Easter Monday 1917
Rising out of the western edge of the Douai Plain in France, roughly halfway between the devastated fields of Flanders and the equally mangled Somme battlefields is a lozenge-shaped escarpment known as Vimy Ridge. Captured by the Germans in 1914 and subsequently fortified, this barrier cost 100,000 French lives in 1915 in failed attempts at its recapture. The British tried the next year, and although their tunneling companies would force their opponents to abandon their own mining operations, the ridge still "belonged" to German forces in early 1917. The new French Commander, Robert Nivelle, designed what he argued would be the decisive battle of the war featuring a main-thrust north through the Chemin-des-Dames region after a diversionary attack by the British Army to the northwest near Arras. The British assault area included Vimy Ridge, the capture of which was assigned to the Canadian Corps of their First Army.
For the first time, the four Canadian Divisions would act in unison attacking the crest of Vimy Ridge and its two highest points Hills 135 and 145. After the previous failures of the Allies in capturing the position, both French General Nivelle and British General Haig were skeptical about the chance for success. The Canadians had other ideas.
Training and preparation were critical. Much of the actual training for the attack devolved on Major General Arthur Currie, the former Victoria realtor who commanded the Canadian First Division. It has been said that no Allied operation on the Western Front was ever more thoroughly planned. Historian Bill Rawlings notes: "Every man saw the ground over which he would have to attack; his objective was pointed out to him as well as the places where he might expect resistance and check." Innovative methods were also sought out. Gunner Major Andy McNaughton sought out ways to microphones along the front to make counter-battery fire more effective. Brigadier Raymond Brutinel conceived indirect-fire techniques, allowing his machine gunners to interdict road traffic in the enemy's rear.
As battle preparations continued, so did the trench raids - oftentimes costly, but nonetheless invaluable in picking up enemy Intelligence. Not every raid was successful either. On March 1st the use of gas backfired due to shifting winds, the raid proceeded nevertheless and 687 men became casualties. So great was the carnage that the Germans offered a truce, allowing the Canadians to bury their dead lying out in No Man's Land.
By four o'clock on Easter Monday morning, 9 April 1917, all units were in position. Preliminary artillery had been firing since March 20th, but at 5:30 am, the deafening thunder of nearly a thousand guns and mortars rocked the heavens and earth. Once out of the trenches, the attacking Canadians threaded their tortured way through shell holes and battered wire entanglements. By 6:15, just 45 minutes after zero hour both the First and Second Divisions had reached their first objectives. To their left the Third Division was charging ahead, but were caught in the flank by German machine gunners. Their supporting Fourth Division had been slowed by intense fire from Hill 145 which had a commanding position. By 6:00 pm much of the Ridge had been secured, but not Hill 145. Entire assaulting units were annihilated, but the Fourth Division, the least experienced Canadian formation, persevered. By mid-afternoon the next day, 10 April, the position was finally captured. The battle on the left continued until the capture of the final German strong point on the Ridge, known as the "Pimple", on 12 April.
Although the Nivelle Offensive is known as one of the great failures of military history, Vimy Ridge was an extraordinary and unexpected victory. Not a victory without great cost - the Dominion suffered 10,602 killed and wounded, but many believe that it was on Vimy Ridge, in France, that Canada became a nation. Almost every family in Canada was effected by this battle. In a way it carries the same emotional weight for Canadians as Gettysburg does for Americans. My father Robert J. Kennedy was a gunner there. His brother Thurlow (in the Second Division) was wounded there on Easter Monday, April 9, the same day Robert was Mentioned in Despatches. A second cousin, Marvin Kennedy of Peterborough, who was with the 1st Canadian Rifles (Saskatchewan Regiment, Third Division) was killed the following day. (Another cousin George Kennedy of Montreal, who had been with the 19th Bn (Central Ontario Regiment) had died of wounds on September 14, 1916.)
Learn more about the Battle for Vimy Ridge at these web sites:
For King and Country