Vimy Ridge: April 9, 1917 – April 12, 1917 It is the 105th anniversary of a victory that put Canada on the international map


It was the 105th anniversary this past Saturday to Monday for that amazing victory at Vimy Ridge. It was this operation which was largely a Canadian show that made France, America, and Germany accept Canada as a nation among the nations and not just a British colonial puppet. It was the heavy lifting and dying of those British Columbian, Prairies, Upper Canada, Lower Canada (Quebec) and Maritime men whose symbol was the Maple Leaf did there between April 9th to the April 11, 1917 that gave her government a seat at the table at Versailles with both French and American insistence. (the French were opposed to granting Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa seats because they feared that they would be British puppets, but the Canadians were not seen in the same was. Canada spoke up for Australia and in the end the French acquiesced to allowing them all joining in at Versailles)


This is a very important anniversary for all Canadians and should be given the respect equal to Remembrance Day, as we Newfoundlanders used to do with July 1st. I can't understand why every Canuck has not gone to see Vimy; whatever people say about Canada is mostly a projection reflecting their interests. But Vimy is the place where what Canadians did make the other major nations recognize that we were a nation who although a lightweight performed like a heavyweight contender. Very few things since placed us on the map like Vimy did. It and our role in WWII placed us in the G7 even though there are bigger economies than ours. Why?

Because Canada did the heavy lifting equal if not stronger than many other major countries when it really counted. Here in Canada, we have taught our young that we were just a small part of a team; our allies won so we won. Nothing more to think about here folks, now move along, nothing about our unique ingenuity or gritty stamina that marked our people as formidable by both our allies and our enemies. Our enemies noted it far more than any of our allies did! I always get a kick about what Erich von Ludendorff wrote in the German General Staff's journal Militiär Wochenblatt about the Canadians after the war. When you understand what Vimy really was "their major bastion and stronghold, the lynchpin for the whole Western front" then you see why Ludendorff wrote what he wrote, and he wasn't alone. Marshall Ferdinand Foch, the Allied supreme commander, was another who noted their remarkable character that was singularly more substantial than all of our fellow allies, but what startled Foch to keep an eye on that dominion's forces was the April 22nd, 1915, the battle of Kitchener Wood (500 men of the 10th battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force stopped the German breakthrough at St. Julien, the 10th battalion had 75% losses but the Germans lost over 10,000 + trying to use the poison gas cloud to punch through the allied line after the French divisions broke and ran away) . Foch wrote that it was the greatest single act of that war. After Vimy, Foch wrote with glee that with the Canadian Corps as the tip of our spear we will drive the Germans out of France completely!

Nations are not just economies they are much more. It was the 105th anniversary this past Saturday to Monday for that amazing victory at Vimy Ridge. It was this operation which was largely a Canadian show that made France, America, and Germany accept Canada as a nation among the nations and not just a British colonial puppet. It was the heavy lifting and dying of those British Columbian, Prairies, Upper Canada, Lower Canada (Quebec) and Maritime men whose symbol was the Maple Leaf did there between April 9th to the April 11, 1917 that gave her government a seat at the table at Versailles with both French and American insistence. (the French were opposed to granting Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa seats because they feared that they would be British puppets, but the Canadians were not seen in the same way, Canada spoke up for Australia and in the end the French acquiesced to allowing them all joining in at Versailles) (The Germans only agreed to the armistice when it was specified that the Canadians in particular were included). They had concluded after  losing Hill 70 August 1917 where the Canadians mauled two German divisions that they were not British super soldiers they were the Kanadisher Heer and with good reason. By November 1918, the main pressure in the battlefield was coming from the Canadian Corps who took Mons on November 10th, 1918 {the first battlefield in 1914 that the Germans took, it was Canadian and Australian troops that took away everything the Germans had taken on the Western Front. (The German Army itself was called the Deutchisher Heer after Bismarck's unification of Germany in 1872, when the Prussian, Bavarian, Saxony, Württemberg, and Pomeranian armies amalgamated into one. The term Wehrmacht only applies to the period of 1934 to 1945.)

