Virtual Exhibit

Reflections on Vimy

The First World War in 1917

The Great War was now well into its 3rd year and the sweeping operations of 1914 had given way to stalemates. The costly battles of 1915 had yielded little success, and the large scale attacks of 1916 had also failed to bring the break-though that the Allies wanted. The great costs of industrial warfare and the difficulty of holding captured ground had become obvious. However, lessons learned through the bloody Somme Offensive in 1916 were put to use and helped make the Canadians’ success at Vimy Ridge possible.

The Canadian offensive at Vimy Ridge is shown here, as well as the advance across the Douai Plain and the battles of Arleux and Fresnoy in late April and early May. The blue lines mark the progress of the advance and the dates  Allied forces reached them. Pink lines mark divisional boundaries. Green lines illustrate old advances.

Why Fight at Vimy?

In the spring of 1917, plans were laid for the Nivelle Offensive. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was to attack near Arras, and one week later, the French planned to attack Chemin des Dames. The main purpose of the British Arras Offensive was to draw German troops away from Chemin des Dames. Vimy Ridge, on the Northern edge of the  British section, was to be the Canadian objective of the battle.

Byng of Vimy Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng commanded the Canadian Corps on the Western Front from May 1916 to June 1917. He forged the Canadians into an elite fighting formation, leading them through the battles of Mount Sorrel, the Somme, and Vimy Ridge. His Canadian troops called themselves the “Byng Boys,” a testament to their commander’s popularity. This photograph, from April 1917, reveals a tired and haggard Byng who, like so many, was aged by the war.

Previous Battles at Vimy Ridge

Before the Canadian Corps arrived at Vimy, the German hold on the Ridge had been contested by both the British and the French, who had failed to capture and hold the position. The ground was littered with the bodies and debris of the previous battles, in which there had been over 150,000 British and French casualties. During the time they spent on the Ridge, the Germans had also built formidable defences with extensive trench systems.

This hand-drawn map indicates some of the hundreds of trenches that crisscrossed Vimy Ridge. These trenches lay in the 4th Division’s sector, on the left (north) of the Canadian lines. Although the trenches would have had German names (since they built them), the Canadians have renamed the trenches under an easy-to-remember system where they all begin with “B.” Other sectors would have had trenches identified beginning with different letters.
These hand-drawn maps, although crude, were important for soldiers to situate themselves in the chaos of battle, and often as they advanced through the underground trenches, and therefore without the benefit of a birds-eye view of the battlefield.

Preparing for Battle

The disasters during the Somme Offensive had caused the British General Headquarters to re-examine the tactical methods of the BEF.  As a result, platoon commanders were given a more prominent role and specialists were integrated within the platoon instead of being segregated into special units. These changes enhanced the flexibility of the platoon while also re-enforcing under strength battalions.

When the Canadian soldiers were rotated out of line, they rehearsed the plan of attack as extensively as possible starting in March 1917. In some cases, this included taped out models of the battlefield. Over 40,000 maps as well as areal photographs of the Ridge were made widely available to the infantry. Soldiers were given clearly identifiable objectives so that they would not get lost and confused in the chaos of the battle.  Additionally, infantry were also trained for specialist roles such as machine-gunners, rifle-men, and grenade-throwers.

Artillery Bombardment 

The work of taking over the Ridge was not left to the infantry alone. Weeks of artillery bombardment preceded the Canadian attack. The bombardment became so intense that the German troops in the front lines began to starve because their supplies could not reach them. This was done to damage German morale as well as to clear obstacles to the Canadian infantry such as barbed wire and enemy fortifications.

Artillery Support

In this striking nighttime photograph taken behind Canadian lines at Vimy Ridge, a British naval gun fires in support of the Canadian attack.  Approximately 1,000 Allied guns and mortars pounded the ridge prior to the assault, a period called by the German defenders the “week of suffering.”  Despite heavy preliminary bombardments at the Somme, it proved to be impossible to completely eradicate enemy soldiers and guns prior to the infantry’s advance. The survivors of the bombardment would simply emerge from their trenches and fire on the Allied infantry as they struggled across No-Man’s-Land.
To combat this gunners began to develop a new tactic called the creeping barrage. The creeping barrage started on the enemy lines and moved forward across the battlefield in timed lifts. The infantry then advanced behind the barrage as closely as possible without falling prey to friendly-fire. In this way, the infantry could reach enemy lines and overwhelm them before the enemy was able to emerge and man their defenses. If the infantry was unable to keep up with the barrage, they risked the enemy emerging and firing their machine guns.

