The Battle of Vimy Ridge: Today, April 9th, is a time to remember

Today, April 9th, is the 102nd anniversary of the beginning of The Battle of Vimy Ridge and, in Southampton, flags will fly at half mast.  The battle was a sacrifice of immeasurable loss on all sides and for many Canadians. The battle took place from April 9th to 12th, 1917 at the beginning of the Battle of Arras.

“Historians attribute the success of the Canadian Corps to technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training, as well as the German 6th Army’s failure to properly apply the new German defensive doctrine. The battle was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together and it was made a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice.

Vimy Ridge is an escarpment 8 km (5.0 mi) northeast of Arras on the western edge of the Douai Plain. The ridge rises gradually on its western side and drops more quickly on the eastern side. At approximately 7 km (4.3 mi) in length and culminating at an elevation of 145 m (476 ft) or 60 m (200 ft) above the Douai Plains, the ridge provides a natural unobstructed view for tens of kilometres in all directions.

The ridge fell under German control in October 1914 during the Race to the Sea as the Franco-British and German forces continually attempted to outflank each other through northeastern France.  The French Tenth Army attempted to dislodge the Germans from the region during the Second Battle of Artois in May 1915 by attacking their positions at Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette. The French 1st Moroccan Division managed to briefly capture the height of the ridge but was unable to hold it owing to a lack of reinforcements.

It was the first instance in which all four Canadian divisions, made up of troops drawn from all parts of the country, fought as a cohesive formation. The image of national unity and achievement is what, according to one of many recent patriotic narratives, initially gave the battle importance for Canada. According to Pierce, “The historical reality of the battle has been reworked and reinterpreted in a conscious attempt to give purpose and meaning to an event that came to symbolize Canada’s coming of age as a nation.”

The French made another attempt during the Third Battle of Artois in September 1915 but only captured the village of Souchez at the western base of the ridge. The Vimy sector calmed following the offensive with both sides taking a largely live and let live approach. In all, the French suffered approximately 150,000 casualties in their attempts to gain control of Vimy Ridge and surrounding territory.

The Canadian Corps was to capture the German-held high ground of Vimy Ridge to protect the First Army and the Third Army farther south from German enfilade fire. Supported by a creeping barrage, the Canadian Corps captured most of the ridge during the first day of the attack. The village of Thélus fell during the second day, as did the crest of the ridge, once the Canadian Corps overran a salient against considerable German resistance. The final objective, a fortified knoll located outside the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, fell to the Canadians on 12 April. The 6th Army then retreated to the Oppy–Méricourt line.

By nightfall on 12 April 1917, the Canadian Corps was in firm control of the ridge. The corps suffered 10,602 casualties: 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded. The German 6th Army suffered an unknown number of casualties with approximately 4,000 men becoming prisoners of war.  Four members of the Canadian Corps received the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded to British and Commonwealth forces for valour, for their actions during the battle.” (ref. Wikipedia)

The largest sculpture, a mourning figure known as Canada Bereft, was carved from a single 30-tonne block. Head bowed in sorrow, she provides a powerful representation of Canada, a young nation grieving her dead – 11,285 Canadian names of soldiers killed in France are carved on the walls

Today, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is Canada’s largest and principal overseas war memorial. Located on the highest point of the Vimy Ridge, the memorial is dedicated to the commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during the First World War. It serves as the place of commemoration for Canadian soldiers killed in France during the First World War with no known grave.

One of the many tunnels under the                   Vimy ridge

France granted Canada perpetual use of a section of land at Vimy Ridge in 1922 for the purpose of a battlefield park and memorial.  A 100-hectare (250-acre) portion of the former battlefield is preserved as part of the memorial park that surrounds the monument.

The grounds of the site are still honeycombed with wartime tunnels, trenches, craters and unexploded munitions and are largely closed off for public safety.  A section of preserved trenches and a portion of a tunnel have been made accessible to site visitors.

 

                           Bill Streeter of Southampton (all photos courtesy of Bill Streeter)

                                               

 “We arrived at the Vimy Ridge at 2:00 p.m. and had a good view of the memorial from the main highway as we approached.  We toured the trenches and battle field (no man’s land) and went down into the tunnels.  The mortar holes between the trenches were unbelievably deep – approximately 50 ft. deep and 200 ft. across, from underground mine bombs. Our guide was a 4th year history student from St. Lambert, PQ.  There were 13 tunnels built and most were built by Welsh miners.  The one that is restored and maintained as it was in 1918 is the Grange, the longest of all the underground tunnels at more than 1.5 kms long with many rooms that houses soldiers, miners, officers, hospital, etc.  It was here in these rooms that for six months, the Canadian officers did the planning and training before the battle for Vimy Ridge.

The Memorial is breathtakingly majestic and puts a lump in your heart.  it is well hidden until you round a corner and then there it is.  It took thousands of white granite for Croatia to restore and re-build.  On it, are the names of 11,245 Canadian soldiers who died in WWI and who have no known grave.  The other 55,000 who died were able to be identified and have grave markers in Belgium and France.  Lighting makes for a powerful view sitting high on the hill overlooking the large expanse of French countryside.  The focus of all the ancient carvings is on “thoughtfulness” to wonder why and to not have it ever happen again.  It truly was a highlight of our travels”        ………… Bill Streeter