The Battle of Vimy Ridge

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Détail du haut des colonnes
Photo Jean-Pierre Le Padellec
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Les drapeaux de Vimy
Photo Jean-Pierre Le Padellec
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Détail du monument de Vimy
Photo Jean-Pierre Le Padellec

I. Introduction

During the Great War, Canada deployed 600 000 soldiers, which is a considerable amount for a country with a population of under 8 million. 500 000 served their tenure in France, notably in Flanders. The first troops arrived on the continent in December, 1914. Canadians then participated in the second battle of Ypres in April 1915, where poison gas was used for the first time by the Germans, and during which 6000 of their soldiers were taken out of combat, followed by the Battle of the Somme in April-June 1916 (24 000 Canadians casualties).

Vimy Ridge, which occupied a major strategic position, had fallen under German control in October, 1914, during the Siegfried offensive. It is situated 8 km North-East of Arras and has a length of approximately 7km. Culminating at 145 metres, it constituted a vital observation point, and also enabled the Germans, who had thoroughly fortified it, to protect the Lens carbon mines, which were essential to their war efforts. The French and the British tried on several occasions to recapture it, but remained unsuccessful, the French army losing 150 000 men in 1915. On May 9th, the Moroccan division had taken position on the Ridge, but was unable to maintain it due to a lack of reinforcements, and suffered heavy losses. A memorial in honour of those dead was placed on the battleground, near the Canadian memorial.

In the winter of 1917, the Generals of the agreement developed a simultaneous plan of attack in the north (British offensive around the area of Arras for a diversion) and in the south (by the French at the Chemin des Dames) of the Soissons-Arras border. It consisted of breaching the German defences in order to progress in the direction of Belgium. Capturing Vimy Ridge ensured the safe advancement of the British troops toward the east (document 2.a).

If the allied soldiers present at Vimy were, for the majority, originating from Canada, British troops also brought a significant contribution, during both attack preparations and the attack itself. In total at Vimy, of 170 000 soldiers present (combat and supporting troops), 97 000 of them were Canadian. It was the first time that Canadians were fighting as an independent army Corps. The troops were made up of mainly Anglophones from the prairies and the west, where many of the newcomers to Canada volunteered.

The attack was preceded by a minute preparation. The commander of the Canadian Corps, the British Sir Julian Bung, analysed the reasons behind past failures, notably in the Battle of the Somme. Promoting a new tactic inspired from the movement war, he held to further inform his troops of their objectives and improve their training. Before the attack, the British and the Canadians dug 12 tunnels, with a total length of 5 km, repaired 32 km worth of railway, 40 km of roads, and built 5 new km. Eight trains per day ensured supplies for the Canadian Corps.

As early as March 20th, the German lines were subject to intense bombings from Allied artillery, which was effective : the use of new artillery shell-fuses that exploded upon impact contributed in causing considerable damage on the German positions. At the moment of attack, one million shell-fuses were already launched; the Germans entitled this period “the week of suffering.”

The attack, launched on April 9th, was planned in four stages. 20 000 soldiers attacked as early as 5:30 am. The Germans were caught off guard; their first line of defence fell relatively easily. The Canadians had more difficulty with the Germans’ fortified machine guns. Three of the four divisions conquered their objectives by the end of the day; the last was conquered on April 12th (documents 2.b, 3.a, 4, 5.a).

It’s the only important success of the spring of 1917 Allied offensive. The Canadians, however, never managed to thoroughly breach German lines: moving their artillery was a slow process, which prevented them from fully exploiting their previous success. The Arras offensive, which the Vimy capture was supposed to protect, didn’t produce results and was suspended.

In total, the Canadians deployed 30 000 soldiers who participated in battle, of which 10 602 were losses, and 3 598 casualties. The Canadians describe this victory as the “birth of the Canadian nation,” even though a sense of patriotism wasn’t very developed at the time (document 5.b) : the words of Sergeant-General Alexander Ross are often cited: “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” According to some, the Canadian victories during the conflict, with Vimy being in the first ranks of it, brought about a recognition of the Dominion, which ratified, independently from the power of British colonialism, the Versailles treaty in 1919.

After Vimy, the Canadian Corps remained in the Arras region, and was sent to Flanders, Passchendaele (15 700 losses). The period between August 8th and November 11th 1918 is sometimes called the “spring of the Canadians”: 105 000 Canadians advanced on 130 km, capturing more than 30 000 prisoners at the price of 46 000 casualties. After having attacked, along with the French, near Amiens on August 8th, 1918, they breached the Hindenberg line by the end of the month.

“Hill 145” (that is to say the top of the Ridge) was given by the French government to Canada as a symbol of “eternal recognition.” It is at this location that the Canadian Vimy Monument still stands, honouring all the Canadian victims of the Great War ; its twin pylons represent the Canadian and French nations (documents 3.b, 5.c). Construction having begun in 1925, it was inaugurated in 1936 by Kind Édouard VIII in the presence of the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, and 50 000 Canadian and French veterans and their families. It has been a national historical site of Canada since 1997 (one of only two sites situated outside Canadian territory with the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial site in the Somme). Some of the tunnels dug from that period are still visible. In the year 2000, the unknown Canadian soldier was repatriated from Vimy and buried in Ottawa (document 5.d). Since 2004, the monument has been undergoing a restoration process (document 5.e) with the 90th anniversary of the battle next April in sight (document 5.f). The Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Stephen Harper, who will likely travel to France on this occasion, already visited the Monument in July 2006 during a trip to France (document 3.c).

II. Documents : speeches, maps, photographs, testimonies

    • a. Speech by Mr. François Mitterrand, President of the Republic, during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge
    • b. Speech by Mrs. Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada, during the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge ceremony
    • c. Speech by Mr. Dominique de Villepin, French Prime Minister, during the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge ceremony
    • a. Vimy and the Allies’ Spring 1917 plan
    • b. Operations at Vimy Ridge
    • a. Archive photos of the battle
    • b. Vimy Monument
    • c. The Canadian Prime Minister during a visit to Vimy (July 18th, 2006)
    • a. Soldiers’ letters
    • b. A Vimy veteran’s testimony

III. Documents available

- Documents available :

  • Reference works
  • General reference websites
  • Photo libraries and testimonies
  • Video and sound clips available on the Internet

III. Events in France and Canada

Check the Veterans Affairs Canada Web site regularly for news and information as Vimy plans progress.

2007 commemorations -in Canada- in which France is participating
April 5th, 2007 Ottawa : National Arts Centre Reading of soldiers’ letters. Ambassador of France in Canada, Mr. Daniel Jouanneau, as well as other French representatives will be attending (2:30 p.m.)
April 9th, 2007 Ottawa : Unknown Soldier Monument Ceremony which the Ambassador of France in Canada will be attending, with students from Lycée Claudel aud the Governor General (11:00 a.m.)
April 9th, 2007 Toronto : Queen’s Park Ceremony which the Consul General of France in Toronto, Mr. Philippe Delacroix, will be attending. (9:45a.m.)
April 9th, 2007 Toronto Commemorative evening event, collaboration between the Alliance française and the Culture department of Toronto
April 9th, 2007 Regina Wreath laying in the name of France
April 9th, 2007 Edmonton : National Assembly of Alberta Ceremony in which a thank you letter from the Ambassador will be read
April 14th, 2007 Quebec : Citadelle Ceremony which Mr. François Alabrune, Consul General of France in Quebec, will be attending (11:00 a.m.)

For more information :

- Veterans Affairs Canada web site
- Speech by Mr. Dominique de Villepin, French Prime Minister, during the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge ceremony

Last modified on 16/01/2009

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