Battle of Vimy Ridge
Canadian Corps (1st British Army), 75,000
Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, Commander
1st Division — Major-General Currio
2d Division — Major-General Burstall
3d Division — Major-General Lipsett
4th Division — Major-General Watson
Cavalry Brigade — Brigadier-General Seeley
13th British Imperial Brigade Reserves Troops—36,000
German Forces (Bavarians), 140,000
Crown Prince Rupprecht, Commander
The storming of Vimy Ridge by the dauntless Canadian Army Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, was the most brilliant episode of the general attack launched along the Arras front on April 9th, by the First and Third British Armies. The Canadian Corps formed a part of General Sir H. S. Home's First British Army; it comprised 75,000 fighting troops in all the branches of infantry, cavalry, artillery, cyclists, aircraft and motor transport.
Assisting the Canadians in this operation were two famous British regiments, the Royal West Rents and the King's Own Scottish Borderers, forming the 13th Brigade of the Fifth Imperial Division. Some 36,000 other Canadian troops were held in reserve on the line of communication. The German forces occupying Vimy Ridge numbered 140,000 veteran troops, mostly Bavarians, commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht.
Though the German strategists regarded Vimy Ridge as an almost impregnable position, yet in anticipation of an attack by the Canadians, they had taken the precaution to strengthen their position above Souchez Village by constructing a number of concrete and steel forts that would resist almost anything except a direct hit by steel. Also, by means of systematic mine explosions, they had broken up their front, scooping out a series of enormous craters, too wide for any attacking force to bridge.
In event of the Canadians attacking, they would be compelled to creep around the sides of these craters and expose themselves to the direct fire of thousands of machine guns cleverly hidden in the German zone. Behind the lines, in numerous concrete and steel forts there were hundreds of heavy guns emplaced, each one having the exact range of some point of enemy approach. Hiding in rock-roofed caverns, that in the long ago had served as a place of refuge and worship for the proscribed Huguenots, there were 40,000 Bavarian soldiers, outnumbering the Canadians two to one.
Three weeks before the day set for the attack, a systematic artillery assault on the German lines was opened in earnest. The British had assembled an enormous number of heavy guns to deliver the blow. New shells were used, armour piercing and delayed fuse-action shells, which penetrated 20 feet and more into the earth, blowing up deep dug-outs. Day by day, every roadway was searched and every suspected dump shelled. So intense was the British bombardment, that for several days the Germans found it impossible to bring reliefs or food up to their front lines.
During the afternoon and night of April 8th, the Canadian troops moved forward to their front line. The plan of battle had been carefully explained to every soldier. For weeks they had been drilled over dummy trenches, constructed in perfect replica of Vimy Ridge. Each man knew where he had to go and what he had to do. He knew the exact location of the dug-outs that he was expected to bomb. Besides his rifle, his bayonet and 120 cartridges, each soldier was to carry either a pick or shovel, four hand grenades, two sand bags, two airplane flares, a Verey light, a candle, a box of matches, and two days' rations.
The Plan of Attack
The attack on Vimy Ridge was planned as a succession of rushes. Four imaginary lines had been drawn, designated as the Black, Red, Blue and Brown. In the wake of a barrage, the first Canadian column was to advance as far as the Black line and then dig in, while "moppers up" were to search the land they had overrun, blowing up German dugouts and disposing of any German found hiding there. In rapid succession a second column was to go through the Black line and attack the Red line, a third column through the Red line and attack the Blue line, and so on to the final assault on the Brown line. Every step was exactly timed; so many minutes were allowed for capture of the Black line, pause of two hours after the Red line was taken, and a rest of one and a half hours on the Blue line. In all, eight and a half hours were allowed for the whole operation. After the last German position had been taken, the patrols were to push forward into the valley beyond.
British Guns Start Pandemonium
On the eve of the battle, a lively blizzard of sleetish snow set in; it was bitter cold and the Canadian soldiers were drenched to the skin as they stood waiting in their trenches. When Easter Sunday dawned, the whole field of battle was one mass of beating rain and snow, driven before the wind. Zero, the hour for the beginning of battle, was 5.30 A. M. Exactly to the second, 1,000 British guns opened fire, creating a pandemonium never imagined before. The whole front seemed lit up with a sheet of flame. The terrific gunfire was especially directed against the concealed German battery positions, which had been located during the previous days. Great concrete blocks were hurled aside like children's toys; steel doors were warped and bent, as though a giant had shaken them.
