The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the best planned battles of the entire First World War. It was part of the wider Second Battle of Arras, itself part of the overall Allied spring plan for 1917. It was famous for the success of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time.
Vimy Ridge was a key position on the Western Front. The ridge overlooked the Douai plain, with its coalfields, which had been in German hands since 1914. A French attempt to capture Vimy Ridge in 1915 (Battle of Artois, 1915) had failed at huge cost. Since then the ridge had been defended by the Army Group commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. In 1917 the area was defended by General von Falkenhausen’s Sixth Army Group, still under the overall command of Crown Prince Rupprecht. Vimy Ridge itself was held by the four divisions of Gruppe Vimy, commanded by General of Infantry Karl von Fasbender, although the Canadian attack would mainly fall on one division, the 79th Reserve Infantry.
The Canadian Corps of 1917 contained four Canadian Divisions and one British Division. Of the 170,000 men detailed for the attack on Vimy Ridge, 97,000 were from Canada. The British contingent included the tunnellers who played an important part in the attack and the heavy gunners donated by the First Army. The Corps was commanded by Lieutenant-General the Honourable Sir Julian Byng, an unusually approachable British General for the period, with a great eye for detail and an understanding of the importance of planning.
The German commanders on Vimy Ridge were sure that their defences were strong enough to stop or slow down any initial attack while their reserves moved up. The main reserves were some fifteen miles behind the lines during the main assault.
The German position on Vimy Ridge was not as strong as on other parts of the line. The problem was Vimy Ridge itself. By 1917 German defensive lines were very sophisticated. Ideally, there would be a lightly defended front line, then a zone of strong points, followed by a second line, with the reserves just beyond Allied artillery range. The problem at Vimy Ridge was that the eastern side of the ridge was too steep and the top of the ridge too narrow. The main German defensive line thus had to be concentrated in a narrower band than normal. The Germans did have their II Stellung (regimental reserve line) close to the base of the ridge, but it would prove to be dangerously exposed to attack from the top of the ridge.
Byng’s preparations for the attack on Vimy Ridge were amongst the most impressive of the entire war. His answer to the problem of how to get his troops into the forward trenches without exposing them to German artillery fire was to dig twelve tunnel systems that reached up to, and sometimes beyond, the British front line. The attacking troops would enter the tunnels on the day before the attack, and emerge close to the German front lines. The subways also contained forward head quarters, field hospitals and supplies.
The attack was to be supported by a massive artillery bombardment. Byng was given all of the First Armies heavy artillery, giving the Canadian Corps close to 1,000 guns. The bombardment began on 20 March and lasted for 20 days. The pace of the bombardment varied during those twenty days, to prevent the Germans working out when the main attack was due. On 3 April the intensity of the bombardment was increased. The last week before the attack was known to the Germans as the “week of suffering”.
Finally, Byng made sure his men were well trained for the assault to come. A scale model of the battlefield was built, and as many men as possible visited it. Many more men than normal were given maps of the battlefield. Many earlier attacks had collapsed into chaos when the few men who know the plans or had maps were killed. Byng also staged rehearsals of the attack.
On 4.00 a.m. on Monday 9 April the subway entrances were opened. The first wave of the assault went in at 5.30. At the same time the heavy artillery hit 67 of the 69 German artillery positions in the Vimy sector.
Along most of the ridge most of the Germans were trapped in their bunkers. Too many men were in the forward trenches, with the result that half of the Germans on the ridge were killed or captured on the first day. Not every unit did so well – the 87th Battalion (Canadian Grenadier Guards) suffered 50% casualties early in the day in a sector where the German front lines had not been so badly damaged.
By the end of the first day, much of Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands, but the chance, if there was any, for a breakthrough onto the plains to the east was slipping away. So was any chance that the Germans might recapture the ridge. At the end of the day Crown Prince Rupprecht decided to pull back to the III Stellung (the Oppy-Mericourt Line), four miles further east. Von Falkenhausen had wanted to make a stand on the II Stellung, but that was too close to the eastern foot of the ridge, and thus vulnerable to artillery fire directed from the ridge. On 10 April as the distant reserve finally reached the battlefield, it was put into the third line.
One battle still remained. At the end of 9 April the Germans still held a hill known as “the Pimple” at the northern end of the ridge. An assault was planned for 12 April. German resistance on the Pimple was more determined than it had been on the ridge, but by the end of the day the hill was in Canadian hands. On 13 April the Germans completed their withdrawal to their third line.
The triumph on Vimy Ridge cost the Canadian Corps 3,598 dead while around 2,400 Germans were also killed. The fighting on Vimy Ridge was the most successful part of the battle of Arras, itself one of the more successful allied attacks of the war. However, the French assault on the Aisne was much less successful. The failure of the Nivelle offensive would result in a temporary collapse in discipline in the French army, the famous mutinies of 1917.