By Bob Gordon
On the first day of the Canadian Corps’ assault on Vimy Ridge, the three divisions on the right and centre all met with success, gaining their objectives in a timely manner. Moreover, by the standards of the Western Front, they did so with limited casualties. Only the 4th Division on the left flank failed to keep to the timetable.
Of all the divisions, the 4th had the narrowest no man’s land to cross and the closest objective lines to reach. Despite these superficial advantages, they confronted the most difficult assignments tasked to the Canadian Corps on Easter Monday.
Unlike the 1st Division in the south, which advanced four kilometres up a gentle rise, the 4th Division faced a steep climb to the summits of The Pimple and Hill 145, the two highest points on the ridge. Hill 145 was on the right of the divisional front, its capture assigned to the 11th Brigade. The Pimple, 1,500 metres north, dominated the division’s left flank. Accurately the official history notes:
Hill 145, the 4th Division’s principal objective, was the highest and most important feature of the whole of Vimy Ridge. As long as it remained in German hands, enemy watchers could observe all movement in the valley of the Souchez … and its southern offshoot, Zouave Valley, which ran behind the 4th Division’s front. Once taken, however, Hill 145 would afford its captors a commanding view of the German rearward defences in the Douai plain and on the Ridge itself. It was thus a valuable prize.
Cognizant of the importance of these two dominant points, the Germans had spent over two years reinforcing their defences. On Hill 145 the German First Line consisted of two trenches on the forward slope. Two more lines of trenches encircled the summit. Additionally, the defenders were protected by both peacetime mine workings and dugouts (Hangstellung) buried deep in the reverse slope.
According to the official history, The Pimple’s “surface was a maze of trenches, and below ground German engineers had constructed deep dug-outs and tunnels protected in every way that their ingenuity could devise.” The 4th was tasked with capturing the highest, most heavily defended points on Vimy Ridge.
The 11th Brigade’s assault companies that had left the trenches to attack Hill 145 were immediately decimated and the attack dissolved. Withering enfilade fire from The Pimple scythed through the ranks. By the end of the day, the 87th and the 102nd Battalions had both suffered over 300 casualties.
On the left, the 12th Brigade’s assault was also immediately disrupted and momentum was lost. Attacking across lower ground between The Pimple and Hill 145, the leading platoons found themselves wading through mud. Unbelievably, considering the intensity of the bombardment, they confronted a 90-metre section of trenches, machine guns and emplacements that had passed through the inferno unscathed. Finally, as long as Hill 145 held out they endured enfilade fire from machine guns dug in on the Ridge’s northern slopes.
Desperate for a success, divisional CO Brigadier-General Victor Odlum threw the 85th (North Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion against Hill 145 in the early afternoon. It was their first experience of combat and, remarkably, they cleared the summit. Finally, after 1500 hours, divisional HQ could report Hill 145 clear of Germans. In contrast, 20 minutes earlier, General Sir Julian Byng had telephoned the British First Army pointing out the possibility of using a cavalry regiment to exploit the success of his two right-hand divisions.
Along the Canadian lines, day two of the attack consisted of mopping up and consolidation with the 4th being a painful exception. With Hill 145 subdued, the division was expected to turn its attention to securing The Pimple. After the disasters of day one, the assault on The Pimple had to be delayed. The 10th Battalion had been scheduled to put the attack in. Bloodied when it was dragged into the desperate fight for Hill 145, it was no longer available.
On April 12, the fourth day of the attack, the 4th Division finally captured The Pimple and nearby ruins of Givenchy. At terrible cost, days behind schedule, the 4th Division’s battle for Vimy Ridge ended. The exceptional nature of the 4th Division’s struggles demands closer examination.
In The Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, historian Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson places the blame for the 11th Brigade’s failure on the shoulders of the CO of the 87th Battalion, Major H. LeRoy Shaw: “A portion of German trench had been left undestroyed by the heavy artillery at the request of the commanding officer of the left assaulting battalion (the 87th), who hoped to put it to good use when captured. From this position machine-gun fire cut down half the 87th’s leading wave and pinned the right of the supporting 75th Battalion to their assembly trenches.” Nicholson cites the “4th Div. Report on Operations, Appx. “B” to W.D., April 1917” in support of this interpretation.
