Why Canadians Revere the Battle of Vimy Ridge: April 9, 1917
Sunday, April 9th will be the 100th Anniversary of the assault on Vimy Ridge in the Nord-Pas-de-Calaise and Arras region of France. On a snowy, Easter Monday morning, for the first time in the Great War, four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force attacked a fortified German position as a fighting unit. When the day was barely halfway through the main German stronghold on the top of the ridge had been taken and its defenders killed, captured or fleeing in disarray.
The main reason that that a Battle of Vimy Ridge was such a crucial victory for the Allied forces is that it was the first time since the Battle of the Marne, in September 1914, that the powerful German army had suffered a defeat. There are also claims made by some historians that, had the British HQ been ready to take advantage of exploiting the successes of the Canadian assault, the German armies in Flanders, further north, might have been cut off and the war may have been shortened. This is pure speculation but it is true that the British commanders did not believe that “mere colonials” could achieve what they and the French could not. In fact, the French had lost 150,000 men in successive attempts in 1915 to capture and hold the ridge. It is somewhat ironic that the unit that held the ridge for a brief time during these assaults was the 1st Moroccan Division, another colonial group. However, the Germans counterattacked and lack of French reinforcements caused the North Africans to retreat.
The main stronghold was taken before noon on the 9th but successive skirmishes in the Arras area ended at dusk on the 12th. The Canadian Corps suffered 10, 602 casualtiies of which 3,598 were killed. Accurate German casualties are unknown but 4,000 were taken prisoner. The British remained in control of the ridge for the rest of the war but the victorious soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force distinguished themselves in further campaigns such as Passchendale, Amiens and Cambrai. The last Allied soldier to be killed in battle in the Great War was a Canadian, Private George Price, a member of the 28th Battalion attacking the Belgian town of Mons, on November 11, 1918, a few minutes before the Armistice. Mons was where the British first fought against the Germans in late August of 1914. It was also their high-water mark because a lack of heavy guns forced the small British Expeditionary Force to retreat, fighting a rearguard action until the Germans were finally stopped at the Marne in September 1914 with help from the French. This is when both sides, exhausted form two months of vicious fighting, dug in for the brutal trench warfare that was to last until mid-1918.
Although Canadian units had performed extremely well in previous battles, especially in the 2nd Battle of Ypres in Belgium, capturing Vimy Ridge was Canada’s “coming out party.” Having received its independence from Great Britain exactly 50 years before did not make Canada a completely sovereign nation. Canada’s foreign policy was handled in London and much of its civil service and industry was controlled by British interests. Like the Australians the people of Canada were treated like younger brothers and sisters of the mother country.
The victory on Vimy Ridge was not only celebrated in Canada but American newspapers and, as well, the press in Britain and France extolled the amazing feat. After the euphoria died down, however, many British war historians, some of who were friends of the British commanders, did not give the battle much credence in their books burying the Canadian victory in “the British victory in the 1st Battle of Arras."
After 100 years the Great War veterans are all gone and, like most events in history, the war itself might have been forgotten. However many Canadian historians including writer Pierre Berton believed it was the defining moment in Canada’s history. Canadians pay homage to the its role in the Great War every November 11th by gathering at obelisks and memorials across the country. It was around these hundreds upon hundreds of cenotaphs that pre-World War II citizens gathered to remember the 66,000 Canadians who died out of 658,000 who served. This 1 in 10 ratio was the highest casualty rate of any country who participated, much higher than the 44,500 men and women Canada lost in World War II.
The casualties of the Second World War, Korea, Afghanistan and the peacekeeping missions are added to these weathered symbols of sacrifice.