he Vimy monument

The Vimy monument, raised in France, in Artois, commemorates the Canadian sacrifices during the Second World War, on the actual site of the most ferocious battle that was delivered by Canadians to the Germans during the Great War, the 9th and 10th of April, 1917, known as “Vimy Ridge.” It was built between 1925 and 1936, in honour of the 60,000 Canadians that died in France between 1914 and 1918.

The Vimy monument

Its reproduction on the wall of the Hallway symbolises the recognition that France feels for the Canadian sacrifice on the occasion of the first world conflict, and it illustrates the everlasting ties that have linked the two countries throughout many centuries..

The battle of Vimy Ridge took place in the context of the Allies’ attacks in the spring of 1917, in particular, the British offensive in the region of Arras, destined to back up the main action, taken by the French, more to the South, on the “Chemin des Dames.”

Strategic point, situated midway between Arras and Lens, that allowed for a full view of the Douai plain, and that blocked all attacks from Arras to the Northeast, its possession was imperative for the hope of a quick success by the offensive, lead by General Haig.

Primordial tactical objective by the Allies, the Ridge was also the cornerstone of the entire German defensive sector, held by the 6. Armée. Defended by a strengthened system of strong density, it included several lines of defence, and fortified points in abundance, provided by the 79. Reserve Division in Vimy itself, and the 1. Bayerische Reserve Division and 16. Bayerische Infantry Division on both sides of the ridge. In the front, the offensive force destined to seize it was mainly composed of Canadian Army Corps (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Canadian Infantry Divisions, reinforced by the 13th British Infantry Brigade), of 1st British Army, commanded by General Byng, sustained by an impressive artillery (more than a thousand canons of varied calibre, a concentration of artillery that comprised of one tube every seven meters).

The 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions were responsible for seizing, in their sector, the four German lines of defence, coded as “Black,” “Red,” “Blue,” and “Brown,” while the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions, that actually faced Vimy Ridge, had to content themselves with overtaking the Ridge, and the first two lines.

The soldiers of the 29th Battalion

At the end of a meticulous preparation that lasted several weeks, General Byng’s units were finally ready for battle. The 9th of April, 1917, at 5:30 in the morning, after three weeks of massive bombings toward the German positions, the four Canadian divisions took on the conquest of Vimy Ridge, behind a barrier of rolling artillery. In spite of land that had become difficult because of the mud, the frost, and the obstacles that the enemy had placed, knocked down even more by the funnel of shells, of course heavily charged, the Canadian soldiers progressed rapidly : the 1st German line of defence (the “Black Line”) was conquered in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions’ sectors, in little more than 45 minutes, with few losses, and with barely any resistance, stunned by the violence of the bombardment. Only the 4th Canadian Infantry Division, which attacked Hill 145, the highest and most fortified point of Vimy Ridge, faced persistent Germans that stood up to them. While this Infantry Division focused on diminishing the pockets of resistance, the first three Divisions moved ahead to the second German line of defence, the “Red Line.” The first two Divisions of the Army corps seized their section, by 8.00, while the third was slowed down by confrontation on the slopes of the Ridge, but it seized it without any further difficulties by 9.00, though it was bothered by the German firings that came from the neighbouring sector, where the 4th Infantry Division was. For this Division, the offensive was already a success, barely four hours after it had begun : its objectives were met, and it could fortify itself on site, and support its neighbours.

While the first three Divisions continued their progression without a hitch, the 4th Infantry Division was forcefully engaged by the defenders of Hill 145. If, on its right, the 11th Brigade of the Division headed a successful attack, and seized all the trench elements that faced them, the Germans, under the shelter of their trench network, less touched by the bombardments in that sector had broken the left side’s attack of the brigade, and inflict upon the battalion assaults of great losses, forcing them to retreat. Throughout the entire morning, the battle continued for the possession of these few trenches, and fortified points that blocked the Canadian advance. It wasn’t until 13.00 that the 11th Infantry Brigade managed to reduce the German resistance, and start the penetration of the second German line, which defended the summit of Hill 145 and prohibited access from the eastern slopes of the hill. The 12th Brigade of the Division, for its part, after an encouraging start that permitted, quite rapidly, to seize the first line of German defence, suffered hellish attacks from the left side, and was stopped in the place it conquered. Therefore, in this sector, the deadlines were not met, and the objectives were not accomplished in result of the German soldiers’ pugnacity, and the quality of their fortifications, which very much resisted to the allies’ hurricane of fire.

Canadian soldiers observe the Vimy village, in ruins.

While the 4th Infantry Division faced these difficulties, the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions resumed their offensive after an hour and a half break, destined to rest the men, re-form the units that were disorganised because of the attack. Returning to their progression at 9.30, they only faced one sporadic enemy reaction, and outside of certain localised points, they progressed without any problems to their third objective, the “Blue Line.” It was seized little after 11.00. Towards 12.30, it threw itself upon the fourth and last line of German defence, the “Brown Line,” which was captured, after some intense combat, around 14.45. The 1st and 2nd Canadian Infantry Divisions reached their goals within the time limit: in barely over nine hours, they managed to seize the four German lines of defence, with relatively modest losses (considering the standards of the time). Though weakened by the combats, they could still reinforce their position with a view to, eventually, pursue the offensive.

All that was left for the Canadians was to seize Hill 145 on their right wing, in which the slopes were still in German hands. At 18.00, the decision was made to reinforce the 11th and 12th Brigades of the 4th Infantry Division with the 10th Brigade because they were weakened by the hard combat that they had engaged. This one was only ready on April 10th at 15.15. After preparing the artillery, the men rushed the slopes from the summit of Hill 145, in Canadian hands since that morning. The German resistance, still very rough, crumbled in the face of the fresh units injected into the battle by the Canadian command. They were finally forced to retreat : Hill 145 was finally targeted, while the “red line” was seized in stride.

The Canadian Army Corps attack was a frank success. It progressed, on a large front of 6 500 metres of depth. It seized Vimy Ridge, taking from the enemy a key point in the device of defence, and discovering the Plain of Douai for another allied offensive. The losses, however, were heavy, since 2 967 Canadians paid for this victory with their lives, on top of 4 740 injured or missing soldiers (more than 380 killed, injured or missing in the British 13th Infantry Brigade). In the front, the three Divisions that composed the heart of the German defence had suffered incredible losses, and the Canadians counted over 3 400 prisoners.

This victory was important on many levels : it is the fact of the only Canadian troops operating under Canadian commandment; it occurred in a place where even the French elite troops had failed in previous years, anchoring the quality of the Canadian combatant in the spirit of the allied commandment; it opened perspectives to the British command, who was unable to plan its offensive toward Lens and Douai without being worried about its flank, previously exposed to the enemy’s view, and to its counter-attacks from the Ridge.

© Embassy of France in Canada