(The Model reproduction of German lines. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.)
The taking of Vimy Ridge was a great military accomplishment — Canadians had succeeded where others had failed. Of course, the courage and sacrifice of those who fought and died there were the essence of the victory, assisted by novel battle tactics and preparations
What lay before our sons just born? – To crawl through a sand box mixed with blood. To form a line that eats, inch by inch, across a wasted strip of land coveted by all.
The First World War, from a technological standpoint, was a war caught between ancient and modern warfare. Brand new communication technologies were used but in some cases, techniques as old as time also proved helpful they still used Carrier pigeons to send important messages back behind the lines.
Eight tanks (relatively new technology at the time) were assigned to the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge to support the infantry advance and cut wire over the ridge. But again, given the terrain and weather conditions, the experience was a failure. They got bogged down in the mud of No Man's Land and never made it up the hill. The only support they could give was to attract enemy fire away from the foot soldiers.
Other battle tactics were not so successful. Among them, a pedal bike battalion the members of which, given the mud and the hilly landscape, had to give up their steel horses.
Canadian Military Leaders such as Lieutenant-General Sir A. Currie, Commanding Canadian Forces He believed in neglecting nothing. “Take time to train them” he once said, speaking to other officers about the men who would go over the ridge. And that they did, practice trenches and battleground miniatures were built and used to rehearse. Before Vimy, maps were for officers only – but not anymore! Maps were handed out to every soldier (40,000 in all) and each man knew his precise objective and approximate time of arrival before going into battle.
This care and attention to detail meant that soldiers knew what to do and how to do it, even if their leaders became casualties. It also let them move forward with confidence, and was a major reason why our men got to the crest of this previously impregnable hill. Note: According to oral tradition, when a French soldier heard the ridge had been captured he exclaimed C'est impossible! But after learning the Canadian Forces had accomplished it, he replied Ah! Les Canadiens! C'est possible!
Though Vimy is rarely thought of as an aerial battle, some planes did take part in the fight, and kite balloons were an essential part of the operation's success (they were known as kite balloons because they remained moored to the ground). They were inflated and their baskets loaded with men and photographic equipment before being launched high up above the battlefield. Once up there, aerial photos of the battleground and German positions were taken. The Canadians used a new technique called "sound ranging" to pinpoint the enemy's big guns and destroy them. This new technique was pioneered by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew L. McNaughton, a 29-year-old McGill University engineering professor. A bit of an eccentric (he actually brought a lion cub to the battlefield as a mascot), he recruited the help of British scientists whose advice on this topic had been previously refused by the British Army. They placed microphones in No Man's Land. Whenever the enemy fired, McNaughton and his crew could geometrically calculate how long the sound would take to reach each microphone. They could pinpoint enemy guns in less than 5 minutes and within 28 yards (they could even tell the caliber of the guns).
Knowing where the enemy was and whether or not they were coming was essential. The Canadians and the Germans made use of every trick to stay on top.
Lieutenant-Colonel Raymond Brutinel also brought something new to the battlefield. Wealthy before the war, he gathered several of his rich friends (among whom was Timothy Eaton, founder of Eaton's department stores) and independently funded the 1st Canadian Machine Gun Brigade. Oddly enough, because of this, Canada went into war with more machine guns than the British. His brigade pioneered the use of machine gun indirect fire, basically using machine guns the same way one would normally use artillery.
According to many, Major-General Arthur Currie, Canadian Commander of the 1st Division was greatly responsible for the success of the April 9th assault. Vimy Ridge was captured, but the battle continued. Vimy Ridge was a memorial long before the actual monument was built.
After years of fighting in the region and after the final assault on April 9, 1917, the area surrounding Vimy Ridge was no more than a muddy field littered with bodies and shell holes. There was no vegetation except for a few dead trees. The countryside and the soldiers were not the only ones who suffered; surrounding towns, villages and farms were also hit hard. Many had to start from scratch.