Blasted View of Vimy Ridge

This aerial photograph illustrates the major trench lines around an unknown sector on Vimy Ridge. The large craters, some ten to 15 metres deep, were made from mine explosions set off by Canadian engineers prior to and during the assault of 9 April 1917. Mines could create great confusion and blow huge gaps in an enemy’s defences, but they were also significant obstacles for advancing troops.

Preparing the Ground

By April 1917, the ground around Vimy Ridge was reduced to mud. Behind the scenes, making it possible for everything to move into place, were the Canadian Engineers.

Preparing roads, trenches, tunnels, water systems, telephone and power cables, and light-railway tracks in advance of the battle was no small job and the assistance of various other men was required to complete the work.  Their work was necessary to move men, artillery, and supplies into place for the battle. The Engineers also played a role in reconnaissance and planning routes for the infantry through the craters and shell holes of No Man’s Land.  In some cases, tunnels were created to allow the infantry to move forward underground and come up near the German front lines.  Some of the engineers also went over the top with the infantry in order to start building strong-points on newly captured ground to prepare for enemy counter-attacks.

Over the Top

April 9th, Easter Monday, dawned cold and snowy.  Together on one front for the first time, all four Canadian divisions, over 15,000 men in the first wave, advanced behind the creeping barrage.  The barrage threw up an intense wall of smoke, dirt, and debris in front of the advancing Canadians.

Many Germans were dazed and offered little resistance at first, but others fought hard to the very end. Fortunes on the battlefield varied by division and battalion.  On the southern edge, the 1st Canadian Division had the farthest to go (3,560 metres), but the land that they had to traverse was comparatively flat. On the north, the 4th Division had less ground to travel but faced the steeper part of the Ridge, which was well defended.

“Easter morning, the first day we went over the top, at five o’clock in the morning and the mud was about six inches deep, and we were carrying about one hundred pounds of kit. I had a sack of bombs and six hundred rounds of machine gun ammunition. I was in the machine gun section when we went over, but got separated from the boys first thing….”

– ‘James Millar Tells of the Big Fight’, Western Globe, May 23, 1917.

Canadian Advance

Working their way through hand-to-hand combat, fortified villages, open fields, hedgerows, German trenches, and enemy fire, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Canadian Divisions were able to achieve their objectives on April 9th. However, holding these positions often proved costly in the face of continued German resistance and difficulties in bringing supplies over the Ridge to forward positions.

Prisoners of War

The Canadians captured more than 4,000 Germans during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In this photograph, the soldiers in the soft caps are German officers, and perhaps senior enough to warrant the attention of the official Canadian photographer.

The 4th Division did not experience the initial success enjoyed by the other three Divisions. Severe casualties right from the start and heavy enemy fire prevented the capture of vital ground. The terrain was terrible, consisting of previously churned up mud (waist-deep in places) and an important and heavily defended height, Hill 145. The Germans were able to man their machine guns after the Canadian barrage and mow through advancing Canadians, while some sections of the German trenches survived the bombardment. Many men were killed as soon as they left their own trenches.

Vimy Fortifications

A German machine-gun emplacement of reinforced concrete on the crest of Vimy Ridge, and the Canadians who seized it.

Hill 145 was taken piecemeal by April 10th, but the machine gun positions had to be taken by a frontal bayonet charge. It is on this point of the ridge that the Vimy Monument now stands. Another high point, known as “The Pimple,” was not captured until April 12th.

Beyond Vimy, the Douai Plain

This photograph, taken after the capture of Vimy Ridge, looks east over the Douai Plain. The vantage point occupied by the soldiers in the foreground demonstrates the strategic importance of Vimy Ridge – its height.

Tanks at Vimy

“It sure was the worst scrap of this war, and I dread seeing the casualty lists, as I suppose there are a lot of Lacombe boys killed; there were very few left when I got hit.” – Earl Halpin, “Vimy Ridge Fight Was Worst in the War,” Western Globe, May 16, 1917.

Aftermath of the Battle

This operation cost 3,598 Canadian lives while another 7,000 were wounded. Lessons from Vimy aided in the Canadian’s future successes in the War. Additionally, the Battle also became an important symbol of the emerging Canadian nation. Not only does the Vimy Monument commemorate this legendary battle, but it also bears the engraved names of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in France with no known grave.

