As the centennial of the spectacular 1917 Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge draws near, it is time to put some context on the battle and the Canadian Corps whose success we honour.
For most of those 100 years, most of us have operated with some fundamental misconceptions about the First World War and the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
Some myths are widespread – like the one about “Chateau Generals” removed from the reality of fighting at the front. Recent scholarship has noted that the risk of being killed was higher for the WW-1 Generals of Britain, France and Germany than it was for any major war in the last 200 years. They knew exactly what front-line conditions were like, they were up there often enough.
The belief in tactical ineptitude was real enough in 1914-1915; what followed in all the major armies was constant experimentation in technique, technology and training to find a way to beat the paradigm of the Trenches. The CEF utilized the innate resilience and flexibility that comes with the Canadian character; Byng and Currie deliberately made the CEF a pioneer in breaking that paradigm.
The disaster of the first day at the Somme – so close to the hearts of Newfoundand – wasn’t repeated and the next four months of that battle proved vital in the development of what came to be called “Bite and Hold” attacks. These depended upon superb planning, and aggressive but flexible soldiers, and the CEF proved to be masters of the tactic, achieving much at the Somme in October 1916.
Looking at the words and recollections of the veterans themselves, they thought Hill-70 (in August, 1917) and Passchendaele that autumn were much tougher encounters, and yet their successes were just as spectacular as they were in Vimy. Will we also celebrate Amiens (August 1918) and the Hundred Days that followed? The Canadian Corps were absolute masters of the battlefield then and their accomplishments far outstrip those achieved on Vimy Ridge.
We also really do not understand the character and motivation of our soldiers a hundred years ago. Looking at the nominal roll of one Battalion (the 20th, which fought from September 1915 until November 1918) was quite revealing. At full strength, a WW-1 Infantry Battalion would parade 1,000 men. Through the war, 4,310 men passed through the unit.
Of them, 843 (19.6 percent) were killed or died of wounds; another 91 died from accident or disease. Some 1,855 (43 percent) went home with at least one wound stripe on their tunic. It was surprising to note how many of them were wounded three or four times and kept going back for more.
Anther surprise was that only 22 of them were ever taken prisoner, nine of them in one episode at Passchendaele when a stretcher party got disoriented and strayed into German lines. The statistics of other Canadian units in both World Wars suggest Canadians are somewhat more stubborn and unyielding than other troops – a phenomenon we need to explore.
For the 20th Battalion, the real clincher about their commitment and stubbornness comes from a fight in early October of 1918 that few Canadians have ever heard of – a suburb of Cambrai called Iwuy. After two months of clawing through every defence line the Germans had on the Western Front, the battalion could only muster 300 men on their feet. The next day they still kept going forward.
Iwuy anchored the last defence-belt of the Hindenburg Line, and once it fell, the Allies ordered a general advance from Switzerland to the North Sea. One can note that the CEF was already through all the German defences when this was ordered; and nobody advanced further or more furiously than the Canadian Corps did in 100 days from Amiens to Mons. We should remember this as we contemplate Vimy.