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The pride of Canada’s military – Vimy Ridge 100 years later

April 2017

On 9 April 2017, officially dedicated as Vimy Ridge Day in 2003, Canadians across the country and in France attended services to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, an infamous battle fought by the Canadian Corps from 9 to 12 April 1917, a part of the Battle of Arras in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France.

In Barrie, Ontario, a ceremony was held at the Royal Canadian Legion, Dr. W.C. (Bill) Little M.M. Branch #147.  Currently serving military personnel from the Barrie and Canadian Forces Base Borden were joined by Legion members, veterans, cadets from Barrie’s army, navy and air force cadet corps and Barrie residents.

Several wreaths were laid at the base of the Legion’s cenotaph by representatives from Canada’s Parliament, the Ontario Legislature, CFB Borden, Legion Branch 147, the three Barrie cadet corps and Barrie Police.

Taking the parade salute were Major-General (Ret’d) John Hayter, Major-General Glynne Hines (Ret’d) from the Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command and Ken Luttrell from the Barrie branch of the Canadian Airborne Forces Association and a veteran of the First Canadian Parachute Regiment in World War II.

Inside the Legion, was a First World War military display and exhibition in the upper hall.

After the parade, guests were treated to a lecture covering topics such as Simcoe County’s connection to the battle, the British Home Children who fought and died for Canada in WWI and WWII and a new perspective on the Battle of Vimy Ridge by Dr. Andrew Iarocci of the History Department at the University of Western Ontario.

The battle of Vimy Ridge

One hundred years after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, it still serves as a source of pride or Canadians.

While it didn’t have a major impact on the outcome of the war, the Battle of Vimy Ridge is considered by many historians as the turning point for Canada as a nation.  Not only was it the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a battle together, it became a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice.

The Canadian Corps succeeded in capturing and holding the ridge, a seven-kilometre-long heavily fortified ridge, defended by three divisions of the German Sixth Army.  French forces had captured the Vimy Ridge two years earlier, but had been unable to do hold it despite a valiant effort.

Historians have credited the success of the Canadian Corps to a combination of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training, putting them in a better position to achieve their objective than given to the French soldiers.

A unique part of the battle plan, ordered by Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, was initiating an intense training program to better prepare the soldiers.  Small units and even individual soldiers were given information about the battle-plan not usually given out at such a low level, something that helped them to make quick decisions and exercise initiative within the overall battle-plan.

If the officers were killed or wounded, this enabled even low-ranking soldiers to keep the advance moving.  This tactic, a direct result of the lessons Byng learned from the Battle of the Somme, was very important as Canadian artillery regiments utilized a “creeping barrage” assault during the battle, an intense line of artillery fire that moved just ahead of the advancing soldiers at a set rate that was timed to the minute, a tactic developed by Canadian General Sir Arthur Currie.  This gave the defending German soldiers little to no time to emerge from their underground bunkers and get into defensive positions.

The success of the Canadian Corps was made more significant given that the German forces made no attempt to recapture the ridge, even during the Spring Offensive, and it remained under British control until the end of the war.

However, this success came at a high cost.  Over the three days of the battle,   3,598 Canadians were killed and 7,004 were wounded, making it the bloodiest battle of the war to date for the Canadians.

It’s not known the casualties suffered by the German Sixth Army, but approximately 4,000 men were taken prisoner.

In gratitude to Canada, the government of France granted Canada perpetual use of a 250-acre section of the former battlefield at Vimy Ridge in 1922 for the purpose of a battlefield park and memorial.

A monument was built on the highest point of the Vimy Ridge, designed by Toronto architect and sculptor Walter Allward, as a memorial to the Battle of Vimy Ridge and to the soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force killed during the Great War.  Construction began in 1925 and took eleven years to complete.

The monument sits on a foundation bed of 11,000 tonnes of steel-reinforced concrete, and twin pylons containing almost 6,000 tonnes of Seget limestone, stretching into the sky above the ridge.  Sculptors carved the 20 human figures on site from large blocks of stone along with the names of the 11, 285 Canadian soldiers killed in France during World War I who have no known grave.

The grounds of the site are still honeycombed with wartime tunnels, trenches, craters and unexploded munitions, and are largely closed off to the public.

During construction of the monument, Major Unwin Simson, the principal Canadian engineer during the construction noticed that the trenches and tunnels were beginning to deteriorate.  Simson took measures to reinforce and protect the trenches and tunnels by rebuilding sections of the sandbagged walls on both the Canadian and German sides of the Grange crater group with concrete and installing electric lighting in the Grange Subway.

The monument was officially dedicated by King Edward III on 26 July 1936 in the presence of French President Albert Lebrun and 50,000 or more Canadian and French veterans and their families, including Canadian Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe.

The legacy of Vimy Ridge also includes the heroism of the soldiers of the Canadian Corps.  Four Canadian soldiers won the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration in British and Commonwealth militaries for valour in the face of the enemy, for actions during the battle:

Private William Johnstone Milne of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion, died during the first day of the battle.

Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton of the 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion, died during the first day of the battle.

Private John George Pattison of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion, survived Vimy but died 3 June 1917 in Lens, France.

Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell of the 38th (Ottawa) Battalion, the only VC winner from Vimy to survive the war.  He died on 28 March 1960.

Among other bravery awards presented in the wake of the battle such as:

Métis sniper Lance-Corporal Henry Norwest won the first of his two Military Medals for bravery at Vimy Ridge, a Level 3 Gallantry Award that is awarded to personnel below commissioned rank and 10th in order of precedence of bravery decorations.  He survived Vimy but was killed on 18 August 1918 the battle of Amiens.

Major Samuel Kenyon Lount, serving with the 76th Battalion, but originally with the 35th Battalion, The Simcoe Foresters of Barrie, Ontario, was awarded the Military Cross, the 4th in order of precedence of gallantry decorations in the presence of the enemy, after leading around a company of 200 men that seized German guns.  He survived the war and returned to Barrie.

Photos of the decorated soldiers:

Sources:  http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/land-battles/vimy-ridge, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/first-world-war/fact_sheets/vimy, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vimy_Ridge, http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/people/in-uniform/first-nations-soldiers, http://www.simcoe.com/news-story/7215194-remembering-vimy-ridge-simcoe-county-residents-honouring-key-canadian-battle.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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