Have you ever seen this photograph? When we think of the soaring monument that now towers above Vimy Ridge, we rarely if ever recall that Adolph Hitler once toured the site.

The fall out from the battle of Arras and the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadians had a number of important consequences.

First of all, although the Canadians had not been expected or even particularly wanted to meet their objectives, the Allies had not had a victory for quite some time and the media, the public and the British generals needed a win to brag about. The news of the victory circled the world, written on a scroll of purple, with a pen of gold.

The skilled and efficient action of the Canadian troops had seriously impressed the British generals. The training that had been provided had been an experiment in warfare, with ordinary soldiers having the battle plan explained to them, being taught what they were doing and why. Military strategy was no longer the exclusive property of the military elite, and the results had been impressive. The performance had drawn the gaze of Field Marshal Douglas Haig. For an army that had proven it could do the impossible, he had another assignment in mind — the capture of a little village in Belgium that had been lost to the Allies in 1915 — called Passchendaele.

For the Allies, three thousand five hundred ninety eight men were killed at Vimy Ridge. Seven thousand and four were wounded. The toll for the Germans is estimated to be even worse although the numbers of those who were wounded, killed and missing is unknown. Four thousand were captured.

This is easy to forget as a Canadian, heady with victory and history. The Germans had fought in horrible conditions too — and they fought well. The German troops stationed at Vimy were specialized fighting forces and they had shown the world why. As deadly as World War One was for the Allies, with thousands wounded, killed or simply missing, the casualties for the Germans were even worse. When the Treaty of Versailles was eventually signed, it was a harsh, punitive and humiliating document that hurt both German pride and their economy. Although World War Two is often the conflict we point to when we want to justify war, it is the direct descendant of World War One, which just might be the most pointless, inexplicable conflict in history.

When we think of the instantly recognizable iconic monument at Vimy, what many don’t know is that Hitler — a decorated veteran of World War One who was wounded on multiple occasions — once toured the site. The image of the person who symbolizes the heart of darkness superimposed on one of our most recognizable and respected national symbols is sobering.

I’d like to introduce you to two southern Alberta veterans who served at Vimy Ridge and we’ll do that in the next few days.

Still Bravely Singing

It’s the most healing sound in the world; the meadowlarks are here and their songs are echoing and re-echoing across the prairie this morning. These angels of music sing me awake in the dawn and they pray me to sleep in the cold spring twilights. My heart asks, what does the peace and solace they offer have to do with the filth and obscenity of the trenches, and in the second part of the Battle of Arras as the assault on Vimy Ridge continued 102 years ago today…….

Read part one here.

Throughout the night of 8/9th April, the Canadian guns had continued unceasingly to pound the beleaguered Germans. There was also a miserable sleeting snowstorm. Everyone had to fight in it of course but it was blowing right into the faces of the Germans and so made their conditions even more dispiriting and exhausting. April 9th was also, incidentally, Easter Monday.

As we already know, the Battle of Vimy Ridge lasted over a period of several days and it was an absolutely ferocious conflict in which the Germans and Canadians essentially fought each other to a standstill. (The Germans also recorded Vimy as a victory).

By 12th April, the Germans had lost control of the rest of the ridge but were still in possession of The Pimple. The 4th Canadian Division attacked them and fought with valour but a clean up crew was needed … and that crew was the 10th Canadian Brigade from Calgary, Alberta, my own beloved city.

Yes, troops from Calgary, a city barely forty years old, were there — the 10th and the 40th. And they fought bravely, with the 10th planting its standard on the face of the hated and feared Pimple. The battle flags of the 10th and 40th hung in the Central United Church until last year, when one was relocated to the Military Museums. The other is still hanging in the church; it is not a replica. It is the same flag that was carried by that force of Calgarians on Vimy Ridge during that battle. You can go to visit it and I encourage you to do that. It is a life changing sight, the power of history in our own city.

As I was putting together this blog post, my friend Bruce from New Zealand reminded me of the troops from ANZAC and it is my pleasure to honour their courage, bravery and expertise. “The Colonials” who had been dismissed and underrated by their British overlords fought with unlooked for courage from the very beginning and many became skilled and hardened warriors. I want to especially highlight the role of those New Zealand troops whose specialized knowledge and efforts in mining and tunneling were such an important part of the successes that the Allies had in the Battle of Arras.

What was the fall out from Vimy Ridge? There were certainly consequences from this rather insignificant battle that the Canadians were not expected … or even particularly wanted … to win. And we’ll explore that part of the story next.

Vimy 102

“The French couldn’t take it, and the British couldn’t take it. But you Canadians are such fools that you don’t know when a place can’t be taken.”

In the weeks leading up to the Battle of Arras, Canadians had been preparing Vimy Ridge for assault by using special fuses to destroy barbed wire. They also used gas. Horses, of course, could not put on gas masks, and many of the wretched animals that had been the pride of the German cavalry died in agony. But, this neutralized the heavy German guns. The Germans called it “The Week of Suffering.”

The innovation of the battle plan and the superior training of the Canadian soldiers is attributed to their success at Vimy, a battle they were not expected to win. Measures such as providing every soldier with a watch and a compass were employed. This sounds like a really common sense thing to do, but at the time it was completely unheard of.

Also, every soldier was familiar with the battle plan. Strategy was no longer viewed as something comprehensible only to the military elite, and ordinary men were taught to understand the thought behind the plan, its objectives and what they were expected to do. Again, this may seem like an obvious step but at the time, it was radical thinking.

Calgary’s 10th and 40th battalions were there! 

As the sun set on 8 April, the ridge that had taunted the Allies since pretty well the beginning of the war was in Canadian possession — all except for a feared and hated spot known as “The Pimple.” And Calgary’s 10th would play a very important role in taking the last holdout on that blood soaked ridge the following day. I’ll finish the story tomorrow. #Vimy102