Today, 9 April, (it’s still 9 April when I post this in Eastern Canada even though it is already 10 April in Europe) is the 103rd anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge which was fought from 9 to 12 April, in 1917.
Vimy Ridge dominates the Douai plain in North-Eastern France. The Germans had captured it early in the 1914 offensive and had fortified it. It was “key terrain,” in military parlance for both Allied and German commanders. The French and British had lost over 150,000 men trying to retake it.
Finally, the Canadian Corps, fighting for the first time with all four Canadian divisions, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, was given the task. Byng was a skilled and imaginative tactician and he prepared carefully, with great attention to detail. Finally, as Easter Monday arrived, a week-long artillery bombardment lifted …
… and the Canadians, four divisions in line, rose from the trenches and attacked …
… these are the 21st-century designations (and home stations) of the regiments and battalions that attacked that week-end:
- 1st Hussars ~ London, ON
- 24th Battalion Victoria Rifles of Canada ~ Montreal, QC
- 48th Highlanders of Canada ~ Toronto, ON
- Governor General’s Foot Guards ~ Ottawa, ON
- Le Royal 22e Régiment ~ Quebec, QC
- The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada ~ Hamilton, ON
- The Black Watch of Canada ~ Montreal, QC
- The British Columbia Dragoons ~ Kelowna, BC
- The British Columbia Regiment ~ Vancouver, BC
- The Calgary Highlanders ~ Calgary, AB
- The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa ~ Ottawa, ON
- The Canadian Grenadier Guards ~ Montreal, QC
- The Canadian Scottish Regiment ~ Victoria, BC
- The Cape Breton Highlanders ~ Sydney, NS
- The Essex and Kent Scottish ~ Windsor, ON
- The Governor General’s Horse Guards ~ Toronto, ON
- The King’s Own Calgary Regiment ~ Calgary, AB
- The Lake Superior Scottish Regiment ~ Thunder Bay, ON
- The Loyal Edmonton Regiment ~ Edmonton, AB
- The North Saskatchewan Regiment ~ Saskatoon, SK
- The Nova Scotia Highlanders ~ Truro, NS
- The Ontario Regiment ~ Oshawa, ON
- The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry ~ Edmonton, AB
- The Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment ~ Kingston, ON
- The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada ~ Winnipeg, MB
- The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada ~ Toronto, ON
- The Queen’s York Rangers ~ Toronto, ON
- The Royal Canadian Hussars ~ Montreal, QC
- The Royal Canadian Regiment ~ Petawawa, ON
- The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry ~ Hamilton, ON
- The Royal Montreal Regiment ~ Westmount, QC
- The Royal New Brunswick Regiment ~ Fredericton, NB
- The Royal Regiment of Canada ~ Toronto, ON
- The Royal Regina Rifles ~ Regina, SK
- The Royal Westminster Regiment ~ New Westminster, BC
- The Royal Winnipeg Rifles ~ Winnipeg, MB
- The Saskatchewan Dragoons ~ Moose Jaw, SK
- The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada ~ Vancouver, BC
- The Sherbrooke Hussars ~ Sherbrooke, QC
- The South Alberta Light Horse ~ Medicine Hat, AB
- The Toronto Scottish Regiment ~ Toronto, ON
You can get a good idea, here, about what each soldier carried when he climbed out of his own trench and advanced across “no-man’s-land” towards the German trenches. They were damned brave men.
The casualties were heavy: more than 3,500 Canadians were killed and 7,000 more were wounded ~ in all, about half of all the men who left their trenches. The Germans suffered about 20,000 killed and wounded.
After the war, in 1922, France ceded the ridge and some surrounding territory to Canada, in perpetuity, and the now-famous gleaming white memorial was unveiled in 1936:
When I was young we called the battle ‘Canada’s Easter Gift to France.’ It was a welcome gift. By late 1916 the French Army was shattered and, early in the year of 1917, in April, in fact, just after the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge, it mutinied. Almost half of the divisions in the entire French Army joined in the mutinies. The French soldiers stayed in their trenches and defended their positions, but regiment-by-regiment and division-by-division, the French poilus had endured too much. Inept political and military leaders had sacrificed too many for too little. They refused to attack. The British Expeditionary Force, with the Canadians in the role of “shock troops,” had to take up all of the offensive burden. The Canadian Corps performed magnificently with a display of efficiency and effectiveness that made them the envy of every army in the world.
Many Canadians say that Canada’s national identity was forged at Vimy Rudge, 103 years ago, Many historians disagree. Those historians are wrong. Canada went to war in 1914, as little more than colony; in 1919 Canada, still led by Sir Robert Borden, insisted on having its own, national seat at the Versailles peace conference …
… Borden negotiated Canada’s separate participation in 1918, but there can be little doubt that it was Vimy Ridge that emboldened him. There is ample evidence that most of the men of the Canadian Corps, when they first went overseas in 1914, ’15 and ’16 self-identified as being British, despite being from cities and towns across Canada (see the list above); there is equally abundant evidence that after Vimy Ridge they were increasing proud to be identified as Canadians.
Vimy Ridge was an important battle in its own right, but it was doubly important for Canada because it set us on a road to real independence.