By Michael Dawe
Sunday, April 9th, marks an important anniversary in the history of Canada. It is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. However, it is not just a commemoration of one of Canada’s greatest military victories of the First World War. For many, it is a remembrance of significant event that helped to forge a sense of nationhood in Canada.
Vimy Ridge is a high chalk ridge, which gives a commanding view of the broad plains of northeastern France. After its capture by the German Army in 1914, it became a highly strategic point along the battle lines of the Western Front.
The Allied armies made a series of powerful, almost desperate, attempts to recapture the Ridge. Each assault failed, at a cost of tens of thousands of lives. A prolonged bloody struggle of attrition followed, but the Germans remained well entrenched in their fortress.
In the spring of 1917, the Allied Armies decided to launch yet another great offensive to crack the immense stalemate on the Western Front. As part of the broad assault, the Canadian Corps was given the task of seizing Vimy Ridge.
The Canadian soldiers had already distinguished themselves as effective assault troops. In particular, they had proven themselves adept at unconventional tactics. They also became known for use of artillery and expenditure of ammunition rather than lives.
At Vimy Ridge, the Canadians would be fighting for the first time as a whole corps with all four divisions. As well, they were expected to meet their objectives with 50,000 fewer men than the French and British armies had lost in casualties at Vimy.
The Canadians spent an enormous amount of time planning and preparing. Strategies were tested and modified. Troops were trained in the battle plans to the smallest details. Great quantities of equipment, supplies and ammunition were stockpiled. Finally, by the end of March 1917, the Canadians were viewed as the best-trained and prepared troops in the Allied Forces.
At 5:30 on the morning of Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, a barrage of artillery erupted. The battle commenced.
The barrage was one of the greatest in history. It was a true example of shock and awe. The guns fired three thousand shells per second, more than six million rounds in total. Observers likened it to a phenomenal summer thunderstorm, only with cascades of metal instead of rain and hail.
The German defensives were pulverized. The barrage also provided a protective canopy as the first wave of Canadians charged out of the trenches.
The successes were swift and outstanding. By 6:05 a.m., the First Division had seized its first objectives. The second set of objectives were stormed by 7:13 a.m. Before noon, the third line was captured. The successes were repeated almost everywhere along the line. Only the Fourth Division had serious difficulties with their assault on Hill 145.
The triumph was astonishing. In one day, most of the Ridge was captured. The Canadians had suddenly succeeded where hundreds of thousand had failed. However, it was a victory with an incredible cost. There were 10,600 casualties including 3600 deaths.
There were a number of men from Rimbey and district who fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Most had enlisted with the 187th Battalion in the spring of 1916. However, once overseas, they had been transferred to the 50th Battalion. They were part of the difficult and bloody assault on Hill 145 where the Canadians had suffered some of the worst of their casualties.
However, despite the tragic loss of life, the Canadians had won a stunning victory. The battle came to symbolize Canadian skill, Canadian might and Canadian spirit. The glory and the suffering helped to weld a sense of national pride and comradeship. The battle marked a transition of Canada from colony to nation. In the words of Brigadier General Alexander Ross, “the nation of Canada was born at Vimy”.
Let us not forget the great accomplishment that was Vimy, but also the terrible cost of achieving it.