Malcolm & Dan-Joe (WW1)

"Dan-Joe & Malcolm (WW1)" -- TOC

Ch. 13 - "Vimy (April, 1917) - Part 1"

It was in March when we first see the beginnings of it, in the "Diary." It, of course, was when the Canadians took Vimy Ridge in April of 1917; and, we will shortly set-out the details of that assault by our brave Canadians, Dan-Joe being among them. Throughout March we can see the preparations. On the 8th, there was a "conference of officers in afternoon on Offensive." Then on the 10th, same-thing. On the 14th Officers on the line "at 7 a.m. to see along the 'Jumping Off' Trench for 'The Push.' Our artillery active all day." On the 17th, "Aircraft active all day." On the 25th, "Officers over Tape Course in afternoon. Conference of Officers." And on the 26th, "training for offensive ... Conference of Officers." And for the balance of the month, we see repeated entries: "Training for offensive" and "Conference of Officers."

Now we come to the stirring events of April, 1917. The first one was when the United States, on April 6th, declared war on Germany. Serious difficulties, between the U.S. and Germany, had raised their heads that January when Germany made an overture to Mexico -- if Mexico supported Germany, then at the end of it, with Germany winning the war: Mexico would get Texas back. The United States was not too impressed when its people intercepted this particular piece of news66; on February 3rd, the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Germany. War having been declared, the United States appointed its chief military officer for the United States to be General John J. Pershing. In June, Pershing arrived at France after having departed New York under top secrecy. He came with the first of the American troops; not many at this stage. In a show of American presence, part of the 16th Infantry Regiment marched through Paris shortly after its arrival. American forces in substantial numbers67 were in France by the autumn of 1917. I do not know what these Americans did during the winter (1917/18). Certainly there was delay in the American operations, as Pershing was not prepared to fold his forces into the setup that had been established by the Allies; he had other ideas.68 I have not searched out the extent and the results of the American involvement in WW1.

Preparations for the taking of Vimy were well underway by April 1st. Reference is made to the Canadian commanders going, on a number of occasions, to view a plaster-of-paris of Vimy Ridge, and, having conferences over the matter. On April 8th, Dan-Joe's Battalion was moved from Grand Servins to Bois Des Alleux. So too, the men were issued surplus dry rations69 and moved into the trenches, taking up their positions in the "Jumping Off trenches." Again, from what I see of the "Diary," the assault was to begin at 5:30 a.m. on the 9th. At that time, "Zero Hour," a barrage was laid down on the German front line.

"For four brief seconds before zero hour the Canadian artillery bombardment ceased altogether. Then, at 0530hrs, came the stunning roar of 983 guns and mortars, and the clatter of 150 machine guns, firing at the German defences on Vimy Ridge. At the same time a similarly powerful bombardment was in progress along the British eight mile front south of the Canadians. Overall, more than 2,800 artillery pieces were in action on the twelve mile British/Canadian offensive line. The noise was deafening and men were unable to hear one another speaking. The air vibrated with concussions and the ground shook with the pounding. To date, this was the greater bombardment of the war."70
Map Of battle, Vimy

And, 32 minutes after that, the men leaped up and out of their trenches and onto "No Man's Land." They all headed for the part of the ridge assigned to them at a prescribed pace. The simple entry in the "War Diary" is, "Bn. had reached and occupied their objective. The casualties in the attack were slight and during the rest of the day ... in clearing the trench [German?] and making shelter for the men. The following days they remained in their "original objective" and were kept busy "digging Main Line of Resistance and strengthening Strong Point." The weather was wet; indeed on the 12th, this entry, "Weather cold with heavy fall of snow during the night." Relief was wanted, but delayed on account of communication problems. On the 14th the battalion was repositioned, not far off to the "east of Vimy Railway and there they "dug in." And this we see too: "Enemy were occupying houses at Mont Forest Quarries ... Driven out. ... established at a dugout in Ry. Embankment south of Vimy Station ... Signal communication was established. ... During the day the enemy shelled intermittently but did very little damage ..." On the 15th, Dan-Joe's battalion was pulled out and replaced, in what was then "the farthest advanced trench in the Cdn. Corps Area." The battalion was placed in reserve and rested71 in "tents in vicinity of Aux Reitz." On the 26th of April they were once again placed on the front line, "on the Ry. Line from Vimy Station to a point 500 yards south along the Rly." Since the assault of April 9th advanced the line, the German infantry did come at them. (Rarely did the Germans do so; content throughout the war, it seems, to pick the Allies off as they rushed their lines.) The Germans, however, with their gun emplacements in behind their line, hurled explosive shells at the Allies, especially if they saw that there was work going on in the Allied defences.