Vimy the ridge was "the singular and mightiest German Stronghold" at that time on the whole Western Front, a 40 sq km (24 miles x 0.7 mile) ridge rising 460 ft over and around the entire countryside, heavily manned one man per metre of frontline with the most complex fortifications of the whole Hindenburg Line. The situation was such that no-one thought a Canadian victory was even possible. The French and British had already lost nearly 300,000 men there, and most of the smart money by the bookies in Atlantic City was on the estimation of how much the Canadians would be bled. (no odds for even taking the fortresses were given, bets were only for how many dead, and it was expected that between 30 to 60 thousand would be lost there) . There was no expectation that Canada would achieve such a resounding victory by clearing the entire ridge in less than three days. The taking of the German bastion made the front page of the New York Times; it bolstered the Yanks who had entered the war the week before to go after the vaunted Prussian Juggernaut with a saucy confidence, as they wrote "if our neighbours Jacques & Johnny can do that, then the Germans ought to be no problem for Uncle Sam". (Uncle Sam learned the hard way the Germans were much tougher than they thought.)

The French had lost over a 160,000 men, (of that 26,000 French Jews) slaughtered in 1915 trying to get that high ground back, as they knew the Germans were mining France's huge coal fields in the valley on the northern side of the ridge. The British had lost 96,000 killed in 1916 trying to take the same ridge. It controlled the whole region, and all the Douai valley where 60% of France's coal reserves were located and Germany was mining those reserves in the captured territory, once the ridge was in allied hands Germany's looting of France's resources came to a stop. It was the first battle that forced serious financial consequences for the Germans, cutting them off from coking coal (metallurgical grade). (with the loss of the French coal, Germany's steel production fell by over 50% in 1918). Vimy Ridge was the first battle in the European theatre which had a serious financial bite that the Germans never expected nor did they ever recover from.

Further in March 1918 when the Germans grand offensive swept back almost all the allied gains, the ridge though surrounded didn't fall and cost the Germans almost 40,000 of their elite storm troopers in the four attempts to seize it from the undermanned Canadian and Australian units in rest and recreation camps holding it's uplands. By June 1918 the Germans were forced to pull back once they saw that the ridge threatened their flank of advance on Paris. They then launched another offensive away from the ridge area, so it would not threaten their supply lines.

The German historians summed it up best. Before Vimy, it was the German army that chose the ground it fought from. After the Canadians, the Germans had to fight on the ground of their enemies choosing. The first catastrophic defeat for the Prussian Army in over 100 years since Napoleon's victory at Jena. Both America and France noticed that achievement and it was apparent at Versailles. After such an achievement, of course a politician could stand on its shoulders and they did many times over.

I visited Vimy Ridge in early November 2003. I went with a couple of guys from the Lano carpet factory in Belgium. The way we came to it was not by the usual route that most people see going to this place. (Most people come to Vimy from the south side from the city of Arras)

Andre, Pierre and I drove down from Kortrijk and came to Douai first, on leaving Douai for Arras we spotted Allward's spires immediately. So we got to see this in the way the Germans would have first seen this country as they marched into France that summer and fall of 1914

On the northern side, the ridge is impressive. It rises 145 m (460 feet) on a 30° incline and it's imposing and quite visible as far away as Lille. On the southern side the slope is about 10° incline a little less foreboding, but still quite a seemly endless trek uphill. The Germans built the most elaborate deep and formidable fortification anywhere on either Eastern or Western front, she was the lynchpin of the Hindenburg Line. Most of the Western front the German army had a density of 1 soldier per 8 m., at Vimy it was one soldier for every meter of front.

I remember the shock Andre and Pierre had when we walked on the terrace behind the Allward's spires. They couldn't get over it. Pierre kept saying over and over "if the Americans would have done this we would have never heard the end of it!" I said to him, Canucks don't believe in boasting, it's that Scottish influence, we don't like swelled heads laddie, and love putting each other in their place.

