Feet of Clay? Canada’s Vimy Ridge

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Nic Clarke

The Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April 1917) is held by many Canadians as a pivotal moment in the formation of a distinct Canadian identity, and, indeed, Canada’s transformation from British dominion to independent state.  At first glance this belief is not hard to understand.  Fighting together for the first time, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps achieved an emphatic victory over the Germans where French units had failed, at great cost, multiple times before.  Moreover, in the immediate aftermath, the Canadian victory was lauded both in Canada and abroad, and was proffered as evidence of certain special characteristics that differentiated Canadians from other peoples.   The supposed importance of the battle for Canada’s evolution towards nationhood was (and remains) further reinforced in the minds of Canadians by the placement of the nation’s largest, and most important, overseas memorial to its First World War dead – the Canadian National Vimy Memorial – on the highest point of the ridge.  Intended to highlight Canadian valour and sacrifice, the memorial – which dominates the surrounding French countryside – also acts to remind people of Canada’s victory.

Canada’s memorial to the battle, on Vimy Ridge in France, in a 2010 image from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_National_Vimy_Memorial.

The reality of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is, however, much more complex. Despite what most Canadians have come to believe, the battle was not won by the feat of Canadian arms alone. The Canadian units that stormed the ridge were amply supported in their assault by British Imperial forces.  Over half of the artillery that paved the way for the assaulting Canadian infantry was either British or Australian.  Moreover, the Canadians were aided before, during, and after the assault by troops from a variety of Allied nations.  Operating on the Canadians’ right, the British 51st Highland Division, for example, captured the southern shoulder of the ridge. In the air, support was provided, in part, by Royal Flying Corps’ No. 16 Squadron and Nos. 1 and 2 Balloon Companies.  Likewise, much of the underground system of galleries and tunnels that famously hid and protected the Canadian troops before the assault had been either dug or improved by New Zealand and British tunnellers.  Most importantly, it was the Canadian Corps’ higher formation, the British First Army, which provided the Corps with the extensive logistical support it needed to successfully prosecute its mission.

Nor was the Canadian Corps a purely Canadian formation.  In addition to containing the Canadian divisions, the Corps also included the British 5th Division in its order of battle.  Moreover, all four Canadian divisions had British units attached to them.  In the case of the 2nd Canadian Division the units attached – and directly involved in the assault – included the 5th Division’s 13th Infantry Brigade and eight tanks.   If this were not enough, the Canadian Corps’ commander – and one of the major architects of the “Canadian” victory at Vimy – was a British officer, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng.  In fact, of the 172,486 men attached to Canadian Corps for the assault on Vimy Ridge 75,302 (43.7%) did not come from Canadian formations.

More broadly, the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge was not – despite what many Canadians believe – a standalone battle.   Rather, it was only one part of the larger Battle of Arras (9 April – 16 May 1917).  In this battle, three British armies – the First, the Third and the Fifth – attacked German positions along an approximately 24-kilometre front running from Vimy Ridge in the north west to Bullecourt in the south east.  Part of the wider Anglo-French Nivelle Offensive, the Battle of Arras was intended to draw German attention and troops away from what the Allies hoped would be a decisive French assault at Chemin des Dames Ridge some 80 kilometres to the south.  While the Canadian attack at Vimy was the most successful part of the Battle of Arras, the initial gains made by the British forces across the rest of the front of the battle were equally impressive.  In the first two days, some British units attached to the Third Army advanced as much as five kilometres into German-held territory.  This was the deepest penetration by Allied forces into German-held territory since the beginning of trench warfare.  Although the British advance bogged down due to a combination of over-stretched supply lines and the arrival of German reinforcements, the significance of the British achievement should not be downplayed.  The Third Army had graphically demonstrated that the British were more than capable of breaking the German line.

It should also be noted that British attacks to the north and the south of the Canadians meant the Germans did not have the luxury of shifting units in force to reinforce their beleaguered defenders on Vimy Ridge.  The Germans’ ability to reinforce their Vimy garrison was also hindered by their knowledge of the forthcoming French offensive at Chemin des Dames.  Aerial observation and information obtained from French prisoners of war had alerted the Germans to French preparations for the offensive.  The Germans reacted accordingly, moving significant amounts of men and material to reinforce their defences in front of the French. On 7 April – just two days before the Canadians attacked at Vimy – the Germans assessed, based on increased French artillery activity, that a French assault was imminent.  French shelling further increased on 9 April, causing the Germans to move reserves into the second and third lines of defense opposite the French.  These reserves – and some of the over 2,000 artillery pieces the Germans had around Chemin des Dames – could have tipped the scale at Vimy if the Germans had been free to use them against the Canadians.  As it was, the Germans decimated the attacking French forces – a result that played no small part in the mutinies that the French Army suffered starting in May 1917.