While the cited document clearly blames an undamaged stretch of trench, it does not identify that as an intentional omission, but rather an error. “The portion involved was about 100 yards in length, and the trench and wire had not been properly destroyed. Either the barrage did not cover this point, or the men did not follow it closely enough.” Simply put, the document that Nicholson refers to does not support his contention that the blame rests with Major Shaw.
The question is further complicated by the research findings of Andrew Godefroy. In his contribution to Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment, he refers to a document found in the personal papers of 11th Brigade CO, Brigadier-General Victor Odlum. Marginalia in Odlum’s hand states: “Requests were made for the heavy artillery to destroy this position on the 8th but in compliance with Brig. General Odlum who hoped to make it his headquarters during the advance, the bombardment was not carried out.” Subsequently, Godefroy asserts, “It appears that Odlum assumed responsibility for the decision not to bombard the German trenches.”
The document Nicholson quotes in blaming Major Shaw actually clearly places responsibility for the division’s hard going elsewhere. “It was finally decided by superior authority that the PIMPLE operation should take place at a date subsequent to that against Hill 145 … It would have been preferable to put in an attack against the PIMPLE at the same time as the other.” The 4th Division’s interpretation held that the plan imposed by “superior authority” was inherently flawed. It places the responsibility further up the chain of command, not down on the brigades and battalions.
Other historians have placed the blame a month before the assault on Hill 145 even occurred. In early March the 4th Division undertook one of the largest trench raids of the war and the only raid to employ gas. It was also uniquely unsuccessful. The gas discharge was deadly — to the raiders. The gas refused to flow up the ridge; instead, much of it moved laterally and wreaked havoc among the erstwhile raiders. It settled in shell holes in no man’s land and poisoned raiders, wounded or seeking shelter from the German counter-barrage, when they sought protection in them. The raid resulted in heavy casualties with no appreciable benefits. This apparently plausible explanation does not hold up under detailed scrutiny. [For the most part,] the battalions that suffered the worst during the gas raid were not engaged in the initial assault on Vimy Ridge. They were not principle actors in the debacle that Easter Monday became for the 4th Division.
Interestingly, Major Michael Boire finds the roots of the 4th Division’s failure underground. The original plan of attack called for the detonation of a large offensive mine underneath the defences of The Pimple at zero hour. Its purpose was twofold. With The Pimple scheduled for assault on the second day of the attack, the mine was intended to destroy its defences and kill its defenders. [Immediately,] it was intended that the explosion of the mine would eliminate long-range machine-gun fire from The Pimple, augmenting the defence of Hill 145 to the southeast during the initial assault on that position.
Unfortunately, despite Herculean efforts, the tunnellers had come up short. On Easter Monday, their tunnel was 30 metres short of the objective. Consequently, no mine was laid and throughout the attack the Canadian troops on the northern, western and eastern slopes of Hill 145 were subject to long-range machine-gun fire from The Pimple. Wading through mud in the valley between the two promontories and clawing their way up the steep slopes of Hill 145, the Canadian infantrymen were subject to shattering fire from The Pimple.
The large section of undamaged trenches coupled with the inability to counteract defensive fire from The Pimple condemned the 4th Division to the hardest and longest fight of the battle for Vimy Ridge. While Hill 145 was eventually subdued on April 9, success of the plan required the deployment of the troops committed to assault The Pimple on April 10. Consequently, The Pimple was not fully occupied until April 12, two days later than the plan called for and three days after the other three Canadian divisions had reached the Brown Line, their final objective.
Regardless, with the occupation of The Pimple on Thursday, April 12, the Canadian phase of the larger Battle of Arras drew to a close. It was undeniably an astounding victory, at a cost of 10,602 casualties, a fraction of the number suffered during previous unsuccessful attacks.
