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Forces War Records Blog

100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF VIMY RIDGE - CANADA PAYS TRIBUTE.

 

Today, the 9th April 2017 ceremonies will be taking place mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Events will be held at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France and the National War Memorial in Ottawa. There are also plans to broadcast the Vimy service so that all Canadians may join together in remembrance.

"A century later, we must ensure that the memory of the great sacrifices and achievements of our men and women in uniform during the First World War and the significant achievements at the Battle of Vimy Ridge live on," said Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence. (Centenarynews.com)

The Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was part of the wider British-led offensive at Arras in April 1917.

The preparations for the capture of Vimy Ridge, elaborated in February, 1917, made even the preliminaries for the battle of the Somme look small. Every battalion was allotted its part. Company officers were fully informed by their superiors of the details of the entire movement. Every solider was given a clear idea of what was expected of him and his company.  He knew all there was to be known about the enemy position in front of him. The result was shown in the extraordinary spirit of keenness displayed by all the rank.

The German knew that the Canadians were about to attack, and they brought up a number of their best troops to resist them. A significant report was captured after the battle, signed by General von Bachmeister of the 79th Reserve Division, and dated March 30th. “The Canadians are known to be good troops,” wrote the German General frankly, “and therefore well suited for assault. There are no deserters among the Canadians”.

Early in the latter half of March, 1917, the systematic bombardment of the enemy position began. The Canadian front was narrowed for the purpose of the attack to about seven thousand yards, and the British brigade co-operated with it. Day by Day the artillery fire increased. By 4am on the morning of Monday, April 9th, the last of the Canadians were at their jumping-off place. The weather was wet and cold. In some places the men were up to their waist in icy, sloppy mud. At 5.30am the British Barrage opened. The shells, as they burst on the German front, seemed to make a wall of living fire. After three minutes the Canadians quietly went over the trenches and moved forward. Their pace was a little quicker than a dead march. They had a certain time allowed to them to complete each stage. If they went too quickly they would get within their own barrage. It was a quiet, grim forward move. Some Highland companies were led by their pipers.

The Canadians advanced in four waves against four successive objectives, the last of which was, at its farthest point, about two and a half miles from the British front line. The whole movement was planned to occupy about nine hours.

Canadian reinforcing shell holes near Vimy Ridge

Along one section of the front the Germans had blown up a number of mines, creating a series of big craters, the narrow paths on either side of which could be swept by enemy machine gun fire. Along the rest of the front were innumerable shell-holes. The troops had to step from edge to edge of these amid a tangle of broken wire. Any man who was seriously wounded and fell into a shell-hole died. The Germans had protected themselves by an exceptional number of strongly placed machine-guns. As the Canadians moved forward they suddenly saw green and red streaks and balls of bursting golden showers above them. It was the Germans in their trenches sending up signals for their artillery to retaliate. Very soon the German guns began; then their fire mysteriously slackened. The mystery was explained afterwards. The British had placed a number of heavy howitzers in reserve. The moment the German artillerymen began to fire they rained shells on the enemy positions.

When the Canadians reached the first German trench some of them passed it without knowing it. There was scarcely a sign of it save lines of corpses and occasional broken guns. Then they came to the second trench. It was little better; but as they went on the fighting grew in intensity.

The machine-guns were the main trouble. Here the platoon system of battalion organisation bore fruit. During the winter the Canadians had carefully cultivated a platoon system under which every subaltern was given his own little group of men, numbering between thirty and forty. The platoon officer, with a platoon sergeant and his men, formed a little company. Every man there knew the men with him, and how he could rely on them. And so, when the German machine-guns began spitting out their fire, each platoon had its own method for dealing with them. Their success against machine guns was one of the marked features of the day. Within 40 minutes of the opening of the battle practically the whole of the German front-line system had been taken.

When the troops reached Vimy itself, some of the Germans there scarcely realised what had happened. One officer, grasping the situation, called aloud in English: “I surrender. I want an officer of my rank to accept my surrender.” A muddied Canadian corporal came up. “I can’t deal with you,” said the officer haughtily. “I must have an officer to take me.” “You’re a nice fresh jay, you are,” said the corporal. “Give me your weapons, quick! Now you turn and help with the wounded. You’re too fresh, my lad, you are.” A bayoneted rifle, suggestively pointed forward, made his meaning clear.

Canadian Captured German 8in gun Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge 9th April 1917

The Canadians had won. The little section of the ridge which remained would soon be in their hands. One division alone had captured 1,800 men; another had captured 1,300, and another nearly 700.

Many deeds of heroism were performed that day. Men fought on, despite wounds. One officer, shot badly in the first advance, called for his orderly to help him on and keep with his men, leaning on the orderly’s shoulder. The orderly was killed and the officer himself wounded again in the leg. Then he crawled with his men – since he could no longer walk – to their first objective. In the heights around Thelus hundreds of Germans were hiding in old caves. One officer alone took one hundred prisoners, also machine-guns and bomb-throwing machines, from one cave.

Telephonists went time after time through the German barrage repairing the wires. One telephone operator established himself one hundred and fifty yards in front of the infantry line on the forward slope of Vimy Ridge, where he was constantly under fire from snipers. One Lieutenant, a scout officer took a party of scouts forward with the leading wave of his battalion. The enemy wire at this point was not cut, so he cut a passage through it. Then he crossed the second line of wire, went through his own barrage, and entered a German battery. Returning through this barrage, he waited till it lifted, and then took a party of men up with, captured the guns, and dealt with the Germans who were hiding in their dug-outs.

A lieutenant worked his way up to a machine-gun that was firing heavily on his battalion and, single-handed captured it, bombing the crew out. He was wounded in the early advance, but kept on. Another young officer bombed a machine-gun crew and captured the gun and seventeen unwounded prisoners.

The weather during the attack was appalling. It grew worse afterwards. Snow began to fall, snow which lasted for three days. It was impossible to move guns far forward, and the limit of an infantry advance is always the extreme range of it guns. The troops were exposed to hardships more severe in the days following the victory than most of them had yet experienced.

When the gains of the battle began to be reckoned up it was found that the Canadians had taken on naval gun, thirty-five howitzers, many of large calibre, twenty-seven field-guns, one hundred and twenty-four machine-guns, and eighty-seven trench-mortars, in addition to over four thousand prisoners. Sir Henry Horne, the general commanding the First Army, issued an Order of the Day expressing his high appreciation of the splendid work carried out.

By the troops of the first Army (he declared) the Vimy Ridge had been regarded as a position of very great strength. The Germans have considered it impregnable. To have carried this position with so little loss testifies to soundness of plan, toughness of preparation, dash and determination in execution, and devotion to duty on the part of all concerned. April 9th will be an historic day in the annals of the British Empire.

Canadian forces suffered more than 10,000 casualties in the attack, including almost 3,600 dead.

Do you have any Vimy Ridge heroes in your family? Maybe you are researching them and your family's military history - search the Forces war records site and fill in the missing pieces...

You’ll also find plenty of interesting finds relating to World War I and the battle for Vimy Ridge in the Forces War Records historic document library.

For MORE information about centenary events please see ‘Centenary News’

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