The belief that the Canadian Corps succeeded where French formations had failed also requires contextualisation.  It is true that the Canadian Corps successfully took and held Vimy Ridge while the French had not.  However, if it were not for the preceding French and British actions the Canadian Corps would not have been in a position to launch its successful assault.  Once in late 1914, and twice in 1915, the French had attempted to retake the ridge. Although they failed to do so, suffering over 150,000 casualties in the process, they did move the frontlines closer to the base of the ridge.  If they had not, the Canadian Corps would have been forced to fight across a much greater span of open ground to reach the ridge.  Likewise, although losing some 1,400 metres of trenches to a German attack in May 1916 the British XVII Corps successfully slowed German tunnelling operations that would have further strengthened the Germans’ defensive position.  By the time the Canadians took over the sector in late 1916, some 300,000 French, German and British troops had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner fighting over the ridge.

In relation, the tactics employed by the CEF during the battle were not Canadian innovations, despite popular assertions to the contrary.  The creeping barrage used so effectively by the Corps during the battle was, for example, first employed by the Bulgarian Army at the siege of Adrianople (Edirne, in the modern Republic of Turkey) during First Balkan War in 1913.  British gunners went on to perfect the tactic – after several false starts – during the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916). Canadians had moved to make the platoon, rather than the company, the smallest independent tactic unit in the field in early 1917.  However, the small unit tactics they employed reflected the tactical doctrine for infantry attack developed and refined by British Army officers – notably Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Launcelot Kiggell – in the face of lessons learnt from the Somme and Verdun. Indeed, the much-vaunted Canadian approach (if we are to believe the myth) of ensuring all soldiers were provided with detailed information of their unit’s objectives, was standard practice in most British formations by the time of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  In fact, some British units had been providing up-to-date maps to NCOs and other ranks since 1915.

Such observations are important because the Canadian success at Vimy was, and is, used to reinforce the belief – held in 1914 as much as it is now – that Canadian soldiers were innately superior soldiers – both physically and technically – when compared to their British counterparts. Many Canadians have come to believe, to paraphrase the 2008 Canadian film Passchendaele, that the Canadian Corps was the only Allied outfit capable of getting anything done on the Western Front.  While there is little doubt that the Canadian Corps was an exceptionally effective formation by the end of the war, this belief is manifestly untrue.  Already mentioned tactical innovations and British successes aside, Canadian soldiers were not – despite what period propaganda claimed – northern supermen.  Quite the opposite was true.  With an average height and weight of 5’7” (170cm) and 142 lbs (64.4kg) respectively, Canadian soldiers were hardly imposing figures.  Indeed, they were roughly the same size as British troops.  Moreover, far from being hardy frontiersmen, the vast majority of Canadian troops were – like their British brethren – drawn from urban centres.

Even more damning for the myth of Canadian exceptionalism, the majority of troops within the CEF were foreign-born until 1918, after the introduction of conscription in Canada. While many of those born overseas had lived in Canada for the better part of their lives, and, as a result, likely considered the Dominion home, this was not the case for all of the corps’ foreign fighters.  Well over 35,000 American citizens, for example, had enlisted in Canadian forces during the two and half years the United States remained neutral.  Many of those who survived returned to the United States after the war. Indeed, the report that Old Glory was unfurled on the Ridge after its capture by a Texan serving in the CEF should leave no doubt that at least some Americans not only retained their national identity, but also loudly asserted it in spite of the uniform they were wearing.  In relation, a number of British-born Corps members who served at Vimy either did not return to Canada after the war, or left the Dominion in the years afterwards.  Glaswegian John Russell Clark, who had emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1913 and served in the 13th Field Ambulance at Vimy, immigrated to the United States in the postwar period.  Moving first to Seattle, Washington, he finally settled in Juneau, Alaska.  Moreover, some 1,400 (17.9%) of approximately 7,800 CEF veterans who attend the unveiling of the Walter Allward designed National Memorial on Vimy Ridge on 28 July 1936, came from Britain. A fact that suggests these men had not returned to Canada at the end of the war.