On a reading of The Diary of the 26th Canadian Battalion it would not appear that the taking of Vimy Ridge was a big deal. If, however, we read subsequent accounts, much was made of it. It was part of a larger plan struck by the Allied leaders who had met the previous December at the Chantilly conference. It was at this conference when it was determined what the Allied offensive would be in the coming year. "The French would take the southern Aisne sector, the Chemin des Dames, as their front of assault, while the British would ... at Arras [British] and against Vimy Ridge [Canadians]."

The assault as we have seen took place on April 17th, 1917. The Canadians continued to shine in their performance on the field of battle.72

"The success of the Canadians was sensational. In a single bound the awful bare, broken slopes of Vimy Ridge, on which the French had bled to death in thousands in 1915, was taken, the summit gained ... 'There appeared to be nothing at all to prevent our breaking through,' wrote a Canadian lieutenant, 'nothing except the weather.' In practice, it was not the weather but the usual inflexibility of the plan that deterred progress. A predicated pause of two hours, after the objectives had been gained, prevented the leading troops from continuing the advance."73
This lauded success of the Canadians was against an enemy, who, one would have thought, should have been able to turn the attackers back; the Germans were well dug in on high-ground; earlier in the war, they had turned back, on separate occasions both the French and the British.
"... to the east the dip slope of the ridge falls suddenly and dramatically into the plain of Douai, which thence runs towards the great north-south strategic railway ... linking the Lille with Metz. Because the division between upland and plain at Vimy is so radical, it was a feature the Germans had to hold and they were to do so against repeated Allied assaults until it was taken in an epic Canadian assault in 1917."74
To pull back and to give a larger account of the matter, rather than just that of the Canadian 26th Battalion: At Vimy all four Divisions of the Canadian Corps attacked simultaneously. (Again, see Map, above.) This involved 100,000 men. The Vimy ridge was important to the Germans, not only that it was high and had a number of strong-points, there were "elaborate trench-systems and underground tunnels linking natural caves." The ridge blocked "the way to the mines and factories in the Douai plain which had been of great use to them in their continuation of the war." At the conferences of the Allied military leaders, leading up to the attack there existed "a strong body of opinion among the Allied commanders that the Ridge was possibly impregnable and incapable of ever being taken by a direct attack." They determined, I am sure because of their previous successes, that it was time to call in the Canadians.

The success75 of the Canadians did, however come at considerable cost.

"Although the victory at Vimy came quickly, it did not come without cost. Of the 10,602 Canadian casualties, there were 3,598 dead. This is a high and tragic number, but it must be compared with the 200,000 Canadian, British, French and German dead who lie buried on the ridge from earlier, unsuccessful attacks." [From the 9th to 14th of April, the Canadian Corps incurred 10,602 casualties, 3,598 of them being fatal, while capturing the entire Vimy Ridge.]76
Why did the Canadians have such success at Vimy?
"Preparations for the battle were thorough and extremely detailed. Behind their lines, the Canadians built a full-scale replica of the ground over which their troops would have to attack, giving all units the chance to practice their attacking movements and so understand what they (and neighbouring units) were expected to do on the day. Regular reconnaissance patrols, assisted by information gathered from aerial photography, meant that records of changes to the German defences on the Ridge were always up-to-date. Tunnellers dug subterranean passages under the Ridge - a total of five kilometres in all on four levels - allowing the attacking troops to move close to their jumping-off positions in some safety. Once the battle had begun, these same tunnels allowed the wounded to be brought back under cover and also provided unseen and safe lines of communications."
A couple of other points to be made as to the Canadian success: There were 12 tunnels leading to Vimy Ridge, dug mostly by the British who the Canadians replaced. These tunnels "were important in the success of the Vimy operation. Attackers and their following waves could be brought forward and assembled there under cover without the enemy being aware of their close presence. These tunnels were also conveniently equipped with electric lighting, phone lines, water supply and ventilation systems, and many with tram lines. As no tunnel existed in the 26th Bn. assembly area, this type of shelter, while available to many other Canadian units, was not there for the 26th." Further, we read in the official dairy of the 26th Battalion; "Thousands of maps were turned out in various sizes and scales, not only to officers, but also to individual soldiers, so all would know the plans, and obstacles to be overcome." Also the preliminary artillery was held back by a significant extent until zero hour. There was collected up from the various artillery groups (a significant number being British) a large number of bombardment guns which totalled 863 pieces. Only half were used in the softening-up process in the days before the attack. This approach left the wrong impression of the artillery strength of the Allies; and, in addition, with only half of them being used, the other half were immune to being triangularly fixed by the Germans through "flash spotting and sound ranging," and thus liable to be knocked out by return fire.77

NEXT [Chapter 14, "Vimy (April, 1917)- Part 2"]


Found this material Helpful?


Peter Landry