100 Yards of Hell

English: Canadian machine gunners dig themselv...
Canadian machine gunners dig themselves in, in shell holes on Vimy Ridge. This shows squads of machine gunners operating from shell-craters in support of the infantry on the plateau above the ridge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most striking war memorials is at Vimy Ridge, near Arras, France.  It commemorates the part played by Canadian troops in an important battle of World War I  on April 9, 1917.  The commander of the Canadian forces in the attack was General Sir Julian Byng, who later became Lord Byng of Vimy and Governor-General of Canada.

Early in 1917, it was decided to try to dislodge the Germans from their position in Vimy, and the assault was entrusted to the Canadian Corps, and a British brigade; a force of 170,000 men.  The battle was carefully planned, even rehearsed.  This could be done because there was a network of underground tunnels running from Arras toward Vimy Ridge.  Twenty-five thousand men could be hidden underground and moved to the jumping off places for the assault.

April 9 was Easter Monday and by dawn most of the Canadian force had moved to within 100 years of the enemy, guided through the darkness of the tunnels by white tapes laid along the floors.  The attack was preceded by a heavy artillery barrage that had gone on for two weeks, but intensified during the first hours of the morning.  Nevertheless, the 100 yards up the slope to the enemy trenches were 100 yards of hell.  A combination of snow and rain before the attack made the ridge muddy and slippery.

Just as the assault began, the weather suddenly cleared.   The Canadian divisions climbed the open slope firing Lewis guns and throwing grenades.  When they reached the trenches, bayonet fighting began.  Overhead the planes of the Royal Flying Corps, manned by many Canadians, were acting as spotters and tangling with German planes trying to stop them.

More than 3,000 Germans surrendered in the first assault, and after heavy fighting, Vimy Ridge was taken.  Unfortunately, the battle was not decisive.  After three years of similarly terrible casualties, the French soldiers to the south were on the verge of revolt.  Marshal Pétain took over after 20,000 desertions, herded 200 mutinous men into an artillery range and blew them up.  He exiled another 100 men and shot 20 more after courts-martial.  These were harsh measures, but the morale of the French army was restored in time to withstand a final German assault that nearly broke through to Paris.

I don’t think you’d be surprised to hear that there is an awful lot of sites and articles about this day.  I can, however, lead you to a few places to start your quest into learning more.  You can visit the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa; there’s an interesting article at About.com by Susan Monroe; you can find a detailed account at Veterans Affairs Canada; CBC wrote a great article; a real treat, I just found a new [fantastic] website at Canada at war.ca.

9 comments

    • I agree. Even the “good guys” do bad things (I mean, as in shooting deserters) … War is bad all around! thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. 🙂

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  1. World War I really fascinates me due to the trench warfare + the introduction of poison gas + machine guns. I’ve been wanting to learn more about Canada’s contribution – so thank you again for all the great posts!!!

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  2. thanks for all the links. I just read the Globe and Mail and it’s interesting that a politician to call it “jingoism” to know the Canadian War History. Will read more later tonight. Have a good day.

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