Some of the British guns were firing to cover all points of communication at the rear, and some were maintaining a standing barrage; other guns laid a rolling barrage, which moved forward in average leaps of 100 yards. Under the action of the explosive shells, the entire German front was transformed into a mass of craters and shell holes. So destructive was the British fire that all the German front trenches were eliminated: there remained only broken cupolas and traces of observation posts.
Canadians Go Over the Top
At the prearranged signal, the Canadian 1st Division left their trenches in the wake of the creeping barrage which their gunners were laying, advancing to attack the southern slopes of Vimy on ä front of perhaps a mile. Their final objective was two and a half miles from the British front line. A pall of smoke covered the battle field, concealing many of the deep shell holes, now filled with mud or icy water. Many wounded Canadians, falling into these holes, were drowned in the mud.
German machine guns were positioned everywhere and the Canadian advance proceeded under heavy fire. The intrepid Canadians set out to envelop and bomb these German nests, but in the effort they lost heavily. Of the 16th Battalion, every officer was either killed or wounded. But nothing could keep the Canadians back. If one company was wiped out, another was sent up to take its place. When all the commissioned officers of a company were struck down sergeants were ready to take command. The Black line was reached and passed. Soon the two brigades were on the Red line. Here the opposition stiffened. Isolated groups of Germans fought with the utmost desperation, but they could not shake off the Canadians.
Capture of Farbus Wood
While the Second and Third Brigades were consolidating the position they had won on the Red line, the First Brigade was pushing forward toward the Blue line, which was captured at 11 o'clock. Two hours later the First Brigade had taken the Brown line, on the summit of the Ridge, and the Canadians could now look down on the wonderful plain stretched out on the Northern side of the Ridge, with Douai standing out in the distance, 12 miles away. After the British guns had shelled Farbus Wood, on the Eastern slope of Vimy, the First Brigade descended the hill. Cheering as they ran, the Canadians rushed a line of batteries at the bottom of the wood. The Germans stood resolutely to their guns, firing their last charges point-blank. Before evening the First Division had cleared Farbus Wood and reached the railway beyond.
The Second Division, meanwhile, had met with a mishap. The eight tanks co-operating with this division had failed to penetrate through the deep mud ; not one of them even reached the Black line. The 4th and 5th Brigades, nevertheless, attacked the Zwischen Stellung, a strong German trench line west of Les Tilleuls. This was the indicated Black line. Pushing forward over the shell- pitted ground, with the sleet pitilessly beating in the soldiers' faces, and scarcely able to see a few paces ahead, the 19th Canadian Battalion was briefly halted by a very heavy machine-gun fire. Automatically the Canadian flanks stretched out, enveloping the enemy's machine guns, which were then captured. In this engagement colonels led battalions. The Fourth Brigade quickly occupied the Black line, while the Fifth Brigade pressed forward toward the Red line.
West Kents and Borderers Appear
Now the famous Thirteenth Imperial Brigade—the Royal West Kents and Scottish Borderers—took a hand in the combat. Making their way through Goulot Wood, they captured 200 prisoners, four machine guns and two eight-inch howitzers. Advancing toward their final objectives, they encountered a German artillery nest, the gunners firing at them at point-blank range. One company of Scottish Borderers at once attacked with rifle grenades and Lewis guns, overcoming the German battery and taking four howitzers and five 77-millimeter guns.
The remainder of the Second Division had met with stubborn resistance. Grenadier, Graben and Dump Trenches were held by the Germans in strong force and with many machine guns. Yet these objectives were successively taken and some Canadian battalions penetrated as far as Thelus Village. Many prisoners were bagged in the old Huguenot caves. The stoutest resistance was encountered on the last line of all where the German gunners held their concrete gun positions well, firing point-blank as the Canadians came over the slope. These positions were taken at the point of the bayonet. By early afternoon the Second Division had taken all its objectives and was pushing out its patrols toward the line of villages beyond. Could these positions be taken, the victory would be complete. Unfortunately, their artillery now failed the Canadians. The heavy guns had got stuck in the mud, miles behind, and were consequently out of range. The Second Division was therefore held up at the railway line east of Farbus Wood. The Third Division, meanwhile, after much difficulty, had cleared La Folie Wood and by 9 o'clock reached its final objective on the Red line, but its whole left flank was threatened by a well-placed and active foe.