You can see to the north east the slag heaps of Lens (we know them as Hill 70 and Mount Sorel, Canadians took both of them also about five months after)

I explained to them that Arthur Currie, and Edward Morrison under Julian Byng with their teams started the planning of this at the end of December 1916. Their first step was to make a raid of the German trenches to see how they were constructed. Then the geophysicists from McGill University, Bryce and Sherrit, mapped by sound and seismic surveys where all the German guns and various positions were (kitchens, aid stations, etc). They then coordinated the seismic maps to the aerial photography, identifying exits, then the engineers prepared their trenches, tunnels, and caverns. The Canadian guns were surveyed and placed and secondary gun sites were surveyed. Then the 97,600 Canadian troops, after being trained and exercised in the new tactics, were placed in their jump-off caverns and tunnels. (There were an additional 65,000 British, Scottish, Irish and Welsh regiments under Byng's command there. There were no Newfoundland units there; they were about 15 miles east at Monchy le Preux with the Essex, Sandringham, and Australian regiments at the time and watched the big show with ringside seats.

On April 9th, Easter Monday, 1917 as the area was swept by a dawn snowstorm the 983 guns opened up at 5:30 AM. By 7 AM, over 85% of all the German cannons were obliterated. At 6:20, the troops sprang out from tunnels that had brought them up to within 15 m (50 ft.) from the German trenches some actually opened directly beside German pillboxes and a few tunnels opened behind the second line of German trenches. It was still a long and tough fight; it took two more days before the Germans were driven from the last stronghold known as "the pimple". On the first day, three of the fortresses were penetrated; by the second day the fourth fortress the apex was taken and at dawn, on day three the fifth fortress was overrun and captured.

Before Vimy the smallest tactical unit with a mission for any modern army was the Napoleonic "rifle company" about 120 to 150 riflemen under a 'captain'. Introduced at Vimy was the 'platoon'; a 30 to 35-man unit under a 'lieutenant' that was sub-sectioned into 4 tactical units of eight men the "sections" under NCOs (lance corporals, corporals, and sergeants). The Rifle company needs about 60 yards to deploy from its marching column, the platoon because of its spacing with its 4 sections can literally reorient on a "dime" pivot to a 90 degree attack, or reverse, or attack on two or three prongs simultaneously and because of its smaller size it has more opportunities to exploit the natural cover in the terrain.

Vimy was the first time the German machine gunners encountered very small soldier groups that worked in tandem to hunt down and destroy machinegun nests. While one section would advance and drew fire a section would immediately reinforce the lead section and keep the enemy gunners fixated; another section would set up 2 LAWs (the Light Automatic Weapon, "Lewis Guns") on an acute-angled attack position to lay down fire on the now revealed machinegun position to prevent it's reinforcement, while another section would fan behind to another attack angle. As German gunners would try to shift their gun to deal with either of the other units the first unit would advance then take cover. Usually by the time the German gunners would realize that they couldn't cope with this cat-like hunt by men coordinating in tandem it would be too late and they were in grenade thrower range. It was this tactical innovation and not the "Tank" that really spelled the end of the days of mowing down the advancing enemy companies. (they quickly learned that if you have a machinegun and a Canadian platoon is coming your way, either surrender or run away, because their specialists to get you even with your machinegun.)

Another tactical innovation the Canadians had developed was called the "5th Line". These were platoons that watched the advancing line waves and covered their back. If Germans would hide and try to come up and shoot the troops that had rolled through in the back, which they often did do, when the Germans did try to, they were systematically picked off. Other platoons of the "fifth line" set up ambushes for aircraft that would come into strafe the men on the line, the German air arm lost 24 craft at Vimy to these anti-aircraft platoons.

Baron Manfred von Richthofen, Germany's greatest air ace was wounded by the anti-aircraft platoons at Vimy. He wrote to his brother Lothar that he had seen these new "Britisher uber soldaten" super soldiers and he now knew it was from these men that would eventually kill him. Fifteen months later, Captain Roy Brown of the Ottawa area would shoot him through the heart, while he was stalking his 81st victim Wilfred (Wop) May.

