Visit Vimy Ridge

This article on Visit Vimy Ridge is one of a series which may interest you if you are considering visiting the Great War battlefields of Northern Europe.

This and the other two articles on Vimy Ridge will tell you about the importance of the battle that took place there in the context of the First World War, and describe some specific places to visit to give you a real feel for what happened in that dreadful conflict. 

The military history

This is not intended to be a detailed military history briefing – there are many far better qualified experts on the history of Vimy Ridge. But this short explanation will help you to understand why the battle took place and what happened on 9th April 1917. Hopefully this will give you more insight when you visit Vimy Ridge.

When the First World War started in 1914 the British army expected it would be fought on the same principles which had governed war for centuries – fire and movement. Whilst the infantry and artillery fired at the enemy, the cavalry charged to exploit gaps between enemy positions, and would then encircle them from behind. The infantry would then move forward to hold the ground. 

But two things happened to change all this. The trenches at Vimy Ridge that the infantry dug and occupied to form local defensive positions were quickly joined up, so the front line became a continuous series of trenches from the English Channel to Switzerland. That made battlefield movement by mounted cavalry impossible.

The other thing was the ruthless killing efficiency of modern weapons; the artillery was capable of firing massive amounts of ammunition in very concentrated patterns, aided by the appalling efficiency of machine guns.

So once the initial lines of trenches became established, commanders had little option but full frontal attacks. Poor communications between the front line units and rear headquarters meant that senior commanders had little idea of the progress being made, and the level of casualties being suffered. 

The British army had had very little experience of fighting with large numbers of soldiers – in 1914 the British army had 120,000 soldiers compared to the 2,000,000 of the German army. So the first few years of World War One were a very painful learning experience, with very heavy casualty lists. The original experienced regular army was replaced by the inexperienced but willing Kitchener’s army, who suffered huge casualties. But by 1917 many hard lessons had been learnt, as the battle of Vimy Ridge proved.

The Canadian Corps comprised 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions – over 100,000 men fighting together for the first time. Their attack on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, is generally regarded as the first really successful assault during the course of trench warfare. But it still resulted in 10,500 Canadian casualties, of which 3,598 were killed. 

The Corps was commanded by General Julian Byng, a very creative and determined officer, and the planning before the battle was very thorough, leaving little to chance. Some 11 tunnels were dug to enable the troops to reach the front line, with less risk to them and, more importantly, leaving the Germans unaware of the build-up of forces, so maintaining surprise.

Byng placed more emphasis on officers at platoon and company level taking the initiative, and not simply advancing in straight lines towards the enemy. This improved the speed of decision-making and enabled junior officers to take advantage of the tactical situation, instead of relying on more senior officer to make decisions. 

Everyone was fully briefed before the attack about their objectives – maps were issued and attacks rehearsed. The result was all ranks knew what they were supposed to be doing so that, if officers became casualties, the attack could still continue. Communications were also improved and, before the battle, over 20 miles of signal cable had been buried, linking key points.

In the seven days before the attack one million artillery shells were fired at the German lines, with Canadian spotters checking that target had actually been destroyed.  The shelling was so accurate that by 8th April, on the eve of the attack, the Canadians estimated that they had destroyed 83% of the German artillery.

Air superiority was also a key factor in success but at great cost to the allies.  The air offensive started on 4th April and was timed to coincide with a massive artillery barrage. In the five days 4th to 8th April the Royal Flying Corps lost 75 aircraft, and 105 men: 19 killed, 13 wounded and 73 missing. No wonder this period became known as ‘Bloody April’ by the RFC.

In the days leading up the attack there was cold weather, with snow and frost. The attack started at 0530 in poor weather with more snow and heavy rain. But the attack was successful, with the Canadians not only gaining the commanding position on the heights, but also drawing German reserves away from a planned French offensive further along the front. When you visit Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial site hopefully this explanation will be of help.

Tony Bray

If you found Visit Vimy Ridge of interest link to:

Vimy Ridge Memorials and cemeteries

Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial Site

Return to trips and travel for more articles in this series