“When death reigned, and the agony of pain.” – Private William Perover
When I was a boy and my father’s trauma from his service in Holland was raw in his shattered leg, our family mythology was still dominated by his father’s warrior pride. An argumentative man, my grandfather Marsh ended every dispute with a display of his scarred leg and the expletive “Vimy Ridge!”
It would be hard for today’s youth to understand what a huge role the military ethos played in the lives of boys like me growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, when cadet training was mandatory in high school and evenings were spent in the local church drilling in uniform with the Boys Brigade. On Sundays the Salvation Army marched along Davenport trumpeting “Onward Christian Soldiers!” During the Orange parade I would climb a telephone pole on Bloor Street and announce the first sight of King Billy, proud on his white horse, still triumphant at the Battle of the Boyne. At the fount of all that military fervour was Vimy Ridge. What happened there to spark all this fierce pride?
Vimy Ridge runs across the western edge of the Douai plain in northeastern France. What seems like a mere gradient when viewed from the village of Neuville-St. Vaast has proven an effective natural fortress since Roman times. The ridge fell to the Germans in October 1914 and resisted all efforts to retake it, including one futile assault by the French that cost 150 000 casualties.
At its northern tip the ridge rises to a small knoll known to Canadian soldiers in World War I as the “Pimple.” From there a high saddle leads to the highest point on the ridge, Hill 145. The whole terrain was a honeycomb of caverns, trenches and tunnels, and it bristled with nests of deadly machine guns.
The defenders of this splendid natural fortress had little to fear from the mulish Allied tactic of sending forth waves of men blindly onto the killing ground, to be ensnared on the barbed wire and slaughtered like cattle by the relentless machine guns.
In October 1916, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions and later the 4th left the bloody charnel house of the Somme and took up positions side by side beneath the ridge. The Canadian Corps was lucky in its commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, a long-serving British regular. “What I want,” Byng declared to his officers, “is the discipline of a well-trained pack of hounds… Never lose sight of your objective. Reach it in your own way.”
One of Byng’s ablest commanders was the Canadian Major-General Arthur Currie, a man with a checkered past in civilian life, who proved a cool, calm and innovative officer. He questioned the suicidal “over-the-top into the wire” tactics. His focus on platoon initiatives and his championing of “fire and movement” tactics raised morale among the Canadians. Men such as Currie or Brigadier-General E.W.B. “Dinky” Morrison, the brilliant gunner most responsible for the killing barrage at Vimy, who began the war quietly editing the Ottawa Citizen, could never have risen to positions of authority in the British service.
The Canadian assault on Vimy was supposed to be a mere sideshow in the grandiose plan of the man who has become the poster boy for the intransigent, aloof commander of the Great War: Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, a man convinced that he was in direct communication with God. Robert Nivelle, the French generalissimo, dismissed the Canadian attack as folly and predicted that it would end in disaster.
Byng’s plan for Vimy Ridge was to co-ordinate the movement of infantry to specific objectives behind a precise “rolling barrage” of artillery. The whole battle plan was in fact a series of divisional battles, each dependent on the success of the next. The ultimate prize would be the capture of Hill 145 by 1st Division, which in turn depended on the capture of Thélus by 2nd Division, which in turn relied on the capture of La Folie by 3rd Division.
The battle began at 5:30 am April 9, 1917, as 800 heavy guns awoke and lit up the clouds in a moment of intense silence before the thunderous roar descended on the battlefield. “The Ridge in front was wreathed in flame as the shells burst” wrote Private Lewis Duncan to his aunt Sarah. The ferocity of the barrage was unprecedented in the history of war. By the time it ended, over a million rounds had been fired, many with such deadly accuracy that the German counter batteries were silenced. Shells newly equipped with fuses that ignited on contact tore gaping holes in the barbed wire. As the first wave of 15 000 men emerged out of the tunnels, a light snow began to fall.
At first all went well as the vanguard quickly gained the German front lines, but as artillery support passed to targets in the rear the enemy scrambled from the dugouts and grasped their weapons. It was at this point that preparation yielded to personal bravery. As 1st Division (commanded by Currie) reached this critical point, a young Scot from Moose Jaw, Private W.J. Milne, sprang from a shell hole, crawled forward through the mud and vanquished a machine gun post with a well-aimed hand grenade. Later that day the redoubtable Milne silenced a second emplacement, again displaying the conspicuous bravery that earned him the Victoria Cross (posthumously, for he was killed later that day).
Second Division, in the company of the British 13th Brigade, quickly got off their lines and through the wire but soon found their advance stymied by a hidden machine gun. There Lance Sergeant Ellis Sifton rushed ahead, disabled the gun, bayoneted the crew and held off a counterattack before he was killed by one of his dying victims. In another key action J.E. Johnson stumbled into a cave concealing 105 Germans, well ahead of his platoon, and bluffed the entire company into surrendering to him.
Third Division was helped in their approach by two long tunnels which brought them close to their objectives. “Leaning on the barrage,” 73rd Battalion of the 4th Division advanced and built a defensive position looking across the saddle that linked Hill 145 to the “Pimple.” The position soon became untenable, however, receiving withering fire from the high ground. There it was that Major Thain W. MacDowell bombed out two machine gun nests. Still acting on his own he chased a survivor down a tunnel where he captured two German officers and 77 members of the Prussian Guard.
The main obstacle in the whole advance was, predictably, close to the summit, where the advance party of the Winnipeggers of the 78th Battalion, shot at from every direction, suffered 65% casualties. Even with reinforcements, Hill 145 remained untaken at the end of the day, with the enemy safely hidden in dugouts, confident that they had repulsed yet another attack.
On the morning of the 10th, division commander General David Watson, a businessman from Quebec who had served at Ypres, ordered in the 44th and 50th Battalions. The men scrambled from shell hole to shell hole as the resilient defenders inflicted heavy casualties. Again personal bravery helped turn the day as Private John George Pattison advanced single-handed towards the key machine-gun post, rose up in full view of the enemy and threw three hand bombs with deadly accuracy. He rushed the post and killed the defenders with his bayonet, breaking the stalemate on Hill 145. Pattison never got to wear his VC, for he was killed two months later at Lens.
Once Hill 145 was secured the battle was all but over. Unfortunately, both the British and French offensives failed miserably that day (the French so badly that it led to Nivelle’s sacking and widespread mutinies). Haig had not even planned to capitalize on a Canadian success, so the Germans retreated unmolested. While Canadians were jubilant, the battle remains a footnote in the annals of the Great War. (It does not even get a mention in John Keegan’s popular The First World War.)
“Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge” has resounded across the banquet tables over the years. Just how this metamorphosis took place has never been clearly explained. Part of it no doubt was young men training and fighting together as “Canadians” and not as an appendage of the Empire.
Even if we challenge that claim of Canadian military historians that Vimy was a milestone on the road to nationhood and even if we doubt how the slaughter of a whole generation could be ennobling to anyone, we can still reflect in awe on the experience of the volunteer infantrymen from every nook of Canada who conquered the strongest fortress on the Western Front. More than any war the Great War was the infantryman’s war and rarely has so much been asked of such men and been done so well. They earned the battle cry “Vimy Ridge!”