Wop May went on after the war to a fabulous career as a bush pilot in the Canadian north - a hero who saved the Yellowknife population from a diphtheria epidemic by flying in the vaccine under awful blizzard conditions. A few years later, in 1932 he also helped the Mounties get the Mad Trapper of Rat River Albert Johnson, and saved several wounded constables. Roy Brown was broken-hearted in what happened, apparently. He knew Manfred von Richthofen personally. But the Baron had gone after one of his pilots in his squadron and Brown had never lost a pilot under his command; he was not trying to kill the Baron, he tried to warn the Baron off. He attended his funeral and actually arranged for some of his family to cross the lines to attend. Manfred's pilot's seat with one bullet hole sits in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. (After the war others tried to claim they killed the Baron, but Brown was awarded the Victoria Cross for taking out Germany's greatest ace.)

The Baron after the war was exhumed and reburied in the German equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Baron von Richthofen was to the Germans' their nation's martial saint. When the Nazis came to power, the von Richthofen family left Germany and moved to Ontario. Lothar owned a horse farm near Guelph Ontario and his sons served in the Canadian Army during WWII and Korea.

There was another Canadian innovation that paralyzed the Germans and that was Andrew McNaughton's "creeping barrage". This was a new method of synchronizing barrage targeting with the infantry's gait; soldiers called it "the Vimy glide". Their pace was to advance towards the maelstrom of exploding artillery shells. In the past, artillery would "soften up" the German defenses, then lift so the infantry could enter but the delay allowed the Germans to emerge from their bunkers and set up before they arrived, thus catching the advancing troops in the open, (exactly what happened to the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel) a costly gap. McNaughton's "creeping barrage" would move on, but as the Germans came out of their bunkers they found the Canadians standing on their exits with bayonets and grenades waiting for them. The "creeping barrage" required excellent coordination. If the glide was too slow they would be caught in the open ground by the emerging Germans if the glide was too fast they could walk into friendly fire. The success at Vimy was because they had practiced for a full month on a scaled model of the ridge that they were going to do.

Canada defeated the German's intellectually and spiritually, when they took Vimy ridge from Ludendorff and Hindenburg. What is even more important is that the Germans at the time knew this to be true, though publicly they claimed the allies had not obtained the breakthrough. The British First Army claimed the Battle of Arras was for, nevertheless inside the German General Staff they confessed it was "an astonishing Canadian victory" Those 45,000 Germans held five interlinked fortresses and it wasn't like they were not ready for this, now you can see the context where the Canadians suffered 3,600 lives lost and another 7,000 wounded. They managed to capture 4,000 Germans, 30,000 others were blown away and 11,000 retreated off the ridge. The German army known for quick counterattacks didn't! They were so shocked it took them several days to get back to being feisty. All of this happened within a 40 sq. km stretch in almost 3 days. Canada went up there and whapped their asses, smashed up their strongest fortifications, and drove 'em off. And its consequences then was followed quickly by the loss of France's developed mines. They could only look at them but allied artillery on the ridge shut them down and those guns were punishing the enemy the following morning, leaving France, Viva la France.

Further in 1918, the ridge had become a rest and recreation camp area for troops on leave from the front, so the last Canadian troops didn't leave Vimy till 1921. It's still Canadian property today (the Federal government bought all the land and lease it to local farmers, it was a way to help the cash-starved French after the war). When Ludendorff's great offensive began in March 1918 the Germans using the Canadian platoon tactics with their new Storm Troopers quickly retook all the territory the French and British had managed to wrestle away from them in 1917, except Vimy ridge! The 12,000 Canadians and Australians on R&R repelled 4 attempts by these elite squads. That was when the Germans discovered that there were platoons that were experts at hunting and defeating other platoons. What was worse for the Germans was that if they were not keeping those Aussies and Canucks busy fighting them off, The Canadians' did not let the Germans disengage they immediately pursued them down the hill and then they were using the ridge to launch raids on the Germans, the Germans lost about 40,000 of their elite forces that April and May of 1918 and they never retook the ridge.

