What Made Vimy So Memorable?

April 2, 2015 by Legion Magazine

WWI-What-Made-Vimy-So-Memorable

 

What Made Vimy So Memorable?

By D. E. Macintyre
April 1960

Canadians fought and won hard battles in the First World War, fought them without hate but with a cold and relentless endurance that carried them from 1914 to victory at Mons in 1918. They suffered losses that were sore for a young nation to bear, but all of the engagements in which they took part Canadian veterans yield pride of place to Vimy, and it is at Vimy that Canada has erected her most imposing war memorial.

What, then, made Vimy so memorable?

There were several contributing factors.

Most important, probably, was the fact that Canadians from the Atlantic to the Pacific, regardless of racial origin or religion, hitherto grouped into four separate Divisions having little intercourse with each other (although under one Corps Commander), for the first time fought as a compact force, shoulder to shoulder. Their united capture of Vimy Ridge was a tremendous triumph in which they shared equally.

A WINNING TEAM

And so it happened that there came about a fresh awareness of their collective nationality and with it a new reward for the fighting qualities of comrades with whom they had shared danger and joined hands in inflicting a crushing defeat on a common enemy. In other words, there was pride in belonging to the same winning team.

In the British Army organization an Army Corps may have any number of Divisions – generally three or four – and these Divisions are shifted from one Corps to another to meet tactical situations as they arise. The British soldiers’ loyalty was first to his Regiment, which usually had a long and proud history, then to his Division. The Corps scarcely touched the individual soldier; its authority was too distant and transitory.

With the Canadians it was different. They were from overseas, strangers in a strange lad, and they wanted to stick together. When British general headquarters wanted to move Canadian Divisions about like their own, the idea was always resisted, and after Vimy it was unthinkable. And so the Canadian Corps remained intact throughout the war except for a brief period during the crisis of March, 1918, when the 1st and 2nd Divisions were detached to meet the threat of the great German offensive.

When Arthur Currie, that former real estate agent and militia officer from Vancouver who grew to be one of the most esteemed and able generals of the war, took over the Canadian Corps just after Vimy and was knighted on the battlefield by King George V, he found himself in command of a tough, battle-hardened, well-disciplined army of 100,000 men, every one a volunteer and fiercely proud of his war record and Canadian nationality.

Three years earlier these unmilitary people had been following their peaceful civilian occupations. No one dreamed of war in July, 1914, and there could have been few indeed who had any military ambitions, but by 1917 those who reached France and had been enrolled and trained in the Canadian Corps had become a force to be reckoned with.

No more courageous or intelligent than their British comrades they nevertheless possessed more cohesion, more native initiative, more pride of Corps. I am well aware of the fact that in the Canadian ranks were tens of thousands of men who had been born in the Old Country, but the mere fact that they had the courage and initiative to break away from family ties and try their luck in a new land showed that they were of the stuff that had made the British Empire.

Being amateurs, their leaders were likely to be successful businessmen, lawyers or engineers, former members of the militia in many cases, who took the common sense view of things and were not included to become too implicated in army tradition and red tape. Their Canadian way of life had made them different from Europeans; more independent.

All units in the Corps were commanded by officers from Canada who, after the inevitable weeding-out process had been completed, became the capable fighting leaders that brought their men to the Rhine and credit to their country.

CANADIAN ENTERPRISE

Canadians were the first to develop, or to greatly improve such activities as light railways for the transporting of ammunition and other supplies up as close to the frontline as possible, and for bringing out the wounded; counter-battery work by 60-pounders and howitzers for the purpose of knocking out enemy guns which was brought to a high point of efficiency; aerial warfare; the employment of machine guns disposed in depth and treated as light artillery for indirect fire; trench raids; frontline intelligence by scouts and snipers trained for the purpose, to mention but a few of the more important enterprises.

Canadian discipline was strict; training in France was rigorous, and instructions to the troops were drawn up with great care and attention to detail so that they acquired a reputation for thoroughness. One reason for this state of affairs was that they were non-professionals, totally lacking in experience in large-scale warfare.

Fortunately the British made available to them two Corps Commanders (Alderson, followed by Byng) and a number of senior staff officers for whose services Canada should be forever grateful because, with few exceptions, they were top level men who went on to higher appointments in their own service later. They felt that in us they had good raw material, but it was necessary to spell things out for us in more detailed form than would have been necessary for professionals. And it is a good thing they did for we were apt pupils and our feelings of esteem were mutual, and so we came to be a sharp sword in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief. In time, these staff officers retired to make way for Canadians trained at staff courses and in the hard school of war.

Another factor which made Vimy stand out was the incredible strength of the position.

A German FORTRESS

When the German army retired from the Marne in 1914 they took up pre-determined positions of great tactical value on a series of ridges that run from North to South and feature the North-Eastern departments of France. Vimy Ridge was one of these, a natural barrier to the rich coal mining region surrounding the City of Lens. It is about five miles long and, seen from the South West, appears to slope gently upwards (except at the northern end where it is steep), but on the eastern, or German, side, and hidden from our view, it drops suddenly for about 240 feet to the Douai plain.

This almost perpendicular wall vastly favoured the enemy. Not only did he command perfect observation over our movements but he could approach it openly from his side even with trains and standard-gauge tracks. Day and night he pushed his transport up to the area right behind the fighting zone. His troops carried out reliefs with little interruption from us and entered the frontline by deep trenches and tunnels in comparative safety.

German guns in concrete pits were tucked away just below the crest of the Ridge and were difficult to hit. They were directed by forward observation officers with field glasses and telephones who could detect much of our activity. Their crews were comfortable in deep dugouts burrowed into the hillside.

How different was our case – exposed to view all day and forced to do most of our work in darkness, living in wet ditches knee-deep in water which the enemy thoughtfully drained downhill on to our positions.

From 1915 onwards the Germans, with their customary industry and thoroughness, and directed by skilled military engineers, made a fortress of Vimy. They had developed the natural caves of the region and from they had projected a series of tunnels that served the whole front. They poured thousands of tons of concrete to make their strong-points where machine guns were cunningly hidden.

Throughout 1951 the French had struggled to wrest the high ground from the Germans and 20 French divisions had nearly bled to death in the attempt*. Then the British took over the sector in the following year and held it until they in turn handed it on to the Canadians at the end of 1916.

The German reasoning was that if we attacked we should get a bloody nose, but that they could not be dislodged, if past experience was any guide. After all, the position was much stronger than it had been two years earlier.

HISTORIC VICTORY

But in 1917, on Easter Monday morning, April 9th, the Canadian Corps hurled them from the Ridge, never to return.

By their victory at Vimy Canada achieved at one bound what years of political and commercial effort had not done. Prior to 1914 Canada was a self-governing Dominion of about eight million people as compared with her nearly 18 million today. She was looked upon by most outsiders (quite mistakenly) as a British colony and a pleasant place in which to spend a vacation hunting and fishing. She was unimportant except for her wheat, fisheries, wood products and some minerals. Her great period of development was still to come. Certainly she had no voice in international affairs. But Vimy made all the difference. On that day, Canada, whether anyone realized it or not, grew up and became a nation and a strong sure weapon on the side of freedom, and from that day onward she could, and did, negotiate with others as an equal – a position she owes in large measure to the efforts and sacrifices of her fighting sons.

 

 

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