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Battle of Vimy Ridge


The Battle of Vimy Ridge was part of the Battle of Arras, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, during the First World War. The main combatants were the four divisions of the Canadian Corps in the First Army, against three divisions of the German 6th Army. The battle took place from 9 to 12 April 1917 at the beginning of the Battle of Arras, the first attack of the Nivelle Offensive, which was intended to attract German reserves from the French, before their attempt at a decisive offensive on the Aisne and the Chemin des Dames ridge further south.

Historians attribute the success of the Canadian Corps to technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training, as well as the inability of the 6th Army to properly apply the new German defensive doctrine. The battle was the first occasion when the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together and it was made a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice. A 100-hectare (250-acre) portion of the former battleground serves as a memorial park and site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

On 28 May 1916, Byng took command of the Canadian Corps from Lieutenant-General Sir Edwin Alderson. Formal discussions for a spring offensive near Arras began, following a conference of corps commanders held at the First Army Headquarters on 21 November 1916. In March 1917, the First Army headquarters formally presented Byng with orders outlining Vimy Ridge as the Canadian Corps objective for the Arras Offensive. A formal assault plan, adopted in early March 1917, drew heavily on the briefings of staff officers sent to learn from the experiences of the French Army during the Battle of Verdun. For the first time the four Canadian divisions would fight together. The nature and size of the attack needed more resources than the Canadian Corps possessed; the British 5th Division, artillery, engineer and labour units were attached to the corps, bringing the nominal strength of the Canadian Corps to about 170,000 men, of whom 97,184 were Canadian.

The plan called for units to leapfrog over one another, as the advance progressed, to maintain momentum during the attack. The initial wave would capture and consolidate the Black Line and then push forward to the Red Line. The barrage would pause, to enable reserve units to move up and then move forward with the units pushing beyond the Red Line to the Blue Line. Once the corps secured the Blue Line, advancing units would once again leapfrog established ones and capture the Brown Line. Conducted properly, the plan would leave the German forces little time to exit the security of their deep dugouts and defend their positions against the infantry advance. If the corps maintained its schedule, the troops would advance as much as 4,000 yd (3,700 m) and have the majority of the ridge under control by 1:00 pm of the first day.

Recognizing that the men in leadership positions were likely to be wounded or killed, soldiers learned the jobs of those beside and above them. At the British First Army headquarters, a large plasticine model of the Vimy sector was constructed and used to show commissioned and senior non-commissioned officers the topographical features of the battlefield and details of the German trench system. Upwards of 40,000 topographical trench maps were printed and distributed to ensure that even platoon sergeants and section commanders possessed a wider awareness of the battlefield.The new measures gave each platoon a clearer picture of how it fitted into the greater battle plan and in so doing, reduced the command and control problems that plagued First World War combat.

Aerial reconnaissance was often a hazardous task because of the necessity of flying at slow speeds and at low altitude. The task was made more dangerous with the arrival of additional German flying squadrons, including the highly experienced and well equipped Jasta 11 (Manfred von Richthofen) which led to a sharp increase in RFC losses. Although significantly outnumbering the Germans, the RFC lost 131 aircraft during the first week of April (Bloody April). Despite the losses suffered by the RFC, the Luftstreitkrafte failed to prevent the British from carrying out its priority, air support of the army during the Battle of Arras with up-to-date aerial photographs and other reconnaissance information.

Towards midday, the 79th Reserve Division was ordered to recapture the portions of its third line lost during the progression of the Canadian attack. However, it was not until 6:00 pm that the force was able to organize and counterattack, clearing the Canadian Corps troops out of the ruined village of Vimy, but not recapturing the third line south of the village. By night time, the German forces holding the top of the ridge believed they had overcome the immediate crisis for the time being. Additional German reinforcements began arriving and by late evening portions of the 111th Infantry Division occupied the third line near Acheville and Arleux, with the remainder of the division arriving the following day.

Missouri Civil War Museum