The effect of the Canadians on the Germans was not forgotten either. In 1940 while the Germans conquered France the British media put out a false story that the Luftwaffe had bombed the Vimy monuments. Hitler was told by the generals that this story can't be ignored, these are men who can really hurt us badly, and we must not antagonize them. So Hitler went with Goebbels and film crews to visit Vimy ridge to prove they had not touched it. Hitler the wannabe artist & architect, was impressed with Walter Allward's monument and thought it was tasteful and respectful, he then ordered the SS to protect it. (Walter Allward, by the way, his father was a Newfoundlander) . It was the only place in Europe where the SS raised Canada's red ensign every morning along with their flag, (French and British flags were never allowed to be raised) [Hitler despised the chauvinism that French and British memorials exhibited and the Germans destroyed a number of their memorials when they thought they displayed contempt for the Huns. The Vimy memorial impressed the Fuhrer with its simplicity and respect for all parties.]

When I went there in 2003 there were no Canadian visitors around that day despite the good weather, the only visitors that day beside us were a bus load of Germans who started following us around. (they kept calling me "Herr Ritter" {German for a Baron or knight!!}) One of the German tourists told me that his father told him that his father said by 1918 to hear that "Kanadisher Heer" (Canadian Army) were in their sector that his whole battalion would be shaking and they knew it was going to get really bad. His father was at Vimy, he said that he managed to retreat off the ridge, but that what they never saw before was when the Canadians captured a cannon they would turn it on them and use the German's own gun on the Germans! the old man told him that this was never done by any of the other allied armies before, they would just tow it away as a trophy. The German said his grandfather said that if they fired at an enemy position, if the response was the usual reply it wasn't Canadians, the British French and Russians would reply with their 75s or 18 pounders or 76.2 mm field guns, if the response was a bigger gun with far more return fire as a reply they knew it was Canadians, plus they were much better marksmen than any of the other armies.

This attachment was sent to me by Andre Revellanger in 2014. the Belgian who went with me to Vimy when I visited their carpet factory. The people of that Kortrijk area were liberated from German rule by Canadian troops in 1944. Canucks are treated with very much respect even today. Andre told me that his father was saved from a German firing squad by two Canadians he knew only as Tom and Mitch from Calgary

When I asked them about how to get to Vimy, Andre called for the company limousine, when the car arrived, Pierre Lano the owner of the factory was driving, (I expected their usual driver Armand) (Pierre was funny, I asked him do you know where it is? oh yes it's somewhere near Douai, only 40 minutes away, after 2 hours of, I know where it is, I know where it is, we finally got there after driving through farmers fields and finally found our way into one of the back parking lots) Andre told me as it is 2014 the hundredth anniversary of the start of that war, that Vimy is now packed with visitors and covered extensively, it's a great location because you can see a significant portion of the whole Western front from the top of that ridge, from the coast at Pas de Calais to nearly Saint Quenten.

Andre told me that aspects of this are now finally being declassified, the local papers said that the Canadians were a totally unique show, 5 divisions came with their own peculiar insolence, their contempt for the British high command actually had the German Intelligence wondering who they were going to attack! The Germans had placed microphones all around and under the ground at Vimy even into areas behind the allied lines, to hear and determine enemy activity, (in 1914 the Germans had held the area over five miles south of the ridge but redeployed as the French came on in spring 1915) (which Currie and Bryce found out in their first raid to check German trench construction on Dec. 24, 1916, it turns out everything they did after the raid set the Germans up for a quick poke in the eye with a sharp stick. They created the "Dumbbells" a theatre group that wrote script for soldier talk, they did not touch the microphones but found them, but every day they gave the Germans a fairly realistic talk of an army planning an operation) { Vimy had the largest concentration of OKW Abwher units (German Army Intelligence) for the whole Western front over 4,000 were French and English speaking who were transcribing everything from the 8,800 microphones, some of them were inside the French and British trenches, (no wonder the French and British got so pasted there!!), When Canadian troopers broke into the central fort they found a large room that looked like an ATT switchboard room, large boards had pictures of their officers their chain of command, and what each battalion had in weaponry. Great care by the allied high command was made to conceal all of this after the war, the British and French were so outclassed it wasn't funny.

