Today marks the 101st anniversary of the start of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. As a part of the larger Battle of Arras in World War I, Vimy marked an important turning point for Canada’s history and national identity. With all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participating in the conflict, the victory over German forces would help to set Canada apart from Britain on the world stage. With the centennial of the battle coming up in just 2 years, it’s important to take a look back at the history of the conflict and what it means to this day. We’ll also visit the hugely impressive memorial that is found on the ridge today.
How the Battle Played Out
First, lets set the stage. The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place over four days from April 9 to April 12, 1917 as one of the opening engagements of the Battle of Arras. The location was the commune of Vimy in Pas-de-Calais in northern France. One British and four Canadian divisions totalling 170,000 faced three well dug-in and seasoned German divisions numbering 30,000 to 45,000 men. The objective of the Canadian Corps was to take the high ground from the German forces so the southern British flank could advance.
After much jostling, intelligence gathering, artillery fire, and a thwarted pre-emptive attack by the Germans, the main assault was launched at 5:30 AM on April 9 by Canadian troops. The reinforced, eight kilometre long ridge proved difficult to overcome and days of heavy fighting proved costly for both sides. The Canadian Corp eventually managed to exploit weaknesses in the German defense and claim the high ground (thanks in no small part to a daring bayonet charge) and win the battle by 6 PM on April 12.
For a more detailed explanation of the ins and outs of the conflict, you can find that here and here. When all was said and done, the Canadian Corps suffered 10,602 casualties (including 3,598 killed) while German fatalities are unknown. The German forces reassessed their defensive strategy following Vimy, resorting to a scorched earth retreat through parts of France instead of holding ground.
What it means
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was not the the most strategically important victory in the First World War, nor was it the Canadian Corp’s greatest achievement. The enduring legacy of Vimy Ridge is in what it means for Canadian identity. Troops from all parts of the dominion took part in what was essentially a Canadian led operation. Consequently, historians often identify the Battle of Vimy Ridge as the birth or coming of age of the nation. So it is no surprise that Vimy has become an integral part of Canadian history, identity and culture.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial
Today, we honour the courage, valour and sacrifice of those who fought in the battle with the Vimy Memorial. It was revealed on July 26, 1936 and is one of two National Historic Sites of Canada located outside our borders. The monument itself is situated at the highest point on the ridge and the imposing twin pylon’s rise 30 metres above the rest of the Memorial – truly dominating the surrounding landscape. One pylon features a maple leaf while the other a fleur-de-lis, representing the unity between Canada and France. The tops of the pylons feature multiple figures, including personifications of Justice and Peace – the values for which Canadian troops fought so hard to preserve. Other important features include Canada Bereft (or Mother Canada), a female statue sorrowfully mourning Canada’s dead. There’s also the Breaking of the Sword – referring to pacifism triumphing over militarism – and Mourning Parents on either side of the western steps.
The surrounding area includes preserved trench lines in their natural state. There are also fields with unexploded munitions throughout the site. Unsurprisingly, these areas are off limits for safety’s sake, however they can still be seen from behind barriers. Irrespective of its importance to Canadian national identity, the Vimy Memorial offers a glimpse into the history of the Great War.
So while it may not be the most important or largest battle of the First World War, the Battle of Vimy Ridge left an indelible mark on the Canadian psyche. While it can be argued whether or not it was truly the birth of an independent nation, it can’t be denied that Vimy was one of the first examples of Canada acting independently on the global stage. And if you find yourself in France, take a day trip from Paris to discover one of the most impressive memorials in the world – it’s truly a trip every Canadian should make once.
Join us on a day trip to the memorial itself with ‘Travel Diary: Remembrance at Vimy Ridge‘.
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