On the morning of April 9, 1917, four divisions of Canadian troops swarmed up the slopes of Vimy Ridge. In four days they pushed their German enemies off the pinnacle and established a benchmark for the development of Canadian nationhood.
Easter weekend, April, 1917.
For weeks, Allied artillery had pounded German positions atop Vimy Ridge. The ferocity of the bombardment intensified as Easter approached – a sure prelude to a major attack. The Germans called it “The Week of Suffering’ and withdrew into their deep underground shelters to await the inevitable.
For the Canadian troops, Easter Sunday was a day for writing personal farewells. Pte. Willie Clarke of Belleville penned a letter to his family: “We expect to go into a fierce battle before long and this may be the last letter you will receive from me for awhile… Kiss Kenneth, Mabel and Russell for me, and tell them if anything happens to me not to worry, as we may meet again some day.”
As zero hour approached, thousands of Canadian soldiers gathered in gloomy tunnels and massive holding areas underground, nervously pondering their chances of surviving the horror that was to be launched at daybreak. Thousands more huddled overnight in the cold rain in open forward trenches, ready to go over the top.
At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, Easter Monday, as darkness was turning to light, a thousand Allied cannons opened up. Canadian sappers blew open the ends of their tunnels and unleashed the hounds of hell. Soldiers poured out, emerging almost under the noses of the Germans, a manoeuvre that saved the infantry men from crossing the treacherous, muddy, bomb-cratered No Man’s Land. German troops squinted through the rain, sleet and snow pounding into their faces, driven by a stiff westerly wind. Four days and 10,500 casualties later, Canadian troops stood atop Vimy Ridge while the Germans were in disarray on the plain below.
COMMANDING THE HEIGHTS WAS CONSIDERED PARAMOUNT in the First World War. Vimy Ridge is a seven-kilometre-long hill rising above the flat open countryside north of Arras in northeastern France. It provides a view over the countryside in all directions, rising more than 61 metres above the Douai Plain to the northeast. The coalfields and factories in the territory fuelled the German war machine. Vimy Ridge was also the linchpin of the Hindenburg Line and defence systems running to the north.
The ridge rises gently from the southwest, which meant the Canadians had to advance uphill against heavy machine gun fire and artillery. The top of the ridge was crisscrossed with a maze of trenches dotted with concrete-reinforced machine gun nests surrounded by rows and rows of barbed wire. Vast underground bunkers sheltered entire battalions. The prolonged artillery barrage was intended to erase the German defences, or at least minimize their effectiveness.
The Germans had held the heights for months, successfully throwing back the French twice (French losses: 7,700 in a first attempt and 40,000 in a later effort) and the British (losses: 100,000 in a broader attack on the area). In April 1917, 100,000 Canadian soldiers had been gathered into four divisions that would fight shoulder to shoulder, flanked by their brothers and their own countrymen. On the morning of April 9th, 15,000 Canadians overran the German defences.
The assault on Vimy was a part of a larger British push known as the Battle of Arras. And that attempt, intended to force the Germans eastward, was itself a large diversionary attack to draw enemy troops away from a major French push further to the south. Vimy Ridge had been assigned to Canadians to attack and seize.
That they were able to take the ridge when the French and British had failed was not only a measure of their uncommon bravery, but also the result of meticulous planning, the use of new techniques, new approaches and knowledge from past failures.
Every man, every man, knew what his assignment was. Under the direction of Canadian General Arthur Currie, new strategies were developed. For the first time, every man had been shown a large-scale model of Vimy Ridge behind the lines, and told exactly what his mission was. Every man was issued a map based on aerial photography, so that in theory every man could be a leader on the battlefield. Even if all the officers were killed, the infantry soldier would still know exactly where his unit was going. For the first time, the soldiers were treated as integral parts of a military machine, not as cannon fodder.
On the surface the ridge appeared to be a morass of mud and mayhem that no one could possibly survive, but the Germans had dug bunkers far below where they were untouched by the heaviest of artillery. Imagine the surprise of Canadian troops when they discovered the sumptuous German battlefield conditions underground: one bunker was even furnished with a grand piano, carpet and wallpaper.
