Courtesy of CBC Learning
Just before dawn on April 9, 1917, Lieutenant Claude Williams lay in a muddy trench in northern France, cold and shivering and ready for battle.
Williams, along with thousands of other Canadian soldiers, awaited the signal that would launch one the great battles of the First World War and represent the coming of age for Canada.
"At the arranged time, to the absolute second, suddenly, as dawn was breaking, every gun on the whole front opened up. The roar of the heavy guns was deafening," remembered Williams, a 21-year-old medical student from Hamilton, Ontario.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge during World War I was a key event in Canada's development as a nation. Vimy became a shared symbol for Canadians and a source of national identity and pride.
The French and British armies had failed to take Vimy Ridge from the Germans, at a cost of thousands of lives. The icy, snow-covered ridge in northern France seemed impregnable; its slopes had three layers of trenches, shelters and tunnels protected by barbed wire and machine guns.
Vimy Ridge was key to the German defense. From the height of the plateau, 150 kilometres from Paris, the Germans can see the entire region.
The task fell to the Canadian army to take the ridge. It represented the first time, all four Canadian divisions were on the same battlefield. Fishermen from British Columbia, prairie farmers, workers from Ontario and Quebec, and miners from Nova Scotia prepared for battle.
Elaborate preparations were made for the assault, which was part of a major British offensive. Britain and its Allies built a fake ridge in a rearward area, an exact copy of the one at Vimy, including an identical maze of caves and tunnels.
Canadian soldiers trained intensively for two months under the watchful eye of Arthur Currie, commander of the First Canadian Division. Canadian military leaders made sure the soldiers knew the terrain as well as the Germans.
"Dear Father, ... If Old Kaiser Bill (nickname of the German leader Wilhelm II) only saw the preparations that have been made, he would throw up the sponge, I am sure," wrote Lieutenant Williams to his father.
Finally on the morning of April 9th Lt. Williams and the other Canadians waited for zero hour.
"The attack was at daybreak, we had to lie in the open trenches all the night: the morning turned out grey, cold and drizzling, everybody shivering and chilled to the bone."
The attack began at 5:30 a.m. with the roar of artillery fire. The infantry marched behind, doing the Vimy Glide - a 100-yard advance every three minutes, protected by a curtain of artillery fire.
They moved along increasingly dangerous terrain.
"At one place, we heard a Canadian who lying deep in a shell hole calling out, 'Water, water!'" Lieutenant Williams wrote. "The top of his head had been blown off, exposing his brain. We could do nothing. Orders were that we were not to stop to attend the wounded. They must wait for the stretcher bearer."
Shoulder to shoulder, the men advanced up the ridge. The Canadians fought through three lines of trenches, until they reached the top. Four days later the troops had captured all of Vimy Ridge. In all 3,598 Canadians died and 7,004 were wounded.
The infantry used the "Vimy Glide," advancing at a steady pace of 100 yards every three minutes, matching an artillery barrage that was set before them. One solder described the barrage as resembling a lawnmower in front of them, churning the ground.
In the battle of Vimy Ridge, Canadian soldiers made greater advances, and captured more arms, and more prisoners (4,000) than any other Allied offensive since the start of the war.
General Arthur Currie was elated.
"A wonderful success. The grandest day the Corps has ever had. The attack was carried out exactly as planned. The sight was awful and wonderful."
The victory caused immense pride back home. Canadians had begun the war as colonials, as subordinates, but were now Allies; they had succeeded where others had failed.
The New York Tribune wrote that Canada had fielded a better army than Napoleons, and a French newspaper spoke of Canada’s Easter gift to France.
After Vimy, Arthur Currie was knighted on the battlefield by King George V and named Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, succeeding British commander Sir Julian Byng. For the first time, the Canadian army would be led by one of its own.
Vimy Ridge was later chosen as the site of Canada's National Memorial in Europe. The physical evidence of the battlefield has been preserved, and a monument to the Canadian dead now rises from the highest point on Vimy Ridge.