Vimy Ridge, in northern France, is high enough to give a clear view of the surrounding countryside for many miles. It was taken by German forces in October 1914 and formed a key part of their Germans’ defense system. Allied forces (British and French) had attempted to re-capture the ridge in October 1914, May and September 1915, and again in February 1916. In May 1916, the Germans pushed the allied forces from the few positions they had gained.
Canadian forces replaced the British at Vimy Ridge in October 1916. Months of preparation followed, which included building tunnels, trenches, tramways, and roads. John Adams of Gray Creek served with the 176th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers and was one of the soldiers involved in this work. During the final build-up to the battle, he returned to his unit with the 16th Reserve Battalion and had just taken over relief in the trenches at the front line when he was wounded and transferred to England. Fred Hilton, laying track and ballasting up to the forward trenches with the 5th Battalion Railway Troops, was killed on 4 April 1917.
The preparation included a gas attack on the German lines, followed by an assault by troops. When the wind changed direction, the gas drifted to another part of the line and left the German defences intact. The assault failed, and the Allied trenches were subjected to heavy shellfire. Charles Pendry, who had been transferred to the 54th Battalion only a few weeks before, was struck by a shell and killed.
Rupert Wilson of Boswell was also killed in the lead-up to Vimy Ridge, though we have no details about the circumstances.
Extensive reconnaissance used observation balloons for the first time, and the German defenses were subjected to a three-week barrage of artillery in advance.
Each of the four Canadian divisions was tasked with capturing and holding a specific part of the German line. The 1st Division, on the right, had the broad southern sector of the ridge, with the farthest distance to advance of all the Canadian divisions. The 2nd Division, on the 1st’s left, was to capture the town of Thelus. The 3rd Division was tasked with capturing the narrow central section of the ridge and La Folie Farm, while the 4th Division, farthest to the left, was striving for Hill 145 and a large, heavily defended knoll called “The Pimple” on the northern end of the battlefield.
The Canadian troops all along the line were supported by artillery units of the British 5th Division. Although we do not know exactly where he served, it is possible that Dennis Howard was among them.
The attack began at 5:30 AM. The advance of the 4th Division ground to a halt almost as soon as it left the trenches, due to machine-gun fire from an undamaged section of the enemy trenches and from the Pimple, but the other three divisions all reached their first objective, called the Black Line, about an hour later. The second objective, the Red Line and the town of Les Tilleuls, was in the hands of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions between 7:00 and 7:30 AM, though the 4th Division was still bogged down on the left, exposing the flank of the 3rd Division. Charles Tromblay, serving with the Canadian Mounted Rifles in the 3rd Division, might have been among those troops struggling to establish a defensive flank in that gap.
This success came at a cost. Heavy casualties resulted from machine gun fire from the intermediate trenches in the German lines. William Johnson of Wynndel, serving with the 58th (Central Ontario) Battalion in the 3rd Canadian Division, was killed on that first day of battle, as was Stanley Gwynne, serving with in the 1st Division.
Irwin Simmons of Creston was also killed. He served with the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion (1st Canadian Division). 100 of its 600 men were killed in the initial attack, or died later of their wounds. Canadian burial squads followed the attack, burying the dead in temporary battlefield cemeteries, including mine craters. 44 of the dead of the Canadian Scottish were buried in a mine crater in No Man’s Land, designated CA40.
After the war, exhumation squads exhumed thousands of isolated graves, bringing them into permanent war graves cemeteries. CA40 was designated to be exhumed and moved to Nine Elms, but there is