How Canada’s bloodiest day at Vimy defined Great War sacrifice

Canadians think of Vimy Ridge as the moment our nation came of age. It is less than that—and more, too.

The Nova Scotia Highlanders, marching through Belgium in World War One 1914. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The Nova Scotia Highlanders, marching through Belgium in World War One 1914. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

In the end it came down to a battalion of aggrieved Nova Scotians, mostly men from Cape Breton, to put the final seal on the Canadian army’s most iconic victory and the bloodiest day in the country’s military history. By 6 p.m. on April 9, 1917, Canadians and Germans had already been mowed down in their thousands across the heights of Vimy Ridge. Along the far right edge of the battlefield, Arthur Currie’s 1st Division had swept along four kilometres of Vimy’s most gentle terrain at a cost of 2,500 casualties, a dead or wounded man for every metre and a half. The casualty rates only rose as the distances grew shorter but steeper, and the 2nd and 3rd divisions successfully advanced in the centre.

At the far left, though, the day was ending in crisis. Maj.-Gen. David Watson’s 4th Division faced the shortest distance (800 m) and the hardest climb. They were up against Hill 145, the highest point on the ridge—where the Vimy monument now stands—and a tenacious, well-fortified enemy with all the defensive advantages of height. The continuing German hold on Hill 145—maintaining the possibility of reinforcements and the same kind of counterattack that had preserved the ridge in German hands for years—imperilled the entire enterprise, all the bloody day’s efforts and sacrifice.

MORE: Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917: ‘Like a scene out Dante’

Watson didn’t have much in the way of fresh combat troops to throw into the maelstrom; hardly any fresh troops of any kind, save for the 85th Battalion. Mocked by the other battalions as wannabe Highlanders—the Nova Scotians hadn’t yet been issued their kilts—and unhappy about it, the inexperienced 85th had mostly functioned as a non-combatant labour battalion. They moved up through the trenches to the front lines, where they anxiously awaited the only thing that would give them a fighting chance: a preliminary bombardment. Without it, bayonets versus machine guns was the definition of a massacre. The shelling never came, because senior officers determined that attackers and defenders were already too close to chance the friendly fire.

Not every front-line officer heard that news, and many were perplexed when the appointed hour came and passed without the guns opening up. After a few minutes, though, they took what military historian Tim Cook calls “the gut-wrenching” decision to attack regardless. The element of surprise—who attacks without artillery?—bought a few precious seconds, but the machine guns were scything through the attackers soon enough. The survivors, though, refused to go to ground in shell craters and kept running until they crashed into the German lines, shooting, stabbing and clubbing the enemy.

“Within 10 mad minutes,” Cook writes, Hill 145 fell to the untried Maritimers, wannabes no more, “in the most audacious Canadian bayonet charge of the war.” The 85th suffered almost 350 killed and wounded, including nearly all its officers, but it reversed imminent defeat on the 4th Division front and may well have saved the entire battle. By the time the sun set, Canada was in charge of Vimy Ridge.

It’s probably safe to guess that for every American who can talk about Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg or Briton who knows the fate of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo, there is—statistically speaking—no Canadian at all who has heard of the 85th Battalion. Even as royalty, government dignitaries and thousands of ordinary Canadians prepare to converge on northwest France in April to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle, vanishingly few of us know anything at all of what unfolded on Vimy that day.

Through a series of historical twists, expertly traced by Cook in his brilliant new book, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, Vimy—and its soaring, moving, beautiful monument—have come to mean a lot to Canadians. Our concept of it tells a tale of national unity: the battle was the first time—and the last, Cook points out—that the entire Canadian Corps, men from every part of the nation, fought together. It also whispers of a quiet, almost regrettable, skill at killing. It speaks most insistently about sacrifice. But that icon of Vimy is strangely bloodless, especially in reference to a real-life Vimy soaked in it: on April 9, 1917, and in mopping-up operations the next morning, one in three front-line Canadian soldiers was killed or wounded.

