What Was The Battle Of Vimy Ridge?

On 9 April 1917 came the skirmish which would claim thousands of lives but help create an entire country’s national identity.

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial

This month is the 99th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a titanic military campaign which did for Canada what Gallipoli did for Australia: it shaped the nation's identity and became an enduring source of patriotic pride.

The big difference was that while Gallipoli was an infamous fiasco, Vimy Ridge was a stunning victory for Canada and the Allies. Here's what happened.

The trenches on the battlefield of Vimy Ridge, France.

The trenches on the battlefield of Vimy Ridge, France.

THE RIDGE MUST FALL

Taking place in France as part of a larger campaign against German forces, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was the first time in which all four divisions of the Canadian Corps would work together in one assault. This was hugely significant, and is part of the reason why the battle would go on to have legendary status in the minds of Canadians.

Vimy Ridge itself was a cliff-like wedge of landscape which had been held by the Germans since 1914. It was of immense strategic importance, a crucial part of the German defences which gave them a panoramic overview of the region. No wonder it was so heavily fortified with machine guns, winding trenches and bushes of barbed wire. The mission to take the Ridge was important... and deadly. One historian has likened the area around the Ridge as an "open graveyard", soaked through with the blood of over 150,000 French soldiers who had been slain and maimed in repeated failed attempts to wrest control from the Germans.

THE UNDERGROUND CITY

Beneath the killing fields of Vimy Ridge lay a surreal netherworld: a vast, sprawling labyrinth of subterranean passages which had been painstakingly dug by Allied forces. These would play a part in the lead up to the assault, providing shelter and protection for Canadian troops as they made their way to the front lines. They also allowed them to place explosives under the German trenches.

The tunnels stretched for miles, with some of them 100 feet deep. Not only was it unbearably claustrophobic to work in those conditions, but the diggers also had to be deathly quiet, for fear of Germans hearing them coming. Incredibly, the tunnel system included kitchen units, beds, ammunition stores and communication hubs, complete with piped water and electricity, like some dingy and unlikely underground city.

THE WEEK OF SUFFERING

The Canadians knew that taking Vimy Ridge wasn't going to be easy, and they were determined not to suffer the fate of the decimated French forces before them. One way to get a "head start" was to pummel the Germans before the troops even went in. On 20 March, weeks before the men charged in, the Canadians began a merciless bombardment of German lines, their aim being to smash through the various defences.

The punishment got even more severe on the week beginning 2 April, when the Canadians upped their assault. It's estimated that there was one heavy gun being fired for every 18 metres of soil. According to one Canadian soldier, the shells were pouring onto the Germans "like water from a hose", devastating their trenches and crushing their morale. This period of non-stop artillery bombardment was dubbed by the Germans "the week of suffering".

CHARGING INTO VICTORY

After the apocalyptic prelude of the bombardments, the Battle of Vimy Ridge finally began at 5.30am on 9 April 1917, an Easter Monday. The weather was terrible, with snow and sleet chilling soldiers to the bone as they set to work, although it did have the one perk of making it more difficult for the Germans to target them. It was a forceful, explosive assault, with heavy guns battering the landscape once more, and Canadian bombs erupting beneath key German positions.

Wounded men sprawled everywhere in the slime, in the shell holes, in the mine craters, some screaming to the skies...

As one battle log described the scene, "Wounded men sprawled everywhere in the slime, in the shell holes, in the mine craters, some screaming to the skies, some lying silently, some begging for help, some struggling to keep from drowning in craters." And yet, despite the nightmarish violence of the battle, the Canadians would emerge victorious days later, on 12 April. Almost 3,600 men had died, and more than 7,000 were wounded. It's thought the Germans sustained over 20,000 casualties. Such was the bravery of the Canadian forces that four men were awarded Victoria Crosses.

THE BATTLE'S IMPORTANCE

Vimy Ridge was more than a resounding military victory for the Allies. It was a decisive show of Canadian might. As one Canadian Brigadier-General said, "In those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation." Working together for the first time, the divisions of the Canadian Corps proved to the world that this was a country with its own spirit, rather than a mere colony of the British, and it is now remembered as a key moment in Canada's coming of age as a nation.