The Canadians' Achievement at Vimy Ridge
[The New York Times/Current History, May 1917]
To the Canadians was given the honor of leading the attack on Vimy Ridge, where last year the French lost thousands of men in an attempt to hold that dominating height. Once before the British gained the crest of the ridge only to have to abandon it under a tremendous concentration of German guns. Throughout the Winter the Canadians held a footing on the ridge below the German lines, but early in the first day of the battle of Arras the Canadians were on top looking down on the plain of Douai. They carried the position with comparatively little fighting and few casualties, pushing from one line to the other in a rapid, methodical manner.
An observer who saw the Canadians set off at dawn to attack the German positions describes them as having gone away cheering and laughing through the mud, which made them look like scarecrows. They followed closely and warily the barrage of the British guns, the most concentrated artillery fire ever seen, and at the end of an hour had taken the first German trenches, including the whole front line system of defense above Neuville St. Vaast, by La Folie Farm and La Folie Wood, and up by Thelus, where they began to encounter serious resistance.
The Germans were intrenched in long, deep tunnels, but when the Canadians once reached the position with fixed bayonets the Germans were glad to surrender and escape from the British artillery fire that had been directed on them. Most of the Germans in the dugouts were made prisoner without even a show of fight. On Vimy Ridge alone the Canadians took more than 2,000 prisoners. By 3 o'clock in the afternoon the Canadians had occupied the whole of Vimy Ridge with the exception of a strongly fortified elevation on the left of Hill 145. Artillery fire which blew the barbed wire entanglements to pieces made the Canadian advance easier. One report described the top of the ridge as having been literally blown off by the British big guns. Another dispatch, that of The Associated Press staff correspondent, dated April 10, says:
The Canadians did not for a moment underestimate the seriousness of the task before them in taking Vimy. They knew that the artillery had paved the way to success, but were frankly surprised when they saw what the guns had actually done. They found hundreds of Germans holding up their hands over the bodies of their fallen comrades and begging for something to eat. These men said they had been cut off for days from all supplies by the steadiness of the artillery fire. They could not retire, and no relief supply columns from the rear ever reached the neighborhood of where the shells had been falling in continuous showers.
Some of the stronger redoubts, manned by machine-gun detachments, in which were found men of the highest morale in the German Army, resisted for several hours. But, closing around them during the night, the Canadians silenced all resistance.
According to The Toronto Mail and Empire correspondent, Canadian artillery, as well as infantry, helped to take Vimy Ridge. On April 10 he wrote:
The Canadian artillery has played the strongest part which it has yet been called upon to do. The full story will probably show that the Canadian gunners, who have frequently earned special commendation in the final tests before proceeding to France, paved and maintained the way for the storming of the position, which, though much coveted, has hitherto been regarded as almost impregnable.
The military importance of this ridge has made it the centre of fierce struggles during the past two years, the Germans, the French, and the British all having heavy casualties at various times. This time, however, there is reason to believe that the Canadian losses will be moderate.
The capture of 2,000 prisoners by the Canadians is not surprising, as the whole ridge was honeycombed with dugouts, in which the Germans sheltered themselves.
Up to the present moment the great offensive had been held up just at the point below the Canadian lines, which fact caused Vimy Ridge to be styled the "hinge" of the enemy's retreat from the Somme, and the Canadians have been very impatient for the "hinge" to move. I also understand that Canadian cavalry enjoyed more scope in this action.
Anglo-Canadians are rejoicing at the good news, and Sir Robert Borden has sent a congratulatory message to General Byng, who commands the Canadian forces. The entire press rings with the exploits of the Canadians, as it did at the battle of Ypres, but with more jubilation.
Further light is thrown on the work of the Canadians by the London correspondent of The Canadian Associated Press:
"Before midday one Canadian cage had 500 prisoners," said an informant reaching London today. "One of the first things which happened before daylight was the blowing up of an enemy ammunition dump on Vimy Ridge. The shock was momentarily paralyzing locally, but was a mere incident to what followed. The Canadians waited in the dark, with a cold rain pelting and a bitter wind driving over the desolate ground. The artillery had been pounding away for days, and every shell we sent over had its own particular spot to fall on, for the British airplanes had done wonderful scouting work in preparation for this.
The scouting work and the artillery fire which followed made possible the results already achieved by our infantry. Our heavy guns were first brought there three days after Christmas. They were put in position in the morning and began firing the same afternoon. They have gone on ever since, so there is some idea of what is meant by artillery preparation.
"There is not the least doubt the results have given every satisfaction, not merely in a spectacular sense, which the mere civilian is able to appreciate, but in the more technical military sense. Competent sober estimates had reckoned that the Canadian divisions could not advance without losing a third of their strength, but this estimate has been entirely falsified. The casualty lists are heavy, but less heavy than any competent estimate imagined. The air service and artillery made this possible."
The Canadian press is able to vouch for the interesting fact that General Byng in the earlier stages of the war, and before he assumed the Canadian command, was in command of the English troops who were then holding the Vimy Ridge line.
At Vimy Ridge for the first time in history the Stars and Stripes appeared on a European battlefield. The story is told in an unofficial dispatch received at Ottawa from the Canadian Army Headquarters in Europe:
To a young Texan who came to Ontario to enlist and who is now lying wounded in the hospital belongs the honor of first carrying the American flag into battle in the European war, into which the United States, as a belligerent, has just entered. He went up to the assault at Thelus carrying the Stars and Stripes on his bayonet and fell thus.
As soon as King George learned of the first day's fighting he sent the following message to Sir Douglas Haig:
The whole empire will rejoice at the news of yesterday's successful operations. Canada will be proud that the taking of the coveted Vimy Ridge has fallen to the lot of her troops. I heartily congratulate you and all who have taken part in this splendid achievement.
Hill 145 was the only position that gave the Canadians serious trouble. It was an earthern fortress of the first importance, with many underground galleries and concrete emplacements for machine guns. Although isolated on three sides from the German lines, the enemy was difficult to dislodge, and it was not until the night that the Canadians after heavy and costly fighting succeeded in occupying it. The Germans hurried up reinforcements in an attempt to recapture a hill known to the British as the Pimple so as to have a vantage point to retake Hill 145. But the Canadians, on Thursday morning, (April 12,) suddenly launched an attack, and, in spite of fierce machine-gun fire from the German positions, made themselves masters of the hill and occupied the woods through which the Germans delivered their counterattacks.
Thus already in the first week of the great British offensive the Canadians have established their place as an important factor in the battle of Arras, which is still in progress. They took nearly 4,000 prisoners and large quantities of guns and material during their exploits on Vimy Ridge, and have justified their choice for the vital task assigned to them. As the casualty lists indicate, not a few of the men in the Canadian regiments are citizens of the United States who went to Canada to enlist.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald