By Bob Gordon
Prior to assaulting the ridge, the Canadian Corps had to dig tunnels, lay pipelines, and stockpile munitions. It was a Herculean effort of logistics.
On January 19, 1917 British First Army Commander General Sir Henry Horne ordered Lieutenant-General Julian ‘Bungo’ Byng, commander of the Canadian Corps, to be prepared to attack Vimy Ridge in the spring. For the first time in the war, the Canadian Corps would fight a separate and distinct operation, with all four infantry divisions together. From right to left, in ascending numerical order, they were to attack up the southwestern slope of the ridge and occupy the summit.
The geography of northwestern France is uniformly flat and low, rising only gradually above sea level. Topographical elements that appear insignificant carry tremendous weight locally. Vimy Ridge is just such a commanding feature. Roughly seven kilometres in length, Vimy Ridge runs from northwest to southeast between Lens and Arras. Even at its highest points Hill 145 — the highest and most important feature of the Ridge and where the Vimy monument now stands — and a bulbous rise at its north end known as ‘The Pimple’ the ridge never rises more than 150 metres above sea level. Yet despite its modest dimensions, it is the highest feature for dozens of kilometres.
The German positions on the summit overlooked the Canadian trenches and many kilometres into the rear of their positions. Sergeant Walter Draycot, serving in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, learned how much the Germans could see from documents captured during a raid. After the battle he wrote home that the Germans “had nearly as accurate description of our trenches as we had; how they were held, and of what strength in men, whether they were in good condition or otherwise, what new work was going on … These facts I discovered by taking a map from a prisoner after a successful raid by our troops.”
The Germans overlooking the Canadians did so from deep and complex fortifications. A Corps appraisal estimated that the ridge was protected by 34,000 metres of fire trenches, 15,000 metres of communication trenches, and over 9,000 metres of barbed wire entanglements.
The Allied war council decided that the first step in their plan for 1917 was a Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. After the Canadian Corps had pushed the Germans off of that vantage point, it would be possible for the British and French armies’ offensives to start. With the Canadian Corps occupying the summit of Vimy Ridge, these attacks would be free from German flanking fire. At the same time, forward artillery observers on the ridge could overlook German movement and direct fire on German installations.
The plan for the Canadian attack was simple. Burst out of the trenches, race up the slope and capture the top of the ridge. The exact same plan that had been tried time after time on the Western Front by armies wearing uniforms of every colour. The Germans had occupied the ridge in October 1914 and fought off a six-division counterattack. In the summer of 1915 the French had suffered 100,000 casualties in a second unsuccessful assault. That fall a British attack had failed despite 40,000 casualties. Altogether 300,000 men had been killed or wounded on the slopes of Vimy Ridge.
Now it was the Canadians’ turn. LGen Byng was determined to succeed. To this end, the preparation phase was meticulous, methodical, and on a scale never seen before. Brigadier Victor Odlum, commanding officer of the 11th Brigade, put it simply: “Our fights are won or lost before we go into them.” Training was undertaken in an entirely new manner and the execution of the plan was to be revolutionary.
The Canadian plan was organized to the last detail. Four objective lines had been identified for the troops. Moving progressively deeper into the German defences, they were known as the Black, Red, Blue and Brown Lines. Times for the assault troops to reach each of these lines and for the next attackers to pass through the previous wave, all coordinated with a creeping barrage rolling forward over the German positions, were precisely scheduled.
The overall artillery plan was the brainchild of Major Alan Brooke, a staff officer on loan from the Royal Artillery. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew McNaughton, formerly an engineering professor at McGill University, was the head of the Canadian counter-battery office (CCBO) and responsible for using Canadian artillery to destroy the German artillery. His counter-battery work was remarkably effective. The Germans had assembled 212 artillery pieces to support the defence of the heights. When the Canadian troops left their trenches on Easter Monday, four out of five German guns had already been destroyed. McNaughton described the exercise as “intense neutralization.”
Moving these millions of shells to the front was only one of the many logistical challenges that had to be overcome. Small arms ammunition, mortar and Mills bombs, as well as wood, concrete and sandbags for endless trench and tunnel construction also had to be brought forward. The 100,000 troops assembled for the attack needed food and water daily as did the more than 50,000 horses with them. Feeding these needs was a huge challenge, particularly when it all had to be done under the watchful eyes of the Germans atop Vimy Ridge.
Daily consumption of 600,000 gallons of water required installation of 70 kilometres of pipeline as well as its maintenance and repair. Even fed and watered, some horses were simply worked to death. Stephen Beames of the Canadian Field Artillery later wrote: “Our wretched, emaciated, starving, shivering horses died as we were forced by swearing, raving provost marshals to flog them into starting heavy loads of shells.” The War Diary of the 1st Canadian Field Artillery Brigade took note of the casualties amongst the horses on Sunday, April 8, the day before the assault: “Many horses died during the past few days owing to so much hauling of ammunition and cutting down of hay and straw ration.” The day after the battle the 3rd Division was so short of horses that officers were ordered to turn their saddle horses over to the Divisional Pack Train to be used as beasts of burden.
The Canadian Corps had entire units devoted to building and maintaining railroads, trenches and tunnels. Foresters and a crude sawmill supplied all the lumber for these projects. Communications required that some 4,200 kilometres of telephone and telegraph wire and 40 kilometres of communication cable be laid. The two months before the battle saw furious construction work ongoing everywhere behind the Canadian front.
Bridging work was undertaken under the command of the artillery. Major Crearer, 11th Field Battery, officer commanding the road construction, handled those duties in the sector of the 1st and 3rd Canadian Field Artillery (CFA) Brigade. On April 4 the brigade’s war diary noted: “Work started on bridges under 3rd Brigade, C.F.A. control on route over trenches in the coming advance.” Two days later it stated: “A standard gauge railway has been built and is now completed up to the 2nd How. (howitzer) Battery. Bridges made and trenches filled in up to 500 Crater …”
Immediately behind the Canadian line, the ground underneath the city of Arras was honeycombed with mines and tunnels. Tunnelling companies expanded these ancient catacombs linking them together and to the Canadian lines. Eventually, the Canadians had constructed a total of 12 large subways leading to the front line. The largest, the Grange, was over two kilometres long with innumerable side passages housing offices, infirmaries, dormitories, and caverns to hold the assault troops. After a tour, Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Sharpe, CO of the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion, described the underground system as “the most wonderful tunnels and dugouts … There is room here for a small tramway and it is entirely electrically lighted.”
Preparing subways and dugouts was a piece of cake compared to the work that other tunnellers had to do. Miners were also excavating deep tunnels more than 20 metres underground beneath the German defensive system. The objective was to excavate large caverns under the German defences, fill them with explosives and detonate huge land mines in conjunction with the attack. Other blind saps stopped just short of craters in no man’s land. When the attack commenced, they were to be blown open thereby providing the assault troops with direct, protected access to no man’s land.
The infantry assault troops had weaponry only slightly advanced from the disastrous fall battles on the Somme. However, the Corps was entirely reorganized before Vimy. The platoon of approximately 30 men became the basic combat unit. It was diversified to include riflemen, rifle-grenadiers, bombers and Lewis machine-gunners who used their various weapons in combination to suppress German fire and destroy machine guns and strongpoints.
The Corps also trained in an entirely different way. The level of openness was astonishing to experienced officers. Captain Ian Sinclair of the 13th Battalion recalled: “Troops throughout the ranks knew their objectives, the objectives of the units on their flanks, and the overall goals and scheduling of the offensive. They were encouraged to learn and rewarded for it.” They studied aerial photographs and maps. They looked at Plasticine models of the Ridge.
Safely behind the lines near Servins, they walked over fields with German trenches and positions marked on them exactly where they were known to be. “We got to know every part of that front,” Private Percy Twidale, a long-serving member of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion told an interviewer decades later, “which was a great help on the day of action.” Captain Sinclair concurred, noting that “Everybody down to the lowest Private knew exactly what the plan was from beginning to end … The timetable was clear to all involved.” At the time, an unheard of 40,000 maps were prepared and distributed to every officer and NCO involved in the operation.
Abandoned were the wave tactics employed on the Somme in 1916, when poorly trained troops of Kitchener Army’s advanced in lines, like automaton, only to be cut down by German machine-gun fire. Brigadier Griesbach of the 1st Brigade issued brigade orders on March 24, 1917 specifying that, “As long as an enemy machine gun is firing, it is clear that our people cannot advance in any sort of formation, and they must instead advance in short bounds or by stealth.” Byng concurred. He ordered his officers to fight “with the discipline of a well-trained pack of hounds. You find your own holes through the hedges. I’m not going to tell you where they are. But never lose sight of your objective. Reach it in your own way.”
By Monday, April 2, the final phases of the preparations were underway. The barrage that had gone on sporadically for weeks suddenly erupted with a new level of fury. In the week before the attack 50,000 tons of high explosives fell on the German defenders. The Canadian guns fired almost continuously. On occasion literally melting their gun barrels, they fired one million shells. So many, with such devastating effect, that the Germans on the receiving end named the period Woche des Leidens (the week of suffering).
“Once again trebled is the raging hurricane of fire,” one Bavarian soldier wrote in his diary. “The thunder of the heavy guns drowns any other noise. The rumble of the unparallelled storm is deeper now than the Somme.” Another experienced German soldier noted, “My dugout is four metres under the ground, but yet is not quite safe from the British who bombard us like the very devil.” Yet another wrote: “Men are constantly being killed and wounded.”
A German general staff account of the battle quoted an unnamed soldier: “What the eye sees through the clouds of smoke is a sea of masses of earth, thrown up and clouds of smoke rolling along … spitting fuses, slow burning gas shells, exploding trench mortars …” He also identified the psychological strain it imposed: “How long did this nightmare last? The sense of time seems intensified so that every second is divided into one hundred moments of fear.”
The bombardment was fiercer, and more accurate, than any that had preceded earlier battles.
On the Canadian side of the lines reports on artillery fire recorded in war diaries were workmanlike. “Weather fair and warm. All wire suspected is engaged, some 3,800 rds. expended by our 18 Pdr. Batteries. 4.5” Hows. busy on Trench Destruction. At 8 P.M. our Heavies put up a very good trial barrage. No hostile shelling of any extent during the past week.” By Easter Sunday, April 8, 1917 all of the preparations for the attack were complete.
Next month: The attack begins. After months of planning and preparation the Canadian Corps goes over the bags on a snowy, sleety Easter Monday morning.