WWI: Fifty two months, fifty two posts – 33 – The Battle of Vimy Ridge

When I visited the Western Front in 2013, I made sure to include Vimy Ridge on my itinerary. Below is the relevant extract from the journal I kept during those ten days:

Vimy Ridge itself, which was liberated by the Canadians in an offensive that lasted four days over 9th to 12th April 1917, was gifted to the Canadians by the French to commemorate the lives lost and the strategic importance of capturing that ground. The memorial, visitors centre, trench system, and tunnels are manned by Canadian volunteers (students from various Canadian universities I believe) all year round. We got there just before noon and the lovely girl on the desk gave us tickets to the next guided tour at one o’clock. So we drove (I should probably have walked but Dad isn’t getting any younger and there was quite a lot of ground to cover) up and took in the marvel that is the Canadian monument. It’s stunning, giving you a real sense of why the Germans rushed to occupy it so swiftly in 1914 (you wouldn’t want your enemies to have this sort of panorama on your positions) and also how bloody difficult it was to take back.

Vimy Ridge Memorial
Panorama from the Vimy Ridge Memorial

Then we went back down to the visitor centre and joined the tour. Emma was our guide and she really was fantastic. It was very clear that not only did she love giving the tours but that she was incredibly tied to the story (she lost both her great grandfathers in WWI, I believe) and she genuinely cared about the stories of the men who made the greatest sacrifice they could for a cause they believed in.

Firstly we were taken through the tunnels which were mostly dug by miners from the North East of England (although one tunnel was dug by the Royal Liverpool engineers) and allowed the Canadians to move men, munitions and information right up to within 25 yards of the German Front line in complete secrecy. I wouldn’t have liked to to have been one of the soldiers in the days before the attack began on 9th April. They were in there between 36 and 18 hours before the attack crouched in 1 metre wide by 2 metres high tunnels and had to keep totally silent because the ground was all chalk which is easy to tunnel in but also very good at conducting sound so if they even whispered the Germans would have advanced warning of the attack. They couldn’t even smoke to pass the time and steady their nerves because of the air flow and the danger of fire. They just had to sit there, alone in their own heads, probably wondering if they were going to survive the coming attack. Given that they’d already been told there would probably be a casualty (casualty being taken to mean, dead, wounded or missing) rate of one in three – which did turn out to be the case – this wasn’t exactly comforting.

Unusually all the men, including the privates, had been completely briefed on their part of the battle plan and provided with a map and instruction for each phase of the attack. This meant that even if their officers were killed they would be able to continue, a huge improvement on the farce that is otherwise known at the first day of the battle of the Somme the year before. As Emma said, the attack at Vimy Ridge succeeded because of the failures that had gone before and the lessons that had been learnt.

From the tunnels – which stayed at stead 12C all year, meaning that if you were in them you were protected from the worst of the weather – we were taken into the trenches themselves, many of which have been preserved by the expedient of laying them with sandbags filled with concrete, so it looks like how it would have done in WWI but isn’t likely to be overcome by the weather, collapse and bury anyone alive (which did happen in WWI, unfortunately on many occasions). The Allied trench line on Vimy Ridge was only 25 yards away from the German positions. I took several pictures from the Canadian observation posts and I have no idea how the men had the courage to scramble over the top when the time came. Maybe that last shot of Rum each man was issued as they filed in to take their positions was more vital than I first thought!

Canadian support trenches (sandbags now replaced with concrete)

I also understood why they never ran out of volunteers to be communications runners. These men, who wore a bright white armband to ensure none of the Allied troops shot them in the back for appearing to desert, ran with verbal messages from the front lines back to the battle head quarters over 10km away. The life expectance of a runner in battle was 3 to 7 days. However they got paid over 6 times the normal troop rate and were allowed to sleep in the tunnels, rather than the trenches, meaning that they were protected from the worst excesses of the French winter. I can sort of see the attraction.

View from Canadian front line trench across to German trenches

We then got a look at the German trenches, which were far better built (the Germans send units to certain trenches for the duration of the war, so they had far more incentive to dig in deep and improve their living quarters than the Allied troops who were often moved on after a few days or weeks) and their concrete observation posts were set up so all posts covered an arc and allowed full 180 viewing of no-mans land, something the ‘straight on’ nature of the allied trenches did not. It should also be noted that all the concrete in the Allied trenches and tunnel system was put in after, to preserve them, at the time of the battle the tunnels themselves, the underground railways system, practically everything except the telephone wires, was constructed with wood.

German lookout post

One of the last things that Emma said was that the Canadian monument at the top of the ridge was there not to commemorate victory, but to commemorate peace.  That is something we could do with being trumpeted from the rooftops during these Centenary years. These commemorations should not be about celebrating victory or glorifying war (war is the least glorious thing in the world) but about remembering all the lives lost in this horrific conflict and focusing our minds on the fact that although peace, of a sort, was achieved in 1918, our world is far from at peace and so much work is needed from all of us to move towards a conflict free earth.

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