The story of how Canadian soldiers captured Vimy Ridge in April 1917 has become almost mythological in Canada’s public consciousness. Should this victory hold the place it does in the annals of the Canadian Corps?
Author John Boileau says YES. Author Andrew Iarocci says NO.
Boileau, a retired army colonel living in Halifax, has written several books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles on Canadian military history. He is also a frequent radio and TV commentator on military issues. Iarocci is an assistant professor of history at Western University in London, Ont., and is the author of Shoestring Soldiers: The First Canadian Division, 1914-15. His research interests include military transportation and procurement.
The capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps in 1917 has assumed mythical proportions in popular culture. In an April 2012 broadcast of “Coach’s Corner” on CBC television, hockey icon Don Cherry said that Vimy “made us a nation, as they say.…” He explained that the “French and English tried to take Vimy Ridge for three years” without success and that in April 1917, the four Canadian divisions, under Major-General Arthur Currie, finally captured it, operating separately from the “French and English” for the first time.
Many Canadians would nod approvingly at Cherry’s appraisal. Some might add that Vimy was a strategic turning point in the war. But if these are the reasons that we believe Vimy matters, we had better think again.
Vimy was not uniquely Canadian. The capture of the ridge was a component of the British (not “English”) and French spring offensives in 1917. On Canada’s right flank, the British Third Army delivered a major attack to the east of Arras. The Canadian Corps, under British First Army command, was reinforced with British infantry, supported by British heavy artillery, and supplied largely through British infrastructure. Canadians never fought independently of the British Expeditionary Force—certainly not at Vimy.
Vimy Ridge was a great victory for the Canadian Corps. But as Currie observed in 1922, it was not more significant than others.
We need to stop insisting that Canadians succeeded where the British (or French) had earlier failed. British forces had not attempted to capture the ridge before 1917. The French had crested the ridge in 1915–16, with fewer resources than were available to the Canadians and British in 1917, but could not hold it. The French did, however, overcome imposing German defences along the western base of the ridge, as well as the neighbouring heights at Notre Dame de Lorette to the north. Without these hard-fought gains, the 1917 offensive may not have been feasible in the first place.
Currie, who was born near Strathroy, Ont., did not lead the Canadian Corps in April 1917. He assumed command later that year from Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, the British general who did lead the Canadians to victory at Vimy. (Currie commanded one of the four Canadian divisions at Vimy.) Recent research shows that many key staff positions in the Canadian Corps were held by British officers in April 1917.
Vimy was no strategic turning point. While the ridge’s capture was impressive in operational terms, the Allied spring offensives were costly, strategic failures. They did little to bring victory closer; the war continued for another 20 months.
The impact of the Great War on Canadian nationhood is debatable. Victories such as Vimy may have inspired national pride, but heavy casualties convinced Ottawa to impose conscription through the August 1917 Military Service Act. This piece of legislation, arguably one of the most controversial in our history, very nearly tore the nation apart.
Looking back on Vimy, Currie doubted that it was Canada’s most important battle. “In my mind,” he wrote in April 1922, “that is very far from being a fact. We fought other battles where the morale and material results were greater and more far-reaching than Vimy’s victory. There were other victories also that reflected to a greater degree the training and efficiency of the Corps.…” Currie went on to explain that Vimy did not demand the initiative and resourcefulness that marked Canada’s final battles, from August to November 1918.
Vimy Ridge was a great victory for the Canadian Corps. But as Currie observed in 1922, it was not more significant than others. And it was not important for the reasons that many Canadians now take for granted. Our Vimy mythology inspires pride, but scarcely reflects a well-informed memory of the Great War. We ought to do better, first by getting the facts straight. We owe at least that much to the soldiers of Canada who sacrificed so much.
There are several First World War victories by the Canadian Corps that deserve recognition for the extraordinary efforts of Canada’s citizen-soldiers. The major successes are distinguished by a series of official monuments on the Western Front in France and Flanders.
After the war, the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission formally recognized eight of the greatest victories by the erection of monuments. Six of these are inscribed granite blocks that represent, chronologically, the battles of Hill 62, the Somme, Passchendaele, Amiens, Drocourt-Quéant Switch/Hindenburg Line and Canal du Nord/Bourlon Wood.
The seventh memorial commemorates the Canadian Division’s heroic and determined stand during the gas attacks at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. It is the famous statue of the “Brooding Soldier” at Vancouver Corner near St. Julien. During the competition for a monument to commemorate Canada’s contribution to the war, it placed second behind Walter Allward’s winning submission.
Vimy also marked a triumph in an otherwise bleak Allied landscape at the time, at a place where previous French and British attacks had failed dismally.
The last memorial is, of course, Allward’s great monument on Vimy Ridge, designated as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. In both composition and setting, it is unquestionably the most inspiring and striking of all war memorials of all nations on the entire Western Front.
While the Vimy Memorial is the finest of these eight monuments, does the brilliant victory that occurred there deserve the place it holds in Canadian history?
The answer is a resounding yes.
To be held in the highest esteem, any battle should have involved the entire Canadian Corps of four divisions in a victory in an offensive operation.
While several of the memorialized battles (and some that are not, such as Hill 70) can claim this distinction, only Vimy has the honour of being the first. Additionally, it was only at Vimy that the entire Canadian Corps of four divisions attacked simultaneously against a single objective.
The battles at Second Ypres and Hill 62 were mainly defensive and involved fewer than four divisions. On the Somme, 4th Division only joined the battle after the three other divisions had left the area, while at Passchendaele all four divisions did not attack together, but generally two at a time.
The remaining three memorialized battles are part of “Canada’s 100 Days,” the series of individual actions that, taken together, comprise our nation’s greatest feat of arms in our history, when the Canadian Corps led the Allied way to victory from Aug. 8 to Nov. 11.
While the 100 Days produced incredible results, in none of the individual battles did the entire Corps assault and fight as one. The advance was usually led by two or three divisions, while the other one or two were in reserve and later assumed the lead.
These two unique distinctions at Vimy clearly set it apart from every other Canadian battle. This magnificent achievement stands alone and negates any requirement to invent—or defend—myths about Canada coming of age on the ridge’s slopes.
Vimy was also the first time that several tactical improvements recommended by Major-General Arthur Currie and used successfully during the rest of the war were implemented under the direction of Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, the result of Currie’s fact-finding mission to the French. Vimy also marked a triumph in an otherwise bleak Allied landscape at the time, at a place where previous French and British attacks had failed dismally.
Finally, Vimy was the greatest British victory of the war up to then, with no greater Allied
success until Amiens more than a year later. It marked a turning point for the Allies: a year and a half later, the war was over.
And the storied success at Vimy Ridge led the way.