Reaching the top of Vimy Ridge did not, it seems, instill a sense of Canadian identity in all foreign-born members of the Canadian Corps – no matter what the romantics might believe.  Indeed, while Brigadier-General Alexander E. Ross would later state that at Vimy he “witnessed the birth of a nation,” it is doubtful – to say the least – that many Canadians who fought their way to the top of the Ridge in April 1917 were thinking in such terms.  In the heat of battle, simply surviving and getting the job done would have taken priority over philosophising about one’s identity.  Likewise, exhaustion, the mourning of killed friends, and fear of counter-attack would have likely outweighed any dream of nation in the aftermath of victory.  This point is perhaps no better made than by the fact Ross’s comment was not made immediately after the battle, but fifty years later in 1967. As such, Ross’s statement likely tells us more about his thoughts about Vimy at the time of Canada’s centennial than it does Canadian troops’ view of the Battle in 1917.

Richard Jack’s painting, The Battle of Vimy Ridge. The painting is held at the Canadian War Museum. The image is from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vimy_Ridge.

It should be noted that Canadian First World War veterans did not unanimously believe that the Battle of Vimy Ridge was the most important battle fought by the Canadian Corps during the war. Major General S.C. Mewburn, the chair of the Canadian Battlefield Memorials Commission (CBMC), stated in a speech to the House of Commons in May 1922 that many army officers – including the commander of the Canadian Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie – did not believe that the battle was the most significant engagement fought by the Corps during the war. Mewburn did not elaborate as to what battles the officers felt were more important than Vimy, but it would not be a stretch to think that the officers may have be thinking of the Second Battle of Ypres, Hill 70, or, as Currie did, the battles of the Hundred Days.  Indeed, Currie had indicated a month before Mewburn’s speech his disquiet at the thought of Vimy being the site of Canada’s preeminent war memorial on the Western Front, because he feared – correctly as it turns out – that “it will confirm for all time the impression which exists in the minds of the majority of the people of Canada that Vimy was the greatest battle fought by the Canadians in France.”

For this, and other reasons, Vimy Ridge was not initially selected as the site for Allward’s monument. Rather the CBMC originally chose a location in Belgium – Hill 62, near the location of the Battle of Mount Sorrel – as the preferred position for the monument. It was only after considerable lobbying in the Canadian Parliament by Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King – who described the ridge as an altar on which Canadian blood had been spilt in the defence of freedom – that the members of the Commission changed their minds and selected Vimy.

Mackenzie King’s lobbying reflected the fact – hinted at by Currie – that Vimy was taking on a character in the hearts and minds of some Canadians that went well beyond its military significance. It was already becoming a part of the Canadian national myth. Indeed, after highlighting many Canadian military officers’ views on the military significance of the battle, Mewburn went on to note that the officers did agree that “there was something distinctive about Vimy Ridge that comes very close to the hearts of Canadians.”  While not a position held by all Canadians, the myth of Vimy would continue to evolve and grow in the following years.  The myth would receive particularly strong boosts after the unveiling of the National Memorial in 1936, and Canada’s centennial (which was also the semicentennial of the battle) in 1967.  It would be an understatement to observe that the myth has received yet another boost in the last few years as the centennial of the battle has approached.

My point here is not to imply that the Canadians are the only nation guilty of parochialism and national-myth building when it comes to memorialising battles.  We are not.  Many Australians and New Zealanders, for example, exhibit just as much nationalistic hubris when it comes to the way they remember the 1915-1916 Dardanelles Campaign (commonly remembered simply as “Gallipoli” in New Zealand and Australia).  Indeed, if anything, Gallipoli is, arguably, more important for Australia and New Zealand’s’ nation-building myths than Vimy is for Canada’s. In glorifying the role the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) played in the (unsuccessful) campaign, most forget – if they were ever taught – that French, Indian, and, Newfoundland troops were also involved in the campaign.  The British are remembered, but as villains rather than allies. Indeed, many public rememberings of Gallipoli in New Zealand and Australia tend to vilify the British much more than the ANZAC’s Ottoman adversaries.

The acronym ANZAC has evolved since 1915 to become a proper noun (Anzac) that identifies items – directly and indirectly – related to the two countries’ military heritage.  Most importantly, the term has given its name to Australia and New Zealand’s national day of remembrance: Anzac Day. Marked on 25 April, Anzac Day is the anniversary of the date the Corps began its assault on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. The fact that Australian and New Zealand have chosen this day over 11 November for their focus of national remembrance graphically highlights just how important the Anzac story is to the national identities of both countries.  The importance of this story in the minds of many Australians and New Zealanders is further underlined by the fact that that both countries not only have legislation governing its use of the term “Anzac,” but also jointly made a successful application to World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in 2003 for international protection of the word.