For their part, the British were able to achieve limited success, but the French offensive, which started on April 16th, failed to achieve significant objectives and incurred horrific losses. French General Robert Nivelle was replaced and the attack was called off. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, continued to press the Germans at Arras until mid-May, even though the original purpose at Arras had been to create a diversion in order to aid the French.

Voices of Vimy

Created by the Canada’s History Society

We Remember

While the Battle of Vimy Ridge was certainly important for Canadians in 1917, the Battle grew to near mythic status afterwards. Many claimed that the nation of Canada was born that day as the four Divisions of Canadian Corps fought together for the first time.  Throughout the interwar period, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was commemorated in Lacombe in ways that were unique from other battles. The ways in which the Battle of Vimy Ridge was remembered and commemorated offer a window into the mindsets and concerns of  Lacombe residents. What did they celebrate, remember, or do to honor this event and the people who took part in its success?

Rather than retell the story of the actual events of April 9th to 12th 1917, remembering and commemorating Vimy often became an opportunity to address a wide range of concerns linked to both the war experience and the interwar period.

Although the Battle of Vimy Ridge was marked off as a special event early on, interest in the Battle increased in the 1930s. During this time, the Lacombe Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion began holding a yearly event known as the Vimy Dinner near April 9th. These Vimy Dinners in Lacombe generally featured a meal, a guest speaker, music, and ceremonies remembering the fallen of the war.

Preserved Battlefield – Virtual Tour

Take a virtual tour through the Vimy Ridge site as it stands today.

Preserved Tunnels – Virtual Tour

Explore what the tunnels were like with this virtual tour of this preserved space

Reconstructed Trenches – 360 ° Panoramic Tour

Experience the Vimy Trenches

Virtual Tour of Canadian Cemetary No.2

Experience the Canadian Cemetaries

Virtual tour of the Vimy Monument

Explore the Vimy Monument Canada Bereft and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, walk up the steps and even read the names of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were posted “missing, presumed dead” in France, engraved along the walls.

Remembering the Dead

At some of the Vimy Dinners, the entire war was commemorated in the speeches. Importantly, these evenings also reflected aspects of growing national traditions of remembering the dead. These included rituals such as playing the Last Post, observing one or two minutes of silence, and playing the Reveille.

Early Memorial

An early memorial at Vimy Ridge in October 1917 honours the 2nd Canadian Division and the 13th British Infantry Brigade that fought together during the battle. Memorials were often erected by units and formations after major battles.

The Vimy Memorial 

The 1936 unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France also became a focal point for honouring the dead.
Inscribed on the ramparts of the Memorial are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were posted “missing, presumed dead” in France.
By 1932, the Western Globe was following the progress of the monument and eagerly awaiting its completion. Readers were told that the monument was in honor of the many Canadians who died at Vimy Ridge, as well as the dead of the whole war.

Canada Bereft

Despite the presence of the King and many other dignitaries at the unveiling of the Vimy Monument, particular attention was paid to the dead, the veterans, and their families at the unveiling ceremony.

The statue of Canada Bereft, mourning the dead of Canada, was of particular interest to the Western Globe. Vimy, with the names of the missing dead engraved around the base of the monument, became a physical representation of those whose bodies were never identified.

Furthermore, the idea that the land was claimed and sanctified by the blood of the fallen at this site was also important for the residents of Lacombe. Across Canada, going to the unveiling was not just a sightseeing trip. Instead, it was more like a pilgrimage to remember and honor the dead of the War. The land that lay under the gaze of Canada Bereft had become sacred, sanctified by the blood of those who had died there fighting for Canada and worthy principles.

“But the day belonged to men who walk with the living only in spirit, and to the 6000 of their comrades and kin who stood with faces up-turned in the sun toward the white-cowled heroic woman before the monument’s two towering pylons, the woman who is Canada, brooding over her dead sons who lie in a foreign land.”

-“King Unveils Canada’s Vimy Ridge Memorial,” Western Globe, July  30, 1936. 

Vimy Pilgrims

In order to organize and accommodate the vast numbers of people expected to attend the unveiling ceremony, the Canadian Legion organized a group of passenger ships to take “pilgrims” to France. The trip became known as the Vimy Pilgrimage. Several Lacombe residents took advantage of this opportunity to see the unveiling of the Vimy Monument.

