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France 1917: Battle of Vimy Ridge
Vimy Ridge, Canadian National Vimy Memorial
The magnificent view from the heights of Vimy Ridge is over the wide Douai plain of the Pas de Calais and Nord. Here, in 1914, was the great coal–mining region of northern France centred on the city of Lille. Clearly seen from the ridge is the famous ‘Double Crassier’, a huge twin–peaked slag heap, evidence of the extensive coal–mining past of the area. For much of the war the Germans occupied this industrial heartland of France and made use of its human and material resources for their war effort.
Vimy Ridge is sacred ground to the Dominion of Canada. Here, at the height of the ridge on Hill 145, stands the Canadian National Vimy Memorial with its great twin pylons rising up into the sky. Around the memorial are twenty sculptured figures representing such ideas as peace, justice, mourning and grief. Like the Australian National Memorial at Villers–Bretonneux, Vimy carries the names of Canada’s ‘missing’ soldiers, those with ‘no known grave’ who died in France between 1914 and 1918.
The Canadian memorial is situated in a 100–hectare park given by the people of France to Canada as a tribute to the Canadian soldiers who fought and died on the Western Front beside their French allies. Significantly, the park is part of the battlefield of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought between 9 and 12 April 1917. During those days the Canadians seized the ridge from the Germans and drove the enemy back down from the heights. It was a significant victory, for British and French forces had failed to drive back the Germans in this area despite strong offensives in 1915 west of these heights by the French and down in the plain by the British.
For their attack at Vimy the Canadians made extensive and detailed preparations. A scale model of the battlefield was constructed for both officers and men to study; a vast network of tunnels was constructed to hide assaulting troops close to the front line in comparative safety; and shafts were sunk under the German lines and packed with high explosives to be detonated at ‘zero hour’. On 25 March 1917 a huge bombardment of the German lines began a period prior to the actual attack which the Germans later recalled as the ‘Week of Suffering’. Then at dawn on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, the assault troops of the Canadian Corps moved forward with protecting gunfire from hundreds of guns ranging from heavy naval guns mounted on railway carriages to small field pieces. The noise was so loud it was heard across the Channel in England.
The first wave of Canadians advanced over the ridge in driving sleet and snow behind a ‘creeping barrage’ designed to move slowly in front of the infantry to make the Germans seek shelter in their trenches. A heavy machine gun barrage arched over their heads as extra protection. One Canadian soldier recalled:
We were dancing a macabre dance as our nerves just vibrated to the thousands of shells and machine gun bullets … whizzing over. I felt that if I had put my finger up, I should have touched a ceiling of sound.
Corporal Gus Sivertz, quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vimy_Ridge
It took the Canadians two hours to seize most of Vimy Ridge. By 12 April the principal height of Hill 145 had been taken and Canadian soldiers gazed out over the German back lines on the Douai Plain below.
The main obstacle faced by the Canadians at Vimy Ridge was the tenacity of the German machine gunners. Private William Milne of the 16th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, saw a German machine gun crew in action and crawled on his hands and knees close to the gun where he killed the crew with grenades. A little while later, the advance was again held up by a German machine gun and Milne again crawled to it, put its crew out of action and captured the gun. His bravery, it was said, ‘undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades’. Milne was killed that day. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated among the ‘missing’ on the Vimy Memorial.
Australians could appreciate Vimy as Canada’s Gallipoli as all four Canadian divisions, for the first time on the Western Front, fought together there and played the key role in the battle. In recent years the Canadian Government has designated Vimy as a Canadian ‘National Historic Site’ and the park is looked after and interpreted by the Canadian Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
There has been much debate in Canada about the significance of Vimy (as there has been in Australia about Gallipoli). Some declare the Battle of Vimy Ridge to be the ‘birth of the Canadian nation’; others wonder what it really says about Canada and its relationship with the so–called ‘mother countries’, Britain and France.
In 1936 more than 6,000 Canadians made the trans–Atlantic trip to witness the dedication of the memorial. It was unveiled by King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Canadian historian John Pierce discussed some of the questions raised by that event:
Pilgrims and spectators gather on Vimy Ridge prior to the dedication ceremony. Buses queue on the right while passengers make their way to the memorial through shell craters. The Vimy pilgrimage, like the memorial itself, was full of ambiguities. Was it a celebration of the achievement of the Canadian Corps or a ceremony mourning the dead? Was it an imperial event solidifying Canada’s relationship with its new King or a statement about an independent Canadian nation? Was the monument to be seen as a remonstrance against war or a warning to the enemies of democracy that Canada would again play its part in defending Britain and France? It was all of these and more. It was, and is, quintessentially Canadian.
John Pierce, ‘Constructing Memory: The Vimy Memorial’, Canadian Military History, Vol.1, Nos. 1 and 2, Autumn 1992, p.7
Brigadier General Alexander Ross, who had commanded the 28th (North–West) Battalion in 1917, said of the capture of Vimy Ridge:
It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then … that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.
Brigadier Alexander Ross, quoted at http://www.vac–acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history/firstwar/vimy/vimy5
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2011