The Fight on "The Pimple"
The Fourth Division, on the extreme left, lost heavily in attacking a commanding hillock known as "The Pimple," where the enemy had constructed a number of concrete and steel machine gun positions, all camouflaged so cleverly that their presence had not been discovered by the British gunners. From this eminence the Germans directed a devastating gunfire. One Canadian battalion reached its objective, but every officer was killed or wounded ; another battalion lost 60 per cent of its men in a very short time. The blizzard seriously hampered the Canadians, preventing that coordination of attack essential to success. In the slope of "The Pimple" the enemy had concealed themselves in newly dug tunnels, and after the Canadians had charged up to the summit they emerged and attacked them in the rear.
Entire Battalion Wiped Out
Hour after hour the Germans and Canadians fought on, frequently hand-to-hand. Because of the pelting sleet, the Canadians could not keep up with the barrage. Fighting around a nest of craters, they could only grope blindly along. Once, when the 78th Canadian Battalion imagined they had captured their crater positions, and were consolidating, they found that all the terrain, three craters in their rear, was still in enemy hands. Attacked from behind by an overwhelming force, they were shot down to a man. Days afterward the bodies of these heroes were found there.
Canadians at Last Win Vimy Ridge
The 72d Battalion was engaged in the center where all the trenches had been wiped out by shell-fire. Losing all sense of direction in the driving blizzard, the Canadian troops fought on until they struck against the German tram-line which traversed the slope in the direction of Souchez Village. In the fight that ensued, they were slaughtered, more than half of the entire command being killed or wounded. By early afternoon the Fourth Division also was in bad plight. The losses were heavy and there was little to show for them. The men had displayed great gallantry, but the mud, which was very deep at this section of Vimy Ridge, and the unbroken German positions, had proved too strong. The Canadians, nevertheless, were resolved to win, and win they did. Reforming in the afternoon, they renewed the attack and before night drove the Germans over the crest of "The Pimple." Next day another attack completely captured the position.
Vimy Ridge was now completely held by the Canadians and the Bavarian front had been flung back into the scarred field below. The Canadians had paid dearly for their victory, losing 13,000 men in the great attack. The German losses, however, were much greater. It is worthy of mention, that the Stars and Stripes were carried up Vimy Ridge by an American Volunteer, serving in the Canadian ranks.
German Sixth Army commander General Ludwig von Falkenhausen was responsible for the Cambrai–Lille sector and commanded 20 divisions (plus reserves). Vimy Ridge itself was principally defended by the ad hoc Gruppe Vimy formation based under I Bavarian Reserve Corps commander General der Infanterie Karl Ritter von Fasbender. However, a division of Gruppe Souchez, under VIII Reserve Corps General Georg Karl Wichura, was involved in the frontline defence along the northernmost portion of the ridge.
Position of the defending and attacking forces before the battle
Three divisions were ultimately responsible for manning the frontline defences opposite the Canadian Corps. The 16th Bavarian Infantry Division was located opposite the town of Souchez and responsible for the defence of the northernmost section of the ridge. The division was created in January 1917 through the amalgamation of existing Bavarian formations and had so far only opposed the Canadian Corps. The 79th Reserve Division was responsible for the defence of the vast central section including the highest point of the ridge, Hill 145. The 79th Reserve Division fought for two years on the Eastern Front before being transferred to the Vimy sector at the end of February 1917. The 1st Bavarian Reserve Division had been in the Arras area since October 1914 and was holding the towns of Thélus, Bailleul and the southern slope of the ridge.
Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng commanded four attacking divisions, one division of reserves and numerous support units. He was supported to the north by the 24th British Division of I Corps, which advanced north of the Souchez river and by the advancing XVII Corps to the south. The 4th Canadian Division was responsible for the northern portion of the advance that included the capture of the highest point of the ridge followed by the heavily defended "Pimple" just west of the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle. The 3rd Canadian Division was responsible for the narrow central section of the ridge, including the capture of La Folie Farm. The 2nd Canadian Division, which later included an additional brigade from the 5th British Division, was directly south of 3rd Canadian Division and entrusted with the capture of the town of Thélus. The 1st Canadian Division was responsible for the broad southern sector of the corps advance and expected to make the greatest advance in terms distance. Byng planned for a healthy reserve for contingencies that included the relief of forward troops, help in consolidating positions and aiding the 4th Canadian Division with the capture of the "Pimple". As a result, the 9th Canadian Brigade, 15th British Brigade and 95th British Brigade were kept in corps-level reserve.
