The winter of 1916–1917 found Canadian Corps facing Vimy Ridge, one of the Western Front’s most disputed positions. At its highest point the five-mile long ridge north of Arras reached 475 feet. Since its capture in 1914 the Germans had transformed the ridge into their most heavily fortified sector in France. Into the ridge’s western slope and along the ridgeline deep underground caverns capable of housing entire battalions had been carved in the chalk. The trench network ran three lines deep and was designed to oppose the heaviest assault until reinforcements could arrive to repel any Allied gains. From its heights the Germans could easily observe all Allied rear area activity rendering a surprise attack infeasible. This contributed mightily to German confidence that the position was impregnable.
Byng was advised in November 1916 to plan on capturing Vimy Ridge in early spring with virtually no support from other units as these would be engaged in a general British offensive across the entire Arras front. To succeed Byng and his trusted subordinate Currie, 1 st Division commander, knew they must develop a new tactical approach or it was obvious the Canadians would be slaughtered to no avail. Both recognized previous Allied strategy had failed to adapt to the unique circumstances imposed by trench warfare. The French relied largely on their troops fighting élan and the British on massed artillery barrages to pound the German defenders senseless prior to a ponderous infantry assault. Both approaches had proven badly wanting. For the British the Somme symbolized the penultimate charnel house, for the French it was Verdun.
British and French doctrine treated the common soldier as cannon fodder not to be trusted with personal initiative. Currie convinced Byng this approach was wrong, particularly given the independent nature of Canadians. What Currie envisioned were platoons that could lose commanders and still function. He also reorganized the platoons so riflemen, bombers, and machine gunners were incorporated in one body rather than isolated into separate platoons that were not trained to work together.
The two generals also improved the creeping barrage technique developed during the Somme where artillery fire progressed a short distance ahead of the advancing infantry. If the artillery adjusted fire forward in accordance to carefully timed lifts it could walk the infantry right into the enemy trenches behind a curtain of protective fire. New explosives and concentration plans were developed to enable the artillery to rip holes in German barbed wire. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew McNaughton invented a means to pre-sight German gun positions so that the Canadian artillery could destroy them quickly in the attack’s opening moments. Another Canadian, Brigadier General Raymond Brutinel propagated using machine guns for indirect fire by spraying repeated and concentrated bursts over the heads of the enemy rather than firing at specific targets. The intent was to deny the Germans easy movement inside their own lines. The final requirement Currie and Byng sought before approving the attack was that the RFC gain air superiority over the battlefront. Throughout April 1917 an air war raged overhead as almost 400 Allied fighters tangled daily with a German force that was only about 150 strong but equipped with better planes and arguably more skilled pilots. The attack was set for Easter Sunday, April 8 but soon pushed back to Easter Monday, April 9.
For two preceding weeks the Germans were subjected to a ceaseless barrage by 480 18-pounders and 250 howitzers and heavy guns supplied with 50,000 tons of shells — more than 1 million rounds. On the last day most guns turned against the massive tangles of barbed wire fronting the German line. At dusk on April 8 when the firing slowed the Germans rushed to their defences, but no attack materialized. The Germans stood down.
At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, 983 guns and mortars rained explosives down on the German line for three minutes with Brutinel’s machine guns adding to the storm. All four Canadian divisions advanced behind this wall of fire with the leading elements sweeping through large gaps in the barbed wire and into the forward trenches before the defenders emerged from their protective shelters. This first wave had been instructed to immediately move on to the second trench system and leave mopping up to the second wave which took thousands of dazed prisoners still stumbling from their shelters. Meanwhile McNaughton’s artillery spotting technique proved itself as the Canadian gunners managed to eliminate 176 of 212 German batteries. Unable to direct artillery against the Canadians the Germans could do little to stem the advance.
By 7:00 a.m. 1 st Division was on its objective, the 3 rd was on Vimy’s crest thirty minutes later and the 2 nd arrived there thirty minutes after that. Fully three-quarters of the ridge was taken. On the left flank, however, 4 th Division had been tasked with seizing Hill 145 — Vimy’s highest point — and a prominent knoll on the far left flank dubbed “the Pimple.” Although the division got through the first trench line relatively quickly the Germans rallied and subjected the Canadians to devastating machine-gun fire. Many battalions were shredded and the survivors pinned down well short of Hill 145. Reinforcements were chewed up and finally the only reserve left was the 85 th Nova Scotia battalion, a work battalion virtually untrained for combat. The 85 th attacked Hill 145 at 5:45 p.m. and an hour later drove the Germans off in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.
After three days reorganization Byng sent 10 th Brigade against “The Pimple.” Attacking through sleet and snow this Western Canadian brigade cleared the knoll, but half its troops were killed or wounded.
Vimy Ridge’s capture marked the deepest Commonwealth advance in two and half years. The victory came at a grim price. About 40,000 Canadians were involved in the attack and of those 3,598 were killed and 7,004 wounded. It was also a relatively hollow victory in that the German line resolidified well back on the Douai Plain and no exploitation beyond the ridge proved possible because the overall Battle of Arras ended in the usual stalemate. The war of attrition continued while at home Canadians faced the conscription crisis that tested the nation’s resolve to reinforce the divisions fighting in the trenches.
Little time was given Canadian Corps to rest and integrate fresh reserves. On June 6 Currie assumed corps command and two days later 3 rd and 4 th Divisions successfully attacked south of Lens. At dawn on August 15 Canadian Corps attacked Hill 70 just north of Lens, taking it in just twenty minutes. The Germans immediately counterattacked and until August 18 the Canadians repulsed repeated counterattacks. Finally the Germans, having suffered twenty thousand casualties, broke off the engagement. Canadian Corps had 5,843 dead or wounded.