Nor do I wish to downplay the Canadian Corps’ achievement.  The Canadian Corps did, after all, successfully take and hold the ridge.  Moreover, it was the bloodiest battle the Corps fought during the war.  In the space of four days, Canadian Corps suffered over 10,000 casualties of which 3,598 were killed.

Rather, I believe public rememberings of the Battle of Vimy Ridge need to be stripped of their nationalistic parochialism so that the battle might be better placed within the wider memory of Canada’s First World War, and, indeed, the formation of Canada and Canadian identity.  To be sure, the Canadian Corps achieved an impressive victory at Vimy Ridge.  However, it did not herald the end of the war. Indeed, it would be another year and a half before the Germans were defeated.  Moreover, the German defeat came only after the horrors of Passenchendaele in late 1917, and the devastating (for all sides) German Spring Offensive of 1918. In fact, the Canadian Corps would suffer more casualties in the 18 months after Vimy Ridge (May 1917 – November 1918) than the proceeding 25 months that Canadian Expeditionary Force had been engaged in France (February 1915 – March 1917).  The majority of these post-Vimy casualties, it should be noted, were suffered when the Canadian Corps acted as one of the integral formations in the Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive (8 August 1918 – 11 November 1918).

Vimy Ridge’s depiction as a watershed moment in the birth of the Canadian nation and/or Canadian identity needs to be reconsidered. While the battle provides a convenient way marker for those looking to trace the birth of the Canadian nation and/or Canadian identity it can also act to mask other important events in Canadian history that deserve recognition. These include events that highlighted significant tears within the national fabric that occurred in the same period as the battle, such as the 1917 Conscription Crisis and the 1918 Easter Riots in Quebec City.  Pinning the battle as the point at which Canada was “born” also acts to deny the very real evidence that there was a strong sense of Canadian identity before the First World War began.  An examination of prewar Canada shows that Canadians had more than a nascent national identity that, at least in some instances, bridged the two solitudes and the east-west divide.

More generally, over privileging the role the battle played in the formation of Canada runs the very real risk of (unintentionally) excluding significant sections of Canada’s population.  Women are a prime example.  The nation Ross claimed to have witnessed being birthed at Vimy was uniformly male.  Women – immediately after the battle and during the 1936 pilgrimage – could, and did, bathe in the reflected glory of their victorious men folk and point to the blood sacrifices they had paid in the form of dead and maimed husbands, brothers and sons. However, they were not involved in the event.  This is problematic because, if we are to take the Vimy myth to its logical conclusion, it means women took no active part in the birth of the Canadian nation supposedly witnessed by Ross and still trumpeted by many today.  To be sure, it is doubtful that many Canadians have considered the gendered character of the Vimy nation-building myth. Perhaps it is time we should; if for no other reason than to recognise the exclusionary nature of this myth – and many of Canada’s nation-building myths – when it comes to women and, indeed, other groups within Canada’s social fabric.

In sum, as we come to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge we should take the time to consider the place this battle is often afforded in our national story.  In doing so, we should also question whether that position is deserved or whether the great colossus that Canadians have constructed stands on feet of clay.

Dr. Nic Clarke is Assistant Historian, First World War, at the Canadian War Museum.  His book, Unwanted Warriors: The Rejected Volunteers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was published by UBC Press in 2015.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.  We welcome new submissions.  Contact Nathan Smith at: nsmith241@gmail.com


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4 thoughts on “Feet of Clay? Canada’s Vimy Ridge

  1. Melissa N. Shaw

    “…runs the very real risk of (unintentionally) excluding significant sections of Canada’s population. Women are a prime example. The nation Ross claimed to have witnessed being birthed at Vimy was uniformly male.” You may want to engage/acknowledge the place of race and racism as well: ‘Most Anxious to Serve their King and Country’: Black Canadians Fight to Enlist in WWI and Emerging Race Consciousness in Ontario, 1914-1919,” in Histoire sociale/Social History, Vol. XLIX, No. 99 (November 2016): 543-580. Overall, great piece!

  2. Paul Edwards

    Thanks Dr. Clarke for making available this lucid and fair-minded discussion of this famous battle. It’s apparent that an enormous amount of serious research and thought went into this brief article.

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