An important theme in the Vimy Pilgrimage as described in the Western Globe was the desire for peace. The idea of “peace” was found in many of the names for the trip, be it a “Peace Armada” of ships going to France, “Canada’s Peace Army,” or “a Peace Movement on a colossal scale.” Despite the fact that it was becoming increasingly clear that another war was likely coming, newspaper authors claimed that “it is anticipated that Canada’s Peace Army will be a significant warning to Europe of the Sentiment in the Dominion against participation in future wars” (“Fear Shortage of Ships For Vimy Pilgrimage,” Western Globe, November 7, 1935).

Vimy Passport issued by the Governor-General of Canada to George Henry Cairns and Elizabeth Doris Cairns for the purpose of attending the 1936 Vimy pilgrimage. In 1918, the Cairns lost two sons to the war. One, Sergeant Hugh Cairns of the 46th Battalion, has been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his valiant action at Valenciennes (1918).

As historian Denise Thomson pointed out in “National Sorrow, National Pride: Commemoration of war in Canada, 1918-1945,” many veterans hoped that through preserving the memory of the dead, they would be able to prevent another war.
A Less Than Perfect World Remembering the dead and preserving peace were certainly real issues for the people of the Lacombe area during the Interwar Period. However, concerns that were more local also found their way into the commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In fact the Vimy Dinners were often used to address current issues or to help the community shape its own sense of identity.

The topic at the speech at the first banquet in 1930 was the work of the Legion in getting proper recognition and financial support for veterans and families. This is not in any way surprising since the veterans and the Legion were extremely active during the interwar period in attempting to get the benefits and recognition that veterans believed that they had earned by fighting for Canada.  To this end, the Legion made frequent use of the event to recruit new members.

The Dirty Thirties

The Vimy Dinner were also used to address broad community concerns. In 1933, with the province well and truly into the Great Depression, Mayor Edwin Jones took the opportunity to brag of the successes of the town of Lacombe. Jones told his audience that Lacombe was doing very well comparatively in a variety of areas including low debt, low taxes, and good public utilities. The year prior, the main speaker also addressed the difficulties of the 1930s:

“Scott’s address was very interesting and entertaining and in comparing the present conditions of the Allies with that of the vanquished peoples, be emphasized the fact though the Allies may not have reached the goal of their desire toward bettering things, they had at least preserved their freedom and were living under better conditions than are other nations.”

-“The Vimy Banquet,” Western Globe, April 14, 1932.

The stresses of the Great Depression were weighing on people and they needed reassurance from the speaker that they were doing well and that the war effort had not been in vain. Many people had rationalized the deaths incurred in the war as a needed sacrifice to improve the world. Commemorating Vimy had become a time to address these sorts of concerns and to help Lacombe residents deal with the challenging circumstances of the interwar period.

Preparing for the Next War

The contemporary concerns became particularly clear in the final Vimy Banquet in 1937. The shadow of the next war had become evident by this point. The title of Rey Waterman’s speech was “Comrades of Days Gone By,” and while he certainly did tell stories about individual soldiers, his main theme was the history of men dying for the principles of the British Empire and the need to prepare to fight again.

A Time for Community 

Lacombe’s Vimy Dinners were more than just a time to cope with the pressing public issues of the times or to grieve the dead. The Vimy Dinner was also a social gathering that allowed people to see each other, hear music, and enjoy good food.

When the Vimy Dinner was first established by the Legion, one of its main purposes was to provide veterans a chance to have an evening together. The Vimy Dinner became a popular community event for the residents of Lacombe and the surrounding area. An orchestra was present for the Vimy Dinner of 1930 as well as vocal soloists and accompanists. Other years continued to feature singing, musical instruments, and even dancing.

The Vimy Dinner also appears to have become rather famous for its good food, which was prepared by a variety of local ladies groups. The food was often praised by both out-of-town guest speakers and local journalists attending the event.

For the residents of Lacombe, the commemoration of Vimy became a time to be reassured of the success of their efforts and to plan for a better tomorrow. April 9th continues to be a significant day as the Lacombe Legion still holds their Awards Ceremony on the Wednesday prior, a tradition which dates from the interwar period.

The present always bleeds into our interpretation of the past, but in commemorating Vimy, Canadians seem to have polished for themselves a mirror of unusual clarity in which the present is perhaps more visible than the events of April 1917.

Want to Learn More?

If you liked this exhibit, please leave us a comment and explore our other virtual exhibits such as At Home & Abroad: Stories of Lacombe and the Second World War or Lest We Forget Our Brave Hearts.

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