102 years ago yesterday, on the slopes of Vimy Ridge in northern France, the 4 Divisions of General Sir Julian Byng’s Canadian Corps came of age, and engaged the German Army for the first time as an combined and collective force. As part of General Robert Nivelle’s 1917 spring campaign on the Chemin De Dames, the British were asked to conduct a diversionary action north east of the town of Arras, to help drain and pin down German reserves. Vimy Ridge was the strongest German bastion on the Western Front, the French Army had spent the best part of 2 years trying to take this significant vantage point, they had got close to the objective in 1915 when they held part of the heights before they were pushed back down the ridge. By taking this strategic strong point, it opened up a unlimited view of the Douai plain, allowing the Allies to have a unrestricted view of German activity in the area. On Easter Monday 1917 the men of a young emerging nation, with the combination of mines, concentrated and co-ordinated heavy artillery, improved infantry tactics and a mix of sleet and snow showers managed to take and consolidate Vimy Ridge, this victory created a nation and a legend, but to me personally, it is a combination of previous events and experiences that the Canadians endured that allowed this success to be achieved, and here are a few examples.
The Canadian Corps first arrived at Neuve Chapelle in early spring 1915, but their first baptism of fire on the Western Front was during the 2nd Battle of Ypres on 22nd April 1915. The first poison gas attacks in history had created a massive 4 mile gap in the Allied lines north of Ypres. French colonial troops in terror ran away in absolute terror from the chlorine gas cloud that had slowly enveloped their trenches, drowning and maiming men in their thousands, the newly arrived Canadian Corps managed heroically to plug the gap that had been created, the troops improvised protection by unrinating on their handkerchiefs and wrapping the wet cloths around their faces. They managed to hold and bravely kept the attacking Germans at bay. Many Canadians soldiers died as a result of gas poisoning, and many were maimed for life. As a result, the Germans for the second time in 6 months were contained on the Sailient, it created and forged a reputation that became a legend. The Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner bears witness to the heroism of those men who bore the brunt of the first use of chemicals in warfare.
After the heroism and valour of 1915, early in 1916, the Canadians held part of the Ypres Sailient known as Hill 62, known today as Mount Sorrel, close to Sanctuary Wood, where they held the line during the early summer of 1916. You can see by the photograph below that you have a unlimited view of Ypres and the British positions surrounding the town, the line had to be held in this sector of the Sailient.
But then the First, Second and Third Canadian Division were moved down to the Somme for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September 1916. They replaced the shattered Australian units that had been repeatedly attacking Pozieres and Mouquet Farm on the Thiepval ridge during July and August with very losses. On the 15th September 1916, as part of the British Army’s third attempt to achieve a breakthrough on the Somme, planned under the protection of a creeping, co-ordinated artillery barrage and Tanks that were being tried in battle for the first time, the Canadians attacked towards the village of Courcelette, advancing toward the German trenches, the protective barrage moved through the German defensive positions at timed Intervals, allowing the Canadian soldiers to keep pace under the protective blanket of fire, helping them to achieve and consolidate their objectives. They suffered heavy losses, some due to ‘friendly fire’ but they took the village on the same day, a remarkable achievement given the circumstances, however the main British offensive, which lasted for nearly a week, overall failed to achieve its strategic objectives of breaking through the German defensive system towards Bapaume.
On the 26th September 1916 the Canadians again made a further contribution to the Somme Offensive, elements of the 1st and 2nd Canadian divisions alongside the British 11th and 18th, attacked the German defensive lines between Thiepval and Courcelette, the Canadians were given significant objectives to take, one being the unknown German Regina Trench, just north of the recently taken village. At 2 miles long, it was the longest German Trench line in that area, dug on a exposed reverse slope it was almost identical to the Switch Line at High Wood, it made artillery observation almost impossible, and made life very easy for the German machine gunners, exposing any attacking infantry that came towards them. Having made significant progress, the Canadians were halted at Regina, and as a result during October 1916, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions repeatedly made attempts to break the German strong point, conscequently as a result the Casualty lists became truly appalling, resulting in the loss of over 20,000 men. They also began to run into the newly emerging German Stormtroopers, which were designed to counter and suppress any breakthrough by ruthless counterattack.
The strength of each Battalion in the divisions was severely diminished, having fought through Courcelette and the heavy fighting for Regina Trench. By the end of the month, General Byng had recommended to General Haig that the first three Canadian Divisions should be withdrawn. They were slowly withdrawn, but the Fourth Canadian Division still hadn’t been engaged in serious fighting. They would be used for the first time on the 21st October, they would attack Regina again.
Regina Trench wasn’t taken until 11th November 1916, the Fourth Canadian division had engaged the German defenders on a battlefield that now resembled a shell cratered muddy swamp, the dead lay everywhere, many of the dead were of their own countrymen, killed in previous, futile attacks. Regina had achieved the same notoriety as Pozieres and Delville Wood. But the attacks continued, the last Canadian attack took place on the Somme on 18th November 1916, when Desire Trench, north of Regina Trench was taken and consolidated, the Battle of The Somme officially ended on that day.
The experience of Second Ypres, the Somme and Vimy forged a reputation for the Canadian units, they became one of the most respected and feared elements of the Allied Formations in the Great War. Many of the cemeteries around Courcelette, notably Regina Trench Cemetery, Adanac Cemetery and Courcelette Cemetery itself, bear witness to the heroism and terror endured by the Canadian Corps on the Somme. But the actions at Vimy helped create and cement the Canada that we know today, a modern and independent country proud of its history and willing to embrace the past in order to bring its lesson to future generations, they should be remembered for that for many years to come.
And the Earth Abideth Forever