THE MEN WHO POURED OUT OF THE TUNNELS and trenches were not, for the main part, drawn from Canada’s elite. Their attestation papers listed them as “farmer”, “labourer”, “miner” or “clerk”.
They signed up out of patriotism, loyalty to the Crown, public pressure, the chance for adventure and excitement, a free ticket to Britain (especially attractive to British expatriates), and, for many, an opportunity for a regular paycheque.
In his book Remembering the Men of North Hastings Killed in the Great War, Colonel Donald J. Vance wrote that enlistment meant getting new boots, a new suit and a new repeating rifle. He told a story, which he admitted might be apocryphal, about two brothers cutting cedar posts in a cold, wet swamp with axes and bucksaws in February. After they loaded the posts onto a sleigh and drove them six miles to a railway siding, they would get paid 10 cents apiece. Along came a friend in a heavy wool greatcoat, thick woolen breeches and brand new boots. He told them he had joined the army and was being paid a dollar a day. The brothers downed tools on the spot and went to sign up.
The men were recruited by battalion, each battalion representing a geographic area. Men from Hastings and Prince Edward counties signed on with the 155th Battalion. The 139th, based in Cobourg, was also known as the Northumberland Battalion. The 136th Battalion, based in Kingston, recruited men from Durham County and Pontiac County in Quebec. The 155th (Quinte) Battalion was based in Barriefield (Kingston). The 235th Battalion, based in Bowmanville, drew recruits from Northumberland and Durham counties.
Pressure to sign up came from public, peers and pulpit. It was one’s duty to serve King and Country. Recruiting posters were everywhere, at first stressing patriotism but later questioning men’s senses of loyalty and manhood if they didn’t enlist. Military parades in small towns across Northumberland, Hastings and Prince Edward County heralded the arrival of recruiting officers.
Native volunteers from Alderville and Tyendinaga signed up for the same reasons: excitement, foreign travel, adventure, love of country, and a regular paycheque. Some cited specific claims to loyalty. A member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte linked the high enlistment ratio to the band’s tie to Great Britain: “We came over with the United Empire Loyalists from the United States. Our treaties are with the Crown, so, when the Crown calls, you go.”
Mike Mountain, a First World War veteran, was quoted in Native Soldiers, Foreign Battlefields, as saying that “the war proved that the fighting spirit of my tribe was not squelched through reservation life. When duty called, we were there, and when we were called forth to fight for the cause of civilization, our people showed all the bravery of our warriors of old.”
PRIOR TO VIMY, CANADIAN BATTALION designations usually lasted only until the units arrived in Europe, where they were merged with British army battalions that needed bolstering. By the time of the Vimy battle, the Canadian contingents had been fused into one army with four divisions and, acting together for the first time, Canadians tackled Vimy Ridge.
When these former clerks and farmers and labourers emerged from their cover onto the battlefield, hearts pumping and adrenalin flowing, did they rush towards the enemy? No, they did not. Bullets, bombs, mud and blood flew all around, and yet these soldiers seemed to be strolling toward the German lines. What appeared to be a walk in the park was in fact a disciplined march that became known as the “Vimy Glide”, a slow-motion sliding movement of the foot, done deliberately to control their advance. With their pocket watches strapped to their wrists, the infantry moved ahead at a precise pace of 100 yards every three minutes behind a creeping artillery barrage ahead of them.
Running would not have been easy in any event. The men were laden with equipment: regulation uniform, 120 rounds of ammunition, a Lee Enfield rifle, three Mills bombs, an entrenching tool, bayonet and scabbard, water bottle, rations, gas mask, greatcoat and cape.
