The Battle of Vimy Ridge, like no other has become the symbol of Canada in the Great War. In no small part this is due to events after the war rather that the events of the battle itself. The dominant ridge line position, the striking memorial and regular anniversary celebrations have cemented Vimy Ridge into the Canadian consciousness.
The Vimy action was part of a larger allied offense for 1917 for which the French were expected to take the lead. The British attack at Arras which included Vimy Ridge was intended to draw the German reserves away from the main French attack. At Vimy, instead of confused last minute orders, poorly coordinated fire support and few maps or landmarks, planning was meticulous.
Canadian Corps had occupied the Vimy line for months before the battle opened and was intimately familiar with the dominant German positions on their front. During the months before the attack, at least some to the painful lessons of the Somme were put to good use. Infantry battalions practiced their part of the battle on carefully constructed models of the German line during their periods away from the front. Soldiers were trained to attack in platoon rushes when under fire with one group providing suppressing fire while others dashed forward instead of marching forward in extended line as they had in earlier battles. Men practiced how to proceed in the event their officers or NCOs were killed or wounded.
The logistic, engineering and artillery support for the coming attack was planned in minute detail. Communications were improved with telephone lines buried in deep tunnels dug in the chalky plain. Extensive communication trenches, tunnels and holding areas were developed to ensure necessary supplies could be moved forward quickly and securely. In the center of the 7th Brigade front, the Grange Tunnel was 750 yards long with three exits to jumping off points. It was a massive engineering feat complete with water, electric lights and a series of bunkers for command posts and casualty stations 25 feet underground. Maps that earlier had been issued only to senior officers were distributed to company level and even below.[i]
The artillery too completed meticulous preparation. Enemy artillery positions were identified as targets for suppression and a form of creeping barrage planned to move forward immediately in front of advancing troops. Artillery preparation in advance of the attack lasted almost two weeks and delivered 343,000 shells on the German defences. Although given scant mention in some Canadian accounts, the support of British artillery, engineers and logistics was critical to the Canadian success. The British infantry also took their place in the battle with a full brigade near the centre of the Canadian line. The Canadian Corps had been brought fully up to strength and was almost 100,000 strong at the start of the battle.[ii]
The Patricia’s had been occupying the La Folie Sector of the line trading places in rotation with the 42nd Battalion. A series of large craters were garrisoned with sections in front of the main line. The distance between opposing trenches was no more than seventy five yards. In total, the battalion completed twelve five-day tours in the line between October 1916 and March 1917. The highlight of the period, no doubt was the blowing of the “Patricia Crater” that still marks the ridge today at some 250 ft in diameter and 60 ft deep. The battalion was withdrawn for a full six weeks of intensive training before returning to the line in late March.[iii]
[i]Ralph Hodder-Williams,Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919 Volume one, 1917-1918,210
[ii]Tim Cook,Shock Troops – Canadians Fighting the Great War Volume two, 1917-1918,84
[iii]Ralph Hodder-Williams,Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919 Volume one, 1917-1918,200-207