MORE: Vimy: The day the earth shook

Cook’s adrenalin-fuelled account of the battle is a powerful antidote. The Great War is peculiarly poised between traditional and modern warfare, the historian notes. It featured aerial maps, enormous artillery pieces that could accurately target positions kilometres way, and machine guns that fired 500 rounds a minute. Yet soldiers threw grenades, unused since the Napoleonic wars, and wore steel helmets, not seen since the 17th century. Often enough, after all the long-range shelling and the rapid-fire machine guns, they were wielding bayonets and rifle butts when they closed with their enemies, in a denouement that would have been familiar to an Egyptian pharaoh.

At 5:28 a.m. on April 9, Canadian heavy machine guns tilted their barrels upwards and rained bullets on enemy crossroads and trenches. Two minutes later, almost 1,000 big guns opened up, providing a creeping barrage that moved forward every three minutes. And 15,000 Canadians went over the top.

The planning was intricate and months old, right down to the pits dug for the dead long before the battle. But the fate of entire battalions turned as often as not on chance. On the 1st Division front, artillery had hit most key defences facing the 15th Battalion from Toronto, which had a relatively easy time of it—at Vimy, its 20 per cent casualty rate was light. But the 14th from Montreal was caught in the open by four surviving Bavarian machine gun nests. Grenades took out two, while the third’s gunners were shot dead by the survivor of a small assault party gathered in the mud, and the three-man crew at the fourth was single-handedly charged and bayoneted by the 14th’s sergeant-major. Almost 40 per cent of the Montrealers were killed or wounded.

The two forward companies of Saskatchewan’s 5th Battalion lost 200 of 300 men in the first 40 minutes, and arrived at the enemy front line in a ferocious emotional state: “There were smart bayonet fights,” records one terse official account, and “cases of treachery on the part of the enemy were summarily dealt with.” Battlefield surrender, writes Cook, was a “perilous” business, especially for machine gunners who fired until the last minute before raising their arms. Most times, the Canadians accepted the surrender, but not always.

A private from Toronto’s 3rd Battalion recorded a grim moment, when the Canadians encountered a lone, shell-shocked German: “Somebody said, ‘Shoot that son of a bitch,’ and somebody did. I concluded that not all sons of bitches were in the German ranks.” Yet when a corporal from the 28th Battalion—known as the Northwest because it recruited men from Saskatchewan to Thunder Bay, Ont.—found a Canadian cowering in a dugout, the corporal “kept him till dark, then advised him to go up to his battalion. He got away with it.”

RELATED: A century later, remembering the hard win at Vimy Ridge

Elsewhere on the front, the situation was similar: battalions from Kingston, Ont., British Columbia, central Ontario, Alberta, French Canada and New Brunswick all pushed forward, were pinned down by machine gun fire, and overcame it by slow attrition at a high cost. Or by acts of individual heroism—four Victoria Crosses were awarded that day, three posthumously.

But at the ridge’s high point, along the 4th Division front, the situation was far worse. An untouched section of the German defences was only 365 metres from the Canadian lines. The first wave of attackers from Montreal’s 87th Battalion were literally shot back into their own trenches. Some 60 per cent of the battalion was lost, and most of the rest hid in shell craters. Seeing this, the neighbouring 78th from Winnipeg quite reasonably refused to go over the top. When their last nine officers finally convinced the soldiers to advance, they too were mowed down. The 72nd Battalion, B.C.’s Seaforth Highlanders, lost three-quarters of their men. But collectively, the decimated 4th Division accomplished enough to set the stage for Nova Scotia’s 85th.

To read a description of the battle is to look through a glass darkly, into the enduring mystery of the Great War, when whole nations and ordinary soldiers absorbed tremendous losses and simply re-dedicated themselves to the cause. Vimy is a story of reckless bravery and fear, a minor mutiny, more than one desperate charge, compassion and brutality, industrial-scale slaughter and intimate killing, and the fortunes of war. Vimy, which in Canadian consciousness stands in for the sacrifices of all wars, is equally a microcosm of Great War combat. And its survivors were like the other combatants, both sombre and proud: he and his comrades, wrote Lt. Edward Sawell in his diary, on “this day did more to give Canada a real standing among nations than any previous act in Canadian history.”

Check out archival images from the battle:


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