Troops from Canada played a prominent part in World War One. Canada was part of the British Empire in 1914. As a result of this, when Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically at war. Along with other nations in the Empire, such as Australia and India, tens of thousands of Canadians joined the army in the first few months of the war. They along with so many other men had to endure the hardships that came with trench warfare and face the dangers of modern weaponry. Trench warfare was noted for its static nature. Lessons had been learned by the Allies from the failure of the 1916 Somme Offensive and in 1917 a new offensive was planned on German positions around Arras. Canadian troops were tasked with capturing the strategically important Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge was important as it was the highest point in the region. At ten miles long, both Germans and British and French troops had fought for it on several occasions. However, the Germans had maintained their control over the ridge and this gave them a strategic advantage over the Allies in the region.
While there had been extensive planning for the Somme Offensive, there had also been a number of planning shortfalls. One of these was the simple expectation that the whole-front attack would work and nothing was built into the plan about what to do if the plan failed. The answer to the first day’s failings was to simply launch further attacks the next day and for weeks and months after this. At the end of the Battle of the Somme, the Allied high command recognised that its armies could not sustain such casualties again. Therefore the planning for the 1917 offensive was as tight as was possible and was coupled with a great deal of training.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge started on April 9th 1917 and it was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps operated together as one unit. Prior to the attack, the Canadians had trained extensively and used large-scale models of the trench systems that the Germans had built along the ridge. While trenches gave troops some degree of shelter and protection, they were an obvious scar on the landscape and could be easily seen by reconnaissance aircraft. Hence why the Canadians had a very good idea where the German trenches were and where their supply lines fed into them. Tunnels were also dug underneath German frontline trenches. The ends of these tunnels were packed with explosives, which were exploded immediately before the attack by the infantry took place.
Some Canadian troops were also housed in tunnels dug underground for their safety. These became their living space prior to the battle. These tunnels still exist as do the carvings on the tunnel walls made by the troops to their loved ones. These tunnels had water piped to them and electricity. However, in letters posted home before the Battle of Vimy Ridge it is clear that some Canadians were not keen on their home prior to the battle as they complained of feeling claustrophobic.
Before the battle started, German positions were bombarded by one million artillery in what the Germans called “the Week of Suffering”. This artillery bombardment had been planned by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew MacNaughton. He helped to develop new ways to detect German artillery guns. When they fired back in retaliation, MacNaughton used new optical and acoustic techniques to detect where these guns were and once he had decided on their position, he ordered an artillery barrage on that position to devastating effect.
The planning and training for the battle paid dividends. An accurate rolling (creeping) barrage gave cover to the first wave of Canadian troops. This first wave was tasked with going passed the first line of trenches and pushing ahead with the attack. The follow- up of Canadian troops was tasked with clearing out the first trench system. By using this form of advance – the first wave pushing passed a trench system, which had been thrown into disarray by the attack, and leaving the enemy in those trenches to the next wave that arrived almost immediately – the Canadians pushed right through the German positions on Vimy Ridge.
The highest point of Vimy Ridge was called ‘Hill 145’. This heavily defended position was captured just one day after the start of the attack – on April 10th. On April 12th, the Canadians captured ‘The Pimple’, another high point on Vimy Ridge. Shortly after this, the Germans withdrew two miles from Vimy Ridge. By the standards of the Western Front – bogged down by static warfare for months on end – this was a huge achievement. However, the area had been heavily defended by the Germans and the Canadians suffered heavy losses of 10,602 men (more than a third of the attacking army) with 3,598 killed.
Four Canadian soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery at the battle: Private William Milne, Private John Pattison, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton and Captain Thain MacDowell. All four were credited with capturing German machine gun positions.
More than 600,000 Canadians fought in World War One with 60,000 killed and 170,000 wounded. In recognition of the part played by Canadians during the war, Canada had its own representatives at the Treaty of Versailles and while Canada remained a part of the British Empire, the Canadian delegation signed the treaty as a separate nation.