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The Battle of Vimy Ridge

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the opening battles in a larger British campaign known as the Battle of Arras. It is also considered a seminal event in Canadian history for the primary role that nation's forces played in the attack.

Vimy, located in northern France, was one of the most heavily defended points on the entire Western Front and was thought to be an impregnable fortress. The Germans had fortified it with tunnels, three rows of trenches behind barbed wire, and numerous machine gun nests. The French and British had suffered thousands of casualties in previous attempts to take the Ridge; the French alone lost 150 000 men at Vimy Ridge in 1915. The ridge, stretching from the town of Vimy to Givenchy-en-Gohelle, was a crucial point that allowed the Germans to control much of the surrounding territory. The ridge was the only major barrier keeping the allies from the wide open Lens-Douai plain.

The Allied commanders decided to launch another assault in 1917. The duty was given to the still relatively fresh, but previously successful, Canadians. For the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps were brought together. They were joined by the British 5th Infantry Division.

The Canadian Corps' commanders were determined to learn from the mistakes of the French and British and spent months planning their attack. They built a replica of the Ridge behind their own lines, and trained using platoon-level tactics, including issuing detailed maps to ordinary soldiers rather than officers or NCOs alone. Each platoon was given a specific task by their commanding officers, rather than vague instructions from an absent general. They also employed older techniques such as the detonation of large mines under the German trenches.

On April 2, 1917, the Canadian Corps launched the largest artillery barrage in history up to that point. They shelled the German trenches for the next week, using over one million shells. The attack was loud enough that it could be heard in London, England. At dawn on Easter Monday, April 9, the 30 000-strong Canadian Corps began the attack, using a creeping barrage, a new technique whereby soldiers walked across No-Man's Land just behind a continuous line of shells (an improvement over previous battles, in which both sides had often shelled their own troops). After less than two hours, three of the four Canadian divisions had taken their objectives; the fourth division, however, was caught by the machine gun nests on the highest point of the Ridge known as Hill 145. The 87th Battalion suffered 50% casualties. The 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, who had been intended to be in a supply and construction role, were sent into the battle and the division captured the hill by the end of the day.

By April 12 the Canadians controlled the entire Ridge, at a cost of 3598 men killed and 7104 wounded. The German Sixth Army, under General Ludwig von Falkenhausen, suffered approximately 20 000 casualties. The Canadians also took 4,000 Germans as prisoners of war. The loss of the ridge also forced the Germans to retreat to the lower plains that were far more costly to defend.

The attack and objective had only limited grand-strategic significance, and as the simultaneous British and Australian attack to the south of the Ridge was unsuccessful, very little was actually achieved after the Canadian victory. However, in a war in which, battle after battle, thousands died for gains measured in yards, it had tremendous tactical importance, both in relieving the city of Arras from immediate threat of attack, as well as proving that the war could be made to move once again, after years of stalemate. The defeat was demoralizing for the Germans who had viewed the Ridge as one of their most impregnable strong points.

After one year, in April 1918, the fact that Vimy Ridge continued to be held even as German advances reached the outskirts of Paris, was probably also quite significant, and provided a leverage point behind the lines from which the extremely effective counter-attack was launched.

To Canadians, the name Vimy Ridge is very meaningful. It was the first time in the nation's history that its army fought as a complete organization in an independent battle. The Canadians were the only ones who defended their lines against the German army, when their Australian and New Zealander Commonwealth cousins did not. Also, the Canadian troops in the battle consisted of soldiers from all 9 provinces of Canada (Newfoundland did not join Confederation until 1949). The capture of the Ridge by the Canadian Corps, under the command of British General Julian H.G. Byng (with Canadian General Sir Arthur Currie acting as Chief-of-Staff), was a turning point for Allied Forces during the First World War. It was a triumphant event that Canadians from Vancouver to Halifax had in common and helped foster national unity. The success of the Canadian forces in this battle and others earned them a place at the post-war peace negotiations, a clear mark of the nation's independence from Britain.

The Memorial

The battle is commemorated by the Vimy Memorial, set atop Hill 145 near Vimy and Givenchy in the French Pas-de-Calais. It is Canada's most important memorial to the fallen soldiers of World War I.

The Memorial commemorates Canada's role in the First World War with stone figures that symbolize the values defended and the sacrifices made. There is a wealth of symbolism in its sculptures which help the viewer in contemplating the structure as a whole. Built between 1925 and 1936, the works of art, produced by Canadian war artists, record and illuminate the nation's military achievements by documenting, and commenting on, Canada's notable contribution.

The monument was designed by a Canadian architect and sculptor, the late Walter Seymour Allward. His design was selected from 160 others submitted by Canadians who participated in a competition held in the early 1920s. The two pylons, representing Canada and France, tower 27 metres above the base of the monument. Because of the height of the Ridge, the topmost figure - that of peace - is approximately 110 metres above the Lens Plain to the east. The land for the memorial as well as the surrounding 1 km� were given to Canada by France in 1922 in gratitude for sacrifices made by Canada in the First World War and for the victory achieved by Canadian troops in capturing Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

This memorial was built by the people of Canada as a tribute to their countrymen who fought in the Great War and, particularly, to the more than 66,000 men who gave their lives to defend freedom.

As you walk to the front of the monument, you will see one of its central figures - a woman, hooded and cloaked, facing eastward toward the new day.
Her eyes are cast down and her chin is resting on her hand. Below her is a tomb, draped in laurel branches and bearing a helmet. This saddened figure represents Canada - a young nation mourning her fallen sons.

The site is today operated by the Canadian government as a memorial and historic site. As well as the monument there is a small museum, a set of preserved trenches and tunnels as well as nearby cemeteries to those killed in the battle.

In 2004 the monument will be closed for restoration work. It will be cleaned and the names will be recarved. The statues will be moved off site and also cleaned and restored. The restoration is expected to be complete in 2006.

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Published on: 2004-08-05 (20683 reads)

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