Today in History: The Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917

Today marks the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a key point in Canadian military history (and interestingly enough, April 9, 1917 was also an Easter Monday). Four Canadian divisions succeeded, at a cost of more than 3,000 dead, at pushing three dug-in German divisions off of the heights.

It’s easier to appreciate the accomplishment when it’s remembered that repeated French Army assaults (they threw about 20 divisions at the ridge at different times) had achieved little more than 150,000 dead, and British attempts had also failed. Careful planning, repeated rehearsals of the attack by the troops, technical innovations like a special artillery fuze that could cut barbed wire, and a systematic “preparation of the battlefield” by the Canadian artillery eventually carried the day. The Canadians softened up the Germans for more than a week with withering artillery fire, and their counter-battery fire eliminated a very significant proportion of the German guns before the assault began–and all this was done using less than half the available artillery at any given time, so as not to tip off the enemy to the Canadians’ true artillery strength. When the assault began, the bombardment was so massive that the guns could be faintly heard in London.

One of the more entertaining elements of the battle that I recall from my reading was when the Canadians realized that the Germans were using a particular church steeple near their positions as an artillery reference point. One dark night, the Canadians ripped down the steeple and rebuilt it several hundred yards away–not so far as to be a visible difference from the German lines, but just enough to throw the aim of their artillery observers permanently off.

It was an important accomplishment, though not so significant militarily: the overall Allied offensive of which Vimy Ridge was a part turned out to be yet another failure, with the Canadian victory a rare bright spot. Its cultural importance far outstripped its military significance, as it was the first time all four Canadian divisions fought together, and it was largely a Canadian accomplishment. For a young dominion that was still inclined to view itself as “British,” the victory went a long way toward forging a more independent Canadian identity. I’ve said in the past that I believe World War I was Canada’s “War of Independence,” because the performance of the Canadian Army in that conflict earned Canada its own seat at the table in the negotiations that followed the war. That said, to be fair, the Canadian Corps commander and many of the other senior officers were still British, and in fact a young major named Alan Brooke, who would later be the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (Britain’s highest military officer) in the Second World War, was one of the British officers involved in artillery coordination alongside the Canadians.

A really informative and entertaining read on the whole subject, that I heartily recommend, is Pierre Berton’s book Vimy.

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