Occupation of Vimy Ridge gave either side in World War One an especially good view of the locality – Hill 145 at Vimy Ridge was the highest point in the whole area. The strategic value of Vimy Ridge made it a prize possession and from the Allies point of view the German occupation of Vimy Ridge was a major threat to any advance in the Somme region in 1917. Therefore the decision was taken to take Vimy Ridge and the task was given to the Canadians.
The previous three years had seen endless slaughter on the Western Front and the commanders of the Canadians tasked to push the Germans off Vimy Ridge – Generals Currie and Byng – made it their mission not only to be successful but also to have a minimal number of casualties. It was a tall order as the Germans were well dug in and were experienced soldiers.
Vimy Ridge has become famous for its tunnels. These had a two-fold purpose. They were used as underground protection for the Canadian soldiers as they moved to the frontline. However, they were also used for the placing of huge underground mines beneath the German trenches. In theory, if the plan of Currie and Byng worked, the Canadians could advance to the German trenches while the Germans themselves were still recovering from a series of devastating underground mines exploded just before the Canadians advanced.
Recent excavations by Col. Philip Robinson, Royal Engineers (rtd), have found that Vimy Ridge had far more tunnels built than previously believed. In total, Robinson believes that there are about 10 miles of tunnels at Vimy Ridge with the deepest being dug to 100 feet. Robinson also believes that it is perfectly feasible that more tunnels were built but that they have yet to be found. His quest started when a surface narrow-tracked railway line was found that seemed to just suddenly stop. In fact, where it apparently stopped was where it started to go underground but that the entrance had been lost over time.
Robinson, an expert on military tunnelling, believes that a good miner could dig out 20 feet of hard chalk in a day’s shift and the records show that about 1000 miners were needed at Vimy Ridge. The miners faced numerous dangers, especially if the Germans heard them digging towards their trenches. Much of the work that the miners did had to be completed in as near silence as was possible. The Canadians set up special listening spots underground where geophones were used to detect German miners. If any were detected, Canadian miners stopped their work until all danger had gone. They worked in the full knowledge that the Germans were doing the same, so tunnelling was very much a ‘game’ of cat and mouse.
What the Canadians created underneath Vimy Ridge has been described as an underground city complete with kitchens, bedrooms etc with electricity and fresh air pumped down. There were fourteen ‘subways’ built out from the heart of the ‘city’ where the soldiers waited until they were called into action.
While the soldiers were a lot safer underground, the tunnels were not popular with them. Those who survived the battle at Vimy later stated that they recognised the importance of being stationed underground but that the tunnels were not wide or tall enough – many found them too claustrophobic.
Following the disasters that occurred at the Battle of the Somme, Currie and Byng, wanted the battle at Vimy Ridge to be approached with the most modern approach possible.
While artillery had been accurate at the Somme it had not been particularly effective. Poor visibility had meant that spotter aircraft could not observe the damage done (or otherwise) so Allied commanders assumed that the massive artillery barrage had been successful. It proved not to have been. Byng and Currie did not want to make the same mistake. In a seven-day timeframe prior to the infantry assault, one million artillery shells were fired, with Canadian spotters checking that set targets had been destroyed. Shelling was so accurate that the Germans called it the “week of suffering”. On April 8th on the eve of the infantry assault, the Canadians estimated that they had destroyed 83% of the German’s artillery.
The Battle of the Somme had been blighted with junior officers failing to make decisions on the spot. They had been trained to relay information to a more senior officer further behind the lines before a decision was made. For Vimy Ridge, Currie decided that platoon commanders were more than capable of making decisions on the spot as they had an immediate knowledge of what was required there and then. One of the decisive features of the Canadian attack at Vimy Ridge was the speed of decision-making at platoon level. It meant that the Canadians were able to sustain an attack and take decisions on the ground that pushed their advance on. Therefore, the Germans had little time to reorganise their defences. The Canadians also used flash spotting, where three bearings were taken on a target. This gave a very accurate bearing that was fed back to artillery. German machine gun posts – that had proved so devastating at the Battle of the Somme – were easily destroyed by Canadian artillery once they had a bearing to aim at.
As a result of meticulous planning, the Canadians took Vimy Ridge in just four days. As Canadian troops advanced, groups of infantry deliberately stayed behind the main advance to ‘mop up’ any surviving Germans who had not been killed by the initial advance. Such a tactic gave those in the front line confidence, as they knew there was little chance of any Germans attacking them in their rear.
The victory at Vimy Ridge was the first major Allied victory in eighteen months and it cost the Canadians just 3,600 dead and wounded. The victory also gave the Allies a commanding strategic position in the area.