The Battle of Vimy Ridge was part of a larger offensive by the Allies referred to as the Battle of Arras.
Lead up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The ridge fell under German control in October 1914, during their initial offensive, the Race to the Sea, as the Franco-British and German forces continually attempted to outflank each other through northeastern France. The French 10th Army attempted to capture the region during the in May 1915. During the attack, the French 1st Moroccan Division briefly captured the height of the ridge, but was unable to hold it owing to a lack of reinforcements. The French made another attempt during the Third Battle of Artois in September 1915, but were once again unsuccessful in capturing the top of the ridge. Overall, the French suffered approximately 150,000 casualties in their attempts to gain control of Vimy Ridge and surrounding territory.
The British XVII Corps relieved the French Tenth Army from the sector in February 1916. On 21 May 1916, the German infantry attacked the British lines along a 1,800-metre (2,000 yd) front in an effort to force them from positions along the base of the ridge. The Germans captured several British-controlled tunnels and mine craters before halting their advance and entrenching their positions.[Note 2] Temporary Lieutenant Richard Basil Brandram Jones was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his ultimately unsuccessful defence of the Broadmarsh Crater during the attack.[Note 3] British counter-attacks on 22 May did not manage to change the situation. The Canadian Corps relieved the British IV Corps stationed along the western slopes of Vimy Ridge in October 1916.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the first instance in which all four Canadian divisions participated in a battle together, as a cohesive formation. The nature and size of the planned Canadian Corps assault necessitated support and resources beyond its normal operational capabilities. Consequently, the British 5th Infantry Division and supplementary artillery, engineer and labour units reinforced the four Canadian divisions already in place. The 24th British Division of I Corps supported the Canadian Corps along its northern flank while the XVII Corps did so to the south. The ad hoc Gruppe Vimy formation, based under I Bavarian Reserve Corps commander General der InfanterieKarl Ritter von Fasbender, was the principal defending formation with three divisions responsible for manning the frontline defences opposite the Canadian Corps.The Canadian Corps plan of attack outlining the four objective lines – Black, Red, Blue, and Brown.
The attack began at 5:30 am on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. Light field guns laid down a barrage that advanced in predetermined increments, often 91 metres (100 yd) every three minutes, while medium and heavy howitzers established a series of standing barrages against known defensive systems further ahead. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Canadian Divisions quickly captured their first objectives. The 4th Canadian Division encountered a great deal of trouble during its advance and was unable to complete its first objective until some hours later. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Canadian Divisions captured their second objective by approximately 7:30 am. The failure of the 4th Canadian Division to capture the top of the ridge delayed further advances and forced the 3rd Canadian Division to expend resources establishing a defensive line to its north. Reserve units from the 4th Canadian Division renewed the attack on the German positions on the top of the ridge and eventually forced the German troops holding the southwestern portion of Hill 145 to withdraw.[Note 4]
On the morning of 10 April, Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Julian Byng moved up three fresh brigades to support the continued advance. The fresh units leapfrogged units already in place and captured the third objective line, including Hill 135 and the town of Thélus, by 11:00 am. By 2:00 pm both the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions reported capturing their final objectives. By this point the “Pimple”, a heavily defended knoll west of the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, was the only German position remaining on Vimy Ridge. On 12 April, the 10th Canadian Brigade attacked and quickly overcame the hastily entrenched German troops, with the support of artillery and the 24th British Division. By nightfall on 12 April, the Canadian Corps was in firm control of the ridge. The Canadian Corps suffered 10,602 casualties: 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded. The German Sixth Army suffered an unknown number of casualties, and around 4,000 men became prisoners of war.
Significance to Canada
Although the battle is not generally considered Canada’s greatest military feat of arms, the image of national unity and achievement imbued the battle with considerable national significance 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 idea that Canada’s identity and nationhood were born out of the battle is an opinion that is widely held in military and general histories of Canada.
Canadian National Vimy Memorial
On 5 December 1922, Speaker of the House of Commons of Canada, Rodolphe Lemieux concluded an agreement with France in which France granted Canada “freely and for all time” the use of 100 hectares (250 acres) of land on Vimy Ridge, inclusive of Hill 145, in recognition of Canada’s war effort. This agreement between France and Canada allowed for its perpetual use with the understanding that Canada use the land to establish a battlefield park and memorial.
A key figure, “Canada mourning her fallen sons,” speaks to the country’s wartime losses. The Vimy Memorial is inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadians who were killed on French soil and have no known graves.
During WW2, the Germans took control of the site during their blitzkrieg offensive. Rumours of the destruction of the Vimy Memorial circulated widely in Canada and the UK. The rumours led the a visit by Adolph Hitler on 2 June 1940 to demonstrate that the memorial had not been desecrated. Apparently, he admired the memorial for its peaceful nature and was photographed while touring it. He then assigned special troops from the Waffen-SS to guard Vimy Ridge with orders to protect it not only from Allied armies, but also from regular Wehrmacht soldiers who might want to deface it. No one would defy the SS.