Unending Seige

Vimy Ridge

Canadian Preparations and the Assault on the Ridge

Motorcycle courier, Canadian Signal Corps, 1917

Caption: Motorcycle courier, Canadian Signal Corps, 1917

The Canadians made painstaking preparations for their great initial attack of 1917, which would, for the first time, involve all four of their divisions at once. This attack would benefit from the lessons learned from the French, who had developed the art of using their infantry in small groups to occupy points of resistance left behind by the first assault waves, especially concreted machine-gun nests that were resistant to shells and surrounded by trenches and barbed wire. From the British they borrowed the judicious use of accurate barrage bombardments to open the way for the infantry. They reinforced these techniques with counterbattery activity that would enable them to target 176 of the 212 German guns that could smash the Canadian offensive. In all these areas, the Canadians readied themselves with precision.

The troops would be "shown" the ground by means of montages prepared in the rear, and they would be trained to recognize and take their assigned objectives. They would draw on all the technical advances the war had spawned since 1914. These would include rifle-launched grenades and combustion-fuse shells (improving on a French invention) that exploded on striking the ground and destroyed barbed wire, not to mention aerial reconnaissance of enemy batteries and the approach and destruction of well-defended positions through tunnels hollowed in the chalk typical of this region.

The assault began on 20 March 1917 with a bombardment of the German position that was intensified until 2 April and then stabilized. The Canadians at Vimy had 480 18-pound guns, 138 4.5-inch howitzers and 245 heavy guns and howitzers; they also had all the shells they needed, which had not been the case with the British troops fighting on the Somme a year earlier. The British also manufactured 234 other guns, including 132 heavy guns available to the Canadians. This gave them a piece of heavy artillery for every 20 metres of front, providing far superior coverage to what they had on the Somme. Trench raids and flights over the German lines now proliferated along a front more than six kilometres long. Before dawn on Easter Sunday, 9 April 1917, under a blizzard blowing in the Germans' eyes, the offensive opened. Given the features of this front, the assailants would have almost four kilometres to cross on the right before reaching their objective but only 650 metres on the left, where the greatest heights were located and where the fighting promised to be the hardest.

The bombardment that had been stationary since 2 April was now succeeded by a rolling barrage supported by steady machine-gun fire into the German lines. The infantry stuck so close to the barrage that they were on top of the first German positions even before the defenders had come out of their shelters. Surviving points of resistance were left to be dealt with by the units trained for this purpose, including the 22nd Battalion. The enemy artillery saw its usual activity largely frustrated by a highly effective Canadian counterbattery. By 8 am the 3rd Division had reached its objective just across from Vimy. The 1st and 2nd divisions would take their positions just as quickly. Only the 4th, across from Hill 145, would be bogged down until 12 April before capturing this high ground. On the night of 12/13 April the remaining Germans finally fell back.