The Historian’s Story of Vimy

September 18, 2014 by Legion Magazine

The Historian’s Story of Vimy

By  John Buchan

April 1927

A decade has passed since the great battle in which the Canadian Corps swept the enemy from their supposed impregnable position on Vimy Ridge. The story of this epic has been repeated each year as the anniversary date, April 9th, approached. This year The Legionary repeats the story as recorded by John Buchan covering the early part of the Battle of Arras, which included the capture of Vimy Ridge. Even in this unemotional record, where opinions are rarely expressed, and then usually as criticisms, we find this declaration regarding the taking of the Ridge: “Few finer pieces of dogged fighting were seen in the campaign.”

The British front of attack was slightly over twelve miles long, from Givenchy-en-Gohelle in the north to a point just short of Croisilles in the south. Against the Vimy Ridge lay the right of the First Army, Sir Julian Byng’s Canadian Corps, with one British brigade. Then came the Third Army- between the Canadians and the Scarpe, Sir Charles Fergusson’s 17th Corps; opposite Arras, Aylmer Haldane’s 6th Corps; and south of it, astride the Cojeul, Snow’s 7th Corps. In its constituents the army of assault was largely Scottish. Thirty-eight Scots battalions were destined to cross the parapets – a larger number than the British at Waterloo, and more than seven-times the size of the force that Bruce commanded at Bannockburn.

The dispositions from left to right were: – First Army: Canadian Corps (4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st Canadian Divisions), and British 13th Brigade. Third Army: 17th Corps (51st, 34th, 4th, 9th Divisions), 6th Corps (37th, 15th, 12th, 3rd Divisions), 7th Corps (14th, 56th, 30th, 21st Divisions). The 37th and 4th Divisions were to go through after the road had been opened.

In the third week of March a systematic cutting of the enemy’s wire began, and our heavy artillery shelled his back areas and communications. About Wednesday, 4th April, the British guns woke along the whole sector. There was a steady bombardment of all the enemy positions, more especially the great fortress of the Vimy Ridge. Wonderful counterbattery work was done, and battery after battery of the enemy was put out of action, located partly by direct observation from the air, and partly by our new device for sound identification. These were days of clear, cold spring weather, with the wind in the north-east, and from dawn to dark our airplanes fought a mighty battle on their own account. In the history of air-fighting that week must rank as an epoch, for it was a last desperate struggle on the enemy’s part to defend his side of the line against our encroaching supremacy. It was a week of heavy loses, for at all costs the foe must be blinded, and the British airmen kept up one continuous offensive. Forty-eight of our own planes failed to return, and forty-six of the enemy’s were destroyed or driven down out of control. The attackers, as was natural, paid the heavier price.

The “preparation” was intense till Sunday, 8th April. That day was perfect weather, with a foretaste of spring. A lull seemed to fall upon the British front, and the ear-splitting din of the past week died away into sporadic bombardments. It is possible that this sudden quiet outwitted the enemy. He was perfectly aware of the coming attack, and he knew its area and objective. He had expected it each day, and each day had been disappointed. On the Sunday he began to reply, and rained shells at intervals into the streets of Arras. But he did little harm. The troops of attack there were waiting comfortably in cellars and underground assembly stations. In the late evening the weather changed. The wind shifted, and blew up to rain and squalls of snow. During the night there were long spells of quiet, broken by feverish outbursts of enemy fire from Vimy to Croisilles. Our own batteries were for the most part silent.

Zero hour was 5:30 on the morning of Easter Monday. At 4 a.m. a drizzle had begun which changed presently to drifts of thin snow. It was intensely cold, and it was scarcely half-light, so that the troops waiting for the signal saw before them only a dark mist flecked with snow flakes. But at the appointed moment the British guns broke into such a fire as had been yet seen on no battle-ground on earth. It was the first hour of the Somme repeated, but a hundredfold more awful. As our men went over the parapets they felt as if they were under the protection of some super-natural power, for the heaven above them was one canopy of shrieking steel. There were now no enemy front trenches; soon there were no second-line trenches; only a hummocky waste of craters and broken wire. Within forty minutes all the German first position was captured, and our men were moving steadily against the second, while our barrage crept relentlessly before them.

On the left wing the Canadians, with a bound, reached the crest of Vimy, and swarmed on to the table-land from which the ground fell away to the flat industrial area between Lens and Douai. Few finer pieces of dogged fighting were seen in the campaign. The guns had done the work for them till they were beyond the crest, but after that, over a mile of plateau, they had to fight their way from shell-hole to shell-hole under a deluge of rifle and machine-gun fire. Before nine o’clock all the Vimy Ridge was ours, except its northern corner and the high point marked Hill 145. Between the Canadians and the Scrape the 17th Corps had taken La Folie Farm, and were advancing on Thelus. In front of Arras the 6th Corps had overrun Blangy, and were facing the formidable railway triangle, while farther south Tilloy-lez-Mofflaines had fallen, and, south of it, the great fortress called the Harp. The Harp was such a place as in the early days of the Somme would have baffled us for a month or more. It was stronger than Contalmaison or Pozieres or Guillemont. It was rushed with the assistance of a batch of tanks, some of which stuck fast in its entanglements, while others forced their way through to the plain beyond.

By 9:30 the whole of the German second position had fallen, except a short length west of Bailleul. By the early afternoon the enemy had been forced from the two worst points south of the Scarpe – observation ridge and the railway triangle. This last, formed by the junction of the Lens and Douai lines, was a formidable obstacle, bristling with machine guns, and for a little it stayed the advance of the Scottish Division on the left of the 6th Corps- the 15th Division which had captured Loos and Martinpuich, and Had long ranked as part of the corps d’elite of the British Army. But our artillery came to their aid, and presently they were surging eastward; and in a hollow called Battery Valley, between the German second and third positions, they made enormous captures of enemy guns. By the evening that division had taken the German third line at Feuchy, and to the north of the Scarpe the right of the 17th Corps – the Scottish and South African troops of the 9th Division- had carried Athies, and the 4th Division, passing through them, had taken Fampoux village and Hyderabad Redoubt and broken in the German third line on a front of two and a half miles. The Feuchy switch line had now gone, and the enemy front had been utterly destroyed. He had no prepared position short of the Drocourt-Queant line, and that was still in the making.

But the weather was on his side. The ground was sodden, and our guns took time to bring up. He was holding it with machine guns in pockets, which prevented the use of cavalry. Had we possessed a light type of tank in reasonable numbers the rout could have been made complete. As it was, there was no chance of a dramatic coup de grace. The infantry could only push forward slowly and methodically, and complete their capture of the German third position. In wild weather on Tuesday, 10th April, the Canadians carried Hill 145, and with it gained the whole of Vimy Ridge.

The relics of the 14th Bavarians, which had formed the defence, were withdrawn and sent to recruit on the Eastern front. To the south the village and wood of Farbus were taken, and that evening, after hard fighting, the 6th Corps reached the hill where stood the village of Monchy-le-Preux. Next day, the 11th, in a snowstorm, Monchy was carried, with the assistance of detachments of cavalry, but not without heavy losses. It was a key position of the country between the Scarpe and the Sensee, standing on the ridge of a little plateau some ninety feet above the surrounding levels. Its approaches on four sides were sunken roads lined with machine guns. In the end it fell to a converging attack from the north and west, but its defense showed that the enemy was recovering from his first demoralization. Moreover, he had begun to counter-attack.

 

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