Erich von Ludendorff may have looked like it, but he was no typical Prussian Jar head, he didn't become the leader of war time Germany without a lot of competence and talent. He was quite literate, indeed more of an intellectual than most on the General Staff his favourite pass time was reading Julius Caesar in Latin He was not alone to see that these men from the Americas , were not Europeans. Ludendorff told the Kaiser that these Dominion troopers were not like European soldiers, "a private knows his officer's objectives and they are extremely independent", he told the Kaiser that the Canadians and Australians were the best soldiers he had ever seen and that any one was worth thirty Germans. Ludendorff saw in the Canadians "bigness" "even in the lowest ranks, their men were smarter than some of our officers and they walk around with a sharp curiosity" "the land they come from and wrestled with, made cold weather easy for them, they even play on ice! " "the Russian is too melancholic, the Canadians are not, they are shrewd, and much better marksmen" "they have been so abused by their British officers who don't realize what they have, that these Canadians are used to things going wrong, and when they start going well become very suspicious, it has made their worldview undefeatable, to defeat them would be impossible because to the Canadians technology was also at their fingertips." (in the aftermath after internal investigations he was quite aware that the Canucks must have discovered the microphones and they must have been using acoustics, over 8 out of 10 cannons were blown away in the first hour) So Ludendorff wrote in the German war college (Kreigshule) journal the Militiär Wochenblatt in December 1925. "These armies of America are two types, the "Yanks" are cowboys , everything is limitless, they will even attack on Christmas eve! The Canadians are the trappers, they'll exploit Christmas eve, but won't use the time for attack ."By the time you see their main body of men, it is too late, they've already sown the trap" "These Canadian soldiers are the real danger and the best that could be hoped for, is that Canada's people will not allow them to be sent here . We must never provoke this nation to war!" Hitler knew that, he talked with Ludendorff in 1934 offering him a promotion to Field Marshall, Ludendorff dressed him down asking how did he plan to keep Canada out of the war. When Hitler tried to say it would depend on how they treated England, Ludendorff snapped, so, you have no plan, we will not win that war if the Canadians become involved, Hitler responded that, but if we keep the United States from joining. Ludendorff said oh yes the Americans would not join eagerly or quickly but if their next door neighbour Canada is at war with us the Americans will not ignore the situation and when the Canadians start to make battle victories the Americans will not be able to stand it, and they will find a way to enter the war if only from jealousy. If Canada goes into the war you will have lost the war.

Field Marshall Albert Kesselring said after the war "give me a brigade of Australians and I could take Hell , but if you need to take hell and hold it, I would need a brigade of Canadians."

Talk about taking Hell and holding it! In 2003, 3,000 Canadians (almost what Kesselring meant by a brigade) went to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and kept control of the whole Kandahar province and Pan-je-wea saw-tooth mountains till 2014 when they were pulled out. In 2005 to 2012 the Taliban and Pakistani forces tried eight offensives to shake off Canadian control, all of their commanders were hunted down and killed by Canadian snipers, Canada sent 8, M-109As (155 mm guns) to Kandahar and were able to hold the entire 80 km long saw tooth Pan-je-wae mountain range to the edge of Peshawar for the eleven years they were there, the combination of sniper teams in country linked by sat-phone to the Arty and her roaming 20 Leopard II tanks required hardly any air support, accurate death and destruction fell on Taliban and Pakistani INS with no warning sound. (the last three years they refused to attack the Panjewa) within six months after the Canadians leaving the US Marines lost control of the area and the Taliban have been operational in that area ever since.)

In 1937 Hitler invited Prime Minister Mackenzie King to Germany and wined and dined with him. They made a few trade agreements but Hitler with all the charm he could muster could not get King to commit to a non-aggression agreement. Hitler wasn't afraid of Mackenzie King but his generals were terrified of the Kanadisher Heer

Irwin Rommel said the same thing about them 17 years later. He told his son that he had a premonition that the Canadians will get him when his son asked why. There are British and American troops also at Normandy, he responded, no not them, it will be the Canadians. They are their best. Four days later Charley Fox from Guelph, Ontario wounded Rommel seriously and removed Nazi Germany's greatest general from the war.

Larry Riteman, Halifax, NS