By the time the Battle of the Somme ended in November 1916, it was by far the most deadly battle in British history. For six miles of territory, the Allies suffered nearly 650,000 casualties. Just to the north, the British prepared for their spring offensive in 1917 around the French city of Arras. The offensive itself was just a diversionary attack for the French Nivelle Offensive which was supposed to break the Germans. The Arras attack looked to be no different than the failed Somme offensive of the previous year.
By some unknown administrative fate, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps came on line opposite the heavily fortified Vimy Ridge. The Vimy Ridge was originally captured in 1914 by the Germans and over the previous two years the French and British suffered 200,000 casualties trying to take it back. Vimy Ridge was just one objective for the Arras Offensive. But for the first time in the war, the Canadians on the Western Front were going to fight for it together.
The commander of the Canadian Corps, LtGen Julian Byng, a Briton, and Maj Gen Arthur Currie, the 1st Canadian Division commander and senior Canadian in theater, were keenly aware that any mass casualties in the assault on Vimy Ridge would have a disproportionate effect on the small population of Canada. They had to figure out a way to take the Ridge without the mass casualties that characterized the Somme or Verdun. There was little formal aristocracy in Canada, and unlike Great Britain where the officer corps was primarily based on wealth or title, the officers from Canada were mostly of the same social classes as their men, and even in many cases of the same educational level. The officers and NCOs from Canada were chosen because of their ability to lead, accomplish the mission, and get shit done. For example, Currie, a major general, had just a high school education and was a real estate agent when not in uniform. But unlike his college and public (read: private) school educated peers whose commands were annihilated in the Somme, he knew he had to figure out a better way.
Like Brusilov did on the Eastern Front in the previous spring, Currie set out to find a new way to break the German trench lines without slaughtering his men in the process. When the Canadian Corps took the lines opposite Vimy Ridge in October 1916, he sent several officers to the British and French who were then at the end of their respective and disastrous offensives. These officers interviewed the staffs and commanders and conducted their own objective after action review of the Somme and Verdun battles. Needless to say, they weren’t very welcome in many cases, but they learned a great deal from the experiences of their Allies. They came to almost the same conclusions that Bruislov’s staff did the year before, although with some slight differences, mostly due to cultural differences between the armies of both fronts. And Currie, with Byng’s full support, unleashed his staff and the staffs of the other three Canadian divisions to come up with solutions to the problems that plagued the British and French attacks.
The first was reconnaissance, or more specifically targeting data for the artillery. The Somme attackers used their artillery directly against the trench lines which was ineffective because the Germans just hid in massive dug outs during the bombardment, only to emerge once the bombardment stopped, or against map coordinates of possible but unconfirmed targets. Currie proposed to use his artillery in a different manner. He wanted to target more exposed German positions, such as artillery concentrations, strongpoints, counterattack assembly areas, and communications hubs instead of churning up earth that would only be immediately reoccupied by the troops from the dugouts. Only the strongpoints would receive the same attention that the trench lines received in the Somme Offensive. But to do that he needed to know where these new targets were. He stepped up the trench raids in the winter of 1916/17, but instead of doing it just to keep his men and the Germans occupied, his trench raids had reconnaissance objectives, and the requirement for prisoners and documents. He did the same with his flyers, and incorporated French techniques for aerial photography which were far superior to the British techniques, and on a much larger scale. Furthermore, he brought on civilian scientists to “sound range” and “flash spot” the German artillery. They set up listening posts that had equipment to measure the strength and direction of their sound waves, or observe artillery flashes on the horizon. These were then triangulated, and the artillery positions identified, which were then confirmed by other means.
The wide ranging use of photography and reconnaissance allowed Currie’s men to build large and almost excessively detailed scale models of the terrain on the objectives and in the assault zones. These were then used by the subordinate commanders to plan their assaults in detail, down to platoon level. This was unheard of on the Western Front where the Somme was planned down to battalion objectives with the company as the primary regimental or brigade maneuver unit. By pushing for company objectives with the platoon the primary maneuver unit, this empowered the young platoon commanders and squad leaders, who could actually see and communicate with most of their men. Moreover, the Canadians were a different sort. Like soldiers from the United States, Canadians were a bit more individualistic and free thinking than your average Englishman or Frenchman around the beginning of the 20th century. Currie leveraged this in his push for independent action at the platoon level. As we know now, battles are won by junior leaders. Currie’s detailed terrain models and objectives allowed those junior leaders to walk the terrain and even rehearse movement routes and actions on the objectives with their men, so they all knew what they had to do, down to the lowest private. Moreover, firepower was pushed down closer to the platoons, and even into them. Companies were given trench mortar sections and Lewis (machine) guns in special slings, which proved invaluable in suppressing German machine gun positions, and breaking up local German counterattacks. Currie’s focus on platoons essentially turned the entire Canadian Corps into the equivalent of Brusilov’s specially picked and trained stormtroopers.
Prior to the attack, the assault troops were housed in massive “subways” dug out of the soft chalk escarpment that Vimy Ridge and its approaches were part of. (This was also why targeting the defending troops directly with artillery was futile, the German dug outs were numerous and deep.) The subways were had air ventilation, electricity, and some had running water. These subways were close to no man’s land, and had “saps” or small underground tunnels that led toward the German trenches from which the assault troops would emerge. Some of the saps went all the way under no man’s land to the German trench line. Digging the saps was a dangerous business, because of countermining by the Germans and would only be given to the best and toughest tunneling engineers who came to be known as “sappers”. In all 14 subways and their ancillary saps were dug, the smallest subway was 265m long and the longest, 1706m.
Unlike Brusilov, Currie had more than enough artillery shells, but unlike the Somme, he wanted to use them in direct support of his assaulting troops in the form of a creeping barrage. Creeping barrages had been used before, but Currie’s had two significant differences. His detailed reconnaissance allowed him to plan the creeping barrage with much more fidelity, and with the terrain models could be rehearsed. These rehearsals brought together the gunners who would fire the barrage with the men who would be walking behind it. This gave the artillerymen much more motivation to be prompt and timely with their adjustments and accuracy, and the heavily laden infantrymen the motivation to keep pace with the barrage, and maintain his part of the unspoken social contract between supporter and supportee not to waste the provided resources. The second difference was a new fuse developed specifically to cut wire. Currie’s investigators into the Somme offensive found that much more often than not, the barrage did not cut the wire. So when the infantry became stuck cutting through the wire, the creeping barrage continued on since there was no real timely communication between the infantry and the artillery directly supporting them. Eventually, the creeping barrage would stop, the defenders would get out of their dugouts and find the infantry still stuck in no man’s land, and massacre them. There were numerous instances in the Somme of a single well placed machine gun that wiped out an entire British battalion in this manner. The wire wasn’t cut because the fuses on the shells didn’t detonate until they burrowed fairly deep into the ground. The ground would then force the explosion upwards and this rarely had a great effect on the wire. The new “106 Instantaneous Fuses” detonated the shells as soon as it struck an object, whether the ground or the wire, and cause the explosion to expand horizontally, which unhinged and cleared the wire.
On 20 March, 1917, the initial preparatory bombardment began for the combined Arras Offensive but it was intermittent in order to confuse the Germans as to the main objectives. On 2 April, the main bombardment began as the Canadian Corps’ uncannily accurate artillery pounded the German defenses in what the German on Vimy Ridge came to call the “Week of Suffering”. The German commander wanted to bring up his reserve divisions, but found that as he did, their assembly areas were targeted, so he was forced to keep them 24 km behind the ridge. If the Canadian assault was in any way more effective than the British in the Somme, his counterattack forces would not be able to get there in time.
On Easter Monday, 9 April, 1917, several saps and mines were detonated across no man’s land into the German trenches and underneath strong points. Emerging from the subways into a sleet storm, the Canadian soldiers moved behind the meticulously planned creeping barrage. They didn’t need to maneuver or run. They just walked behind the barrage at a quick pace, 100 yards every three minutes. After the creeping barrage finished, the guns moved to counterbattery fire, which according to German estimates, suppressed 83% of all of German batteries.
In less than two hours, three of the four Canadian Divisions had captured their initial objectives, and fresh troops were well on their way leap frogging to the next, as the initial assault troops consolidated their positions. Almost immediately, Currie had two “labour” battalions build roads through no man’s land, even though the exploding saps in the initial attack made excellent communication trenches to the ridge. These allowed Currie to reinforce Vimy Ridge and maintain the momentum of the attack.
The speed of the assault on Vimy Ridge overwhelmed the German defenses. With the exception of the 4th Canadian Division who had difficulty with several strongpoints unaffected by the initial attack, particularly from a hill nicknamed “The Pimple”, the Canadian Corps seized most of the Ridge by the next day. The Pimple fell two days later on 12 April. The Canadians captured Vimy Ridge at the cost of about 10,000 Canadian casualties, far below the 200,000 casualties of the previous attempts. The Germans considered the battle a draw since there was no exploitation or breakthrough of the Canadian victory. But to the Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was an all Canadian affair, planned and led by Canadians, and brought to a successful conclusion by the spilt blood of men from all parts of Canada.
Before Vimy Ridge the people of the Canadian Confederation were part of the First Dominion in the British Empire. In its bloody trenches, Canadians came of age and became their own nation. After Vimy Ridge, they were citizens of a new country — Canada.