimy memorial would eventually be built. Too many Germans survived the bombardment and responded with raking fire. Only the shell craters offered some protection, but they too often became a watery grave for the severely wounded.
With the battle here nearly lost, an inexperienced highland battalion from Nova Scotia was ordered to the front. Ill-trained and forced to share jumping off trenches with the shattered remains of several bloodied units, the 85th Highlanders nonetheless charged up the ridge at zero hour, with no artillery support. The ferocity of the attack drove the Germans before them. By the end of the day, most of the ridge was in Canadian hands, and the rest of the ridge fell over the next three days. The Canadians would never let it go.
Following the Vimy victory, Byng was given command of the British Third Army, which was licking its wounds after a series of see-saw fruitless battles to the south. The British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, had initially sought to appoint another professional imperial general to take control of the corps, but Byng suggested it was time for a Canadian to command the national formation. After a struggle with partisan-driven Canadian politicians, Sir Arthur Currie, a Canadian-born militiaman from Victoria, was appointed.
Currie had already proven he was the best Canadian battlefield commander. Large, even ungainly, the six-foot-three general weighed over 250 pounds. He did not look like a British general, but he had a sharp mind for war. He had seen hard fighting at the Battle of Second Ypres in April 1915, and had been responsible for the successful Canadian counterattack in June 1916 at the Battle of Mount Sorrel, which had thrown the Germans back in a planned, methodical operation that used artillery to bludgeon the enemy lines before the infantry swept forward. Byng had also selected Currie to investigate many of the British and French army reforms in the post-Somme period. He was an ideal commander to lead the Canadians forward after Vimy.
The Canadians fought throughout the summer of 1917, in several minor set-piece battles, but also unleashed a series of aggressive night raids against the German lines. To the north, Haig launched his Passchendaele offensive at the end of July. It soon ground to a halt as rain and bombardments reduced the shattered terrain to an apocalyptic landscape of mud and thousands of unburied horse and human corpses.
With the Passchendaele front bogged down, the Canadians to the south were ordered to capture the mining town of Lens and draw German attention to that sector. Lens was a few kilometres to the northeast of Vimy Ridge, and it had been fortified by the Germans since the start of the war. The enemy had deep trenches and dugouts throughout the ruined houses and factories. With much of the German defences obscured from aerial photographs, the Canadian attack would go in blind. Notwithstanding these obstacles, the First Army commander, Sir Henry Horne, ordered his newest corps commander, Currie, to frontally assault the position.
The experienced Currie blanched at the thought. The German defenders would be largely hidden from his searching guns and his infantry would be torn apart in urban fighting. Studying the battlefield and consulting his subordinates—one of whom, A.G.L. McNaughton, described the British plan as “a bloody fool operation”—he screwed up his courage and told Horne there was a better plan. The British general was shocked, as few subordinates questioned orders, but Horne was not a buffoon and he liked the bold Canadian’s counter-proposal. Instead of a frontal assault into Lens, Currie argued, his forces would attack Hill 70, high ground to the north of the city.
Horne warned Currie that the Germans would never let him keep the position, as it would give the Canadians a commanding view of Lens. That was factored into Currie’s plan. The Canadian general had made the mental leap from fighting for more terrain, to fighting to destroy the German army. Vimy had been a ‘bite’ and ‘hold’ operation; at Hill 70, Currie planned for a ‘bite,’ ‘hold,’ and ‘destroy’ campaign. The Canadians would bite off Hill 70 and hold the new terrain, which would force the enemy to leave the safety of his trenches and attack over open ground into the mouth of their massed guns, where he would be destroyed.
Blood, sweat and sacrifice marked the preparation before the battle, set for late July. The Canadian gunners softened up the enemy positions; the infantry trained aggressively; and raids were launched against the southern portion of Lens to draw enemy attention, and reinforcements, to that sector of the front. Intense rain forced the delay of the operation, but on Aug. 15, 10 front-line assault battalions surged over their start lines. A screening force kept German attention in front of Lens, but the weight of the attack was directed up the hill, which was captured in fierce fighting.
Shocked by the loss of Hill 70, the Germans immediately counterattacked. It was as Currie had predicted. The Germans marched forward over open ground and into a prepared kill zone swept by over 250 machine-gun teams, both the light Lewis and the heavy Vickers, as well as light, medium and heavy artillery, which was directed by forward observers and circling aircraft above the battlefield. For the next three days, the Germans threw their forces against the Canadian strongpoint. Assaults were torn apart in the storm of steel and high explosives, but some determined enemy soldiers made it through the Canadian forward outposts, resulting in bitter hand-to-hand fighting. Amid the slaughter, with both sides employing chemical agents, defenders and attackers often fought nearly blind, as they peered out through fogged up respirators. Despite bravery and obstinacy, the Germans were thrown back each time, and by the end of the 18th, an astonishing 21 counterattacks had been defeated. Even hardened combat warriors were sickened by the massacre, as torn and mangled Germans lay on the battlefield by the thousands.
This first phase of the battle was a complete success for the Canadians, but the Germans refused to retreat from Lens, even though gunners were raining down shells. On Aug. 21, Currie ordered a probing attack which was thrown back with heavy casualties, as the Germans were deeply entrenched. This would likely have been the fate of the entire operation had Currie not shown the moral courage to go to Horne a month earlier to change the plan. The battle ground to a halt over the coming days.
Sir Douglas Haig characterized Hill 70 as “one of the finest minor operations of the war.” Currie thought it one of the “hardest battles” ever fought by the Canadians, but also a success. The enemy had been bled white, suffering an estimated 25,000 casualties, while the corps lost a little over 10,000 killed and wounded, when the prebattle losses from raids and shelling were added to the butcher’s bill. These were not inconsequential casualties for the Canadian Corps, but the operation revealed, for one of the first times on the Western Front, how an attacking force could inflict more losses on the defenders than it suffered in turn. Attesting to the ferocity of battle, some six Canadians were recipients of the Empire’s highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross.
Hill 70 was Currie’s first significant battle and it revealed his agile mind. He understood that the German army could not be driven from every position on the Western Front. Instead, the enemy’s forces had to be broken physically with heavy losses and, more importantly, defeated morally. The blow at Lens was not forgotten by the Germans, who were forced to draw significant resources to the front. And it was a battle almost entirely planned and fought by the Canadian Corps. Victories at Passchendaele, the defence of Vimy Ridge during the German offensives of early 1918, and throughout the Hundred Days campaign would solidify the reputation of the Canadian Corps as an elite formation.
While the victory at Vimy remains much heralded among Canadians, Hill 70 remains without a significant memorial and is largely forgotten. Yet, as a battle, it had pushed the grim art of warfighting into a new realm. Currie’s set-piece engagement, intricately planned and supported, was based on biting, holding, and destroying the enemy. The brutal war of attrition required a new, grim method of fighting.
Email the writer at: [email protected]