German foreign intelligence gathering, large-scale Allied trench raids and observed troop concentrations west of Arras made it clear to the Germans that a spring offensive near Arras was being planned. In February 1917, a German-born Canadian soldier deserted to the German side and helped confirm many of the suspicions held by the Germans, providing them with a great deal of useful information. By March 1917, the German forces were aware that a major attack was imminent and would include operations aimed at capturing Vimy Ridge. General der Infanterie Ernst August Marx von Bachmeister, commanding the German 79th Reserve Division, reported in late-March that he believed the Canadian Corps was moving into an echelon formation and were preparing for a major attack. The Germans quickly developed plans to launch a pre-emptive operation, following the adage that the best defence is a good offense, intent on capturing the northern section of the Zouave Valley along the northernmost portion of the Canadian front. Heavy Canadian Corps artillery fire ultimately prevented the Germans from executing their pre-emptive attack.
The preliminary phase of the Canadian Corps artillery bombardment began on 20 March 1917, with a systematic two-week bombardment of German batteries, trenches and strong points. The Canadian Corps paid particular attention to eliminating German barbed wire, a task made easier with the introduction of the No. 106 instantaneous fuse. In addition, only half of the available artillery was committed at any one point in time with the intensity of the barrage expressly varied as to confuse the Germans and preserve some level of secrecy. Phase two lasted the entire week beginning 2 April 1917 and employed the entire artillery arsenal at the disposal of the Canadian Corps, massing the equivalent of one heavy gun for every 20 yards (18 m) and one field gun for every 10 yards (9.1 m). The German soldiers came to refer to the week before the attack as 'the week of suffering'. By the German's own account, their trenches and defensive works were almost completely demolished. Furthermore, German health and morale suffered from the stress of remaining at the ready for eleven straight days under extremely heavy artillery bombardment. Compounding German difficulties was the inability of ration parties to bring food supplies to the front lines. On 3 April, General von Falkenhausen ordered his reserve divisions to prepare to relieve frontline divisions over the course of a long drawn-out defensive battle, in a manner similar to the Battle of the Somme. However, the divisions were kept 15 miles (24 km) from the battlefield to avoid being shelled.
April 9, 1917
The attack was to begin at 5:30 am on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. The attack was originally planned for the morning of 8 April (Easter Sunday), but it was pushed back 24 hours at the request of the French.During the late hours of 8 April and early morning of 9 April the men of the leading and supporting wave of the attack were moved into their forward assembly positions. The weather was cold and later changed to sleet and snow. Although physically discomforting for everyone, the north-westerly storm provided some advantage to the assaulting troops by blowing snow in the faces of the defending troops. Light Canadian and British artillery bombardments continued throughout the prior night but stopped in the few minutes before the attack, as the artillery recalibrated their guns in preparation for the synchronized barrage. At exactly 5:30 am, every artillery piece at the disposal of the Canadian Corps began firing. Thirty seconds later, engineers detonated the mine charges laid under no man's land and the German trench line, destroying a number of German strong points and creating secure communication trenches directly across no man's land. Light field guns laid down a barrage that advanced in predetermined increments, often 100 yards (91 m) every three minutes, while medium and heavy howitzers established a series of standing barrages further ahead, against known defensive systems. During the early fighting the German divisional artilleries, despite heavy losses, were able to maintain their defensive firing. As the Canadian assault advanced, it overran many of the German guns because there was no means of moving them to the rear on account of many of the horses being killed in the initial gas attack.