In the ensuing century, the Battle of Vimy Ridge has been elevated to mythic status in the Canadian psyche. Boundless hyperbole has seen popular historians declare it the birth of the nation, akin to, or even greater than, the Royal Proclamation (1763), the British North America Act (1867), or the Statute of Westminster (1931). Undeniably, it is more widely known than the three, with the possible exception of the British North America Act. According to historian Andrew Godefroy, “Canadians consider Vimy Ridge an icon of national achievement.”
While this is all well and good, in the wider framework of the First World War, the battle must be placed in the proper context and granted only its due importance and influence. Simply put, and with awareness this assessment may provoke anger, it was a relatively minor engagement, only one part of the overall offensive known as the Battle of Arras.
North and south of the Canadian Corps, 23 British divisions also were involved. On a total frontage of over 40 kilometres, the Canadian Corps was responsible for only seven kilometres. In total, Imperial forces suffered approximately 160,000 casualties of which approximately 10,600 were Canadian. In terms of the larger Battle of Arras, the Canadian Corps was responsible for 16 per cent of the offensive frontage and suffered 15 per cent of the total casualties. The Canadian Corps attack on Vimy Ridge was only one small part of a larger whole.
Furthermore, the capture of Vimy Ridge did not play any part in a significant strategic shift in the war. The Battle of Vimy Ridge did not lead to the breakthrough that the generals had been dreaming of since the spring of 1915. Four months later, the Canadian Corps was still struggling to cross the Douai Plain and capture Lens, less than 10 kilometres north of the Canadian front line when the first wave went over the bags on Easter Monday morning. The stunning, but local success of the Canadian Corps had little impact on the course of the war.
Significantly, in 1922, former Canadian Corps CO Sir Arthur Currie informed veteran A.C. Macdonnel that Vimy was categorically not the most important battle the Corps fought. “We fought other battles where the moral and material results were far more reaching than Vimy’s victory. There were other battles also that reflected to a greater degree the training and efficiency of the Corps.” He continued, Vimy “did not call for the same degree of resource and initiative that were displayed in any of the three great battles of the last hundred days — Amiens, Arras, Cambrai.”
The overall Allied strategic plan for 1917 foresaw the Imperial offensive around Arras (including the assault on Vimy Ridge) drawing German reserves into the battle. A subsequent French attack to the south, launched on April 16 along an 80-kilometre front, would then punch through the weakened German lines and achieve a decisive breakthrough, reintroducing mobility to the static slogging match that had persisted since the fall of 1914. It is reported that the French commander-in-chief, General Robert Georges Nivelle, boasted, “The German Army will run away; they only want to be off.” He even predicted that the French offensive would end the war.
In fact, the French offensive was a miserable failure. Casualties far exceeded Nivelle’s predicted 10,000 — they were greater than 100,000 on the first day alone. The optimism with which the French troops entered the battle quickly soured. Mutinies, beginning with the French 2nd Division’s refusal to follow orders to attack on May 3, quickly spread throughout the French armies on the Western Front. Nivelle’s war-ending offensive actually destroyed the combat effectiveness of French forces for the remainder of the year.
Without diminishing the extraordinary achievement of the Canadian Corps, but keeping in mind the Allied strategic plan, the battle of Vimy Ridge had little impact on the course of the war. In an industrial war that mass-produced casualties, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was but a blip on the screen. It was widely celebrated not because of its significance, but rather for the reason that it was the lone victory in a spring of failure and disappointment.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was undeniably a Canadian victory. It forced the Germans off of a significant geographic feature. It succeeded where the British and French had previously failed. It realized all of its objectives with far fewer casualties than the previous failed assaults had suffered. It was a single achievement and the first time the Canadian Corps fought an independent action as a whole. All of these points mark it as a major achievement for the Corps. However, it was only one aspect of the larger and largely unsuccessful Battle of Arras. Moreover, it did not lay the groundwork for the anticipated breakthrough, and four months later the Canadian Corps was still slowly slogging its way across the Douai Plain only 10 kilometres from Vimy Ridge’s summit. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was clearly a tremendous victory for the Canadian Corps; its coming out party. However, it was neither a war-ending gambit nor the ‘birth’ of the Canadian nation.