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Battle of Vimy Ridge

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Battle of Vimy Ridge
ConflictWorld War I
DateApril 9-12, 1917
PlaceVimy, Pas-de-Calais, France
ResultDecisive Anglo-Canadian Victory
Combatants
Canada
United Kingdom
Germany
Commanders
Julian Byng
Arthur Currie
Ludwig von Falkenhausen
Strength
30,000 Unknown
Casualties
3,598 dead
7,104 wounded
20,000

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. 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). Several new and untested methods of counter-battery fire were also used succesfully at the start of the battle. This disabled a large portion of the German artillery for the infantry. After less than two hours, three of the four Canadian divisions had taken their objectives; the fourth division, however, was caught by 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 3,598 men killed and 7,104 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. It was the first Allied victory in almost a year and a half and was especially 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. (See military technology during World War I.)

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 astounding success of the attack and the innovative methods by which it was achieved sealed the reputation of the Canadians, (along with their Australian and New Zealander Commonwealth cousins) as the best troops on the western front. Also, the Canadian troops in the battle consisted of soldiers from all nine 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.


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