The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions reported reaching and capturing their first objective, the Black Line, by 6:25 am. The 4th Canadian Division encountered a great deal of trouble during its advance and was unable to complete its first objective until some hours later. After a planned pause, when the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions consolidated their positions, the advance resumed. Shortly after 7:00 am, the 1st Canadian Division captured the left half of its second objective, the Red Line, and moved the 1st Canadian Brigade forward to mount an attack on the remainder. The 2nd Canadian Division reported reaching the Red Line and capturing the town of Les Tilleuls at approximately the same time. A mine explosion that killed many German troops of the Reserve Infantry Regiment 262 manning the front line preceded the advance of the 3rd Canadian Division. The remaining German troops could do no more than man temporary lines of resistance until later manning a full defence at the German third line. As a result, the southern section of the 3rd Canadian Division's was able to reach the Red Line at the western edge of the Bois de la Folie at around 7:30 am. At 9:00 am the division learned of its exposed left flank, as the 4th Canadian Division had not yet captured Hill 145. The 3rd Canadian Division was thus called upon to establish a divisional defensive flank to its north. Although the Germans commanders were able to maintain open lines of communication and issue operating orders, even with swift staff work the tempo of the assault was such that German decision cycle was unable to react decisively
The only portion of the Canadian assault that did not go as planned was the advance of the 4th Canadian Division, collapsing almost immediately after exiting their trenches. The commanding officer of one of the assaulting battalions requested that the artillery leave a portion of German trench undamaged. Machine-gun nests in the undamaged sections of the German line pinned down, wounded or killed much of the 4th Canadian Division's right flank. The progress on the left flank was eventually impeded by harassing fire from the "Pimple" that was made worse when the creeping barrage got too far ahead of the advancing troops. In view of the German defence, the 4th Canadian Division did not attempt a further frontal assault throughout the afternoon. Reserve units from the 4th Canadian Division came forward and once again attacked the German positions on the top of the ridge. Persistent attacks eventually forced the German troops holding the south-western portion of Hill 145 to withdraw, but only after they had run out of ammunition, mortars rounds and grenades.
Towards midday, the 79th Reserve Division was ordered to recapture the portions of its third line lost during the progression of the Canadian attack. However, it was not until 6:00 pm that the force was able to organize and counterattack, clearing the Canadian Corps troops out of the ruined village of Vimy, but not recapturing the third line south of the village. By night time, the German forces holding the top of the ridge believed they had overcome the immediate crisis for the mean time. Additional German reinforcements began arriving and by late evening portions of the 111th Infantry Division occupied the third line near Acheville and Arleux, with the remainder of the division arriving the following day.
April 10, 1917
The British moved three fresh brigades up to the Red Line by 9:30 am on 10 April to support the advance of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Division, whereupon they were to leapfrog existing units occupying the Red line and advance to the Blue Line. Fresh units including two sections of tanks and the 13th British Brigade were called up from reserve to support the advance on the 2nd Canadian Division. By approximately 11:00 am, the Blue Line, including Hill 135 and the town of Thélus, had been captured. To permit the troops time to consolidate the Blue Line, the advance halted and the barrage remained stationary for 90 minutes while machine guns were brought forward. Shortly before 1:00 pm, the advance recommenced with both the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions reporting their final objective. The tank supported advance via Farbus, and directed at the rear of the 79th Reserve Division, was eventually halted by concentrated German fire short of the village. The Canadian 1st and 2nd Divisions were nonetheless able to secure the Brown Line by approximately 2:00 pm.
The 4th Canadian Division made an attempt to capture the northern half of Hill 145 at around 3:15 pm, briefly capturing the peak before a German counterattack retook the position. The Germans occupying the small salient on ridge soon found themselves being attacked along their flanks by continuously reinforced Canadian Corps troops. When it became obvious that the position was completely outflanked and there was no prospect of reinforcement, the German troops pulled back. The German forces were evacuated off the ridge with German artillery batteries moved west of the Vimy–Bailleul railway embankment or to the Oppy–Méricourt line. By nightfall of 10 April, the only Canadian objective not yet achieved was the capture of the "Pimple".
April 12, 1917
The 4th Canadian Division faced difficulties at the start of the battle that forced it to delay its assault on the "Pimple" until 12 April. The “Pimple” was initially defended by the 16th Bavarian Infantry Division, but the Canadian Corps' preliminary artillery bombardment leading up to the assault on 9 April caused heavy casualties amongst its ranks. On 11 April, the 4th Guard Division first reinforced and then relieved affected 16th Bavarian Infantry Division units. The night before the attack, artillery harassed German positions while a gas section of Royal Engineers, employing Livens Projectors, fired more than 40 drums of gas directly into the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle to cause confusion. The defending German troops managed to drive back the initial Canadian assaults at around 4:00 am using small arms fire. The 10th Canadian Brigade attacked once again at 5:00 am, this time supported by a significant amount of artillery and the 24th British Division of I Corps to the north. The German defensive artillery fire was late and too light to cause the assaulting troops great difficulty, allowing the Canadian Corps to exploit wide gaps and break into the German positions. The 10th Canadian Brigade, assisted by snow and a Westerly wind, fought hastily entrained German troops to capture the entire "Pimple" by 6:00 pm.