The slow, steady advance required extreme mental discipline. It’s possible that when the “Vimy Glide” was later described in letters, it might have been misinterpreted. Rumours circulated at home that taking Vimy had been a cakewalk, to which The Ontario Intelligencer of Belleville was compelled to comment:
“The pause in the forward move has permitted the completion of the records of conspicuous bravery in the recent actions. These official documents show how utterly mistaken is the view, which has gained some currency on this side of the Atlantic, that the battle of Vimy Ridge and subsequent actions on the eastern slope of the ridge were a series of walkovers in which the gentle German, the moment our troops got up to his positions, put his hands up and shouted “Kamerad.” The truth is there was much hard fighting.”
Hard fighting, indeed. Here’s what Pte. Southworth of the Cobourg area described:
“At 4:30 one of the officers came along the trench with the rum and I took a dandy and by 5:30 I was all nerve. As soon as our artillery barrage opened up, away we went, and all you could see was smoke, Fritz running and some whole ones, but mostly pieces of them, going up in the air. A person would naturally think that the very life would be frightened out of a fellow but fear never enters your mind. All you look for is go ahead and blood. You just go insane and that is it. The noise of the artillery and the burst shells get you going. I never want you ever to go through what I have this winter, especially on the 9th on Vimy, for it was a hell on earth, and I am very lucky to be here today … I do not mind the loss of my eye but I am well pleased to save my life.”
Before the infantry engaged Fritz on Easter Monday, extensive work had to be done with implements familiar to farmers and labourers: picks and shovels and saws. Trenches don’t appear in the ground without shovels. Tunnels don’t carve themselves through the chalky underground without picks. Trees don’t turn themselves into planks and timbers for building roads and tunnels and duckboards without saws. The work of the forester battalions was critical: without their road construction to allow the movement of heavy guns, said one general, Vimy Ridge could not have been held against a German counterattack.
Waiting behind the lines to treat the wounded and console the dying were the nurses, nicknamed “Bluebirds” because of their blue uniforms and white veils. All of the Canadian military nurses had been trained in women’s medical colleges in Kingston and Toronto. Like the foresters, the nurses were near enough to the front line to be in danger. Their bravery ran as deep as the soldiers’.
The Bluebirds met the hundreds of wounded men who streamed into casualty stations, cleaning their injuries, applying bandages, assisting in surgery and offering what little comfort they could. Often the injuries were so horrific and so numerous there was precious little they could do beyond offering words of kindness.
THE BATTLE OF VIMY RIDGE lasted four days, but within minutes of the battle’s commencement, columns of captured grey-uniformed German prisoners began filing back to the Canadian lines. In the final two days the Canadians took “The Pimple” and the Germans were forced to withdraw. The battle of Vimy Ridge was over. In retrospect, Vimy seems to have been all death and destruction. But some of the lads loved it. Pte. Edison Blue of Campbellford described the scene to his parents:
“I tell you, Mother, it was great. If the Canadian people could only have seen their boys for a few hours here, going for the Fritzes like good fellows. They were red with German blood and the Germans were lying on the ground like bees. I would not have missed that attack for all the money in the world.” Pte. Blue was wounded but he relished the memory. “We made good use of the prisoners, too – putting them to work to carry out wounded. Four of them carried me for two miles. I am feeling like a lord, in spite of my wounds.”
And what became of Willie Clarke, the soldier who wrote his farewell letter to his family at the beginning of this story? He was wounded, and wrote a letter from England on April 12. “Just a few lines to let you know I am still alive but in a hospital in England, so do not worry, as I am not seriously wounded. I was only blown up by a shell … “
Only blown up by a shell. And so the birth of a nation began in a bloodbath, as is so often the case. Vimy became a watchword to be remembered wherever veterans gathered from coast to coast.
Historians hold divided views on the value of Vimy but the men who fought the Germans on Easter weekend in 1917 understood the significance of their victory. Canada had entered the war as a colony tucked under the wing of Mother Britain. After the last cannon had fired, she had her own seat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and signed her own signature on the Treaty of Versailles, under the signature of Britain.
Like Pte. Willie Clarke, as a country we were “only blown up by a shell” but survived, all the stronger for the experience.
We suffered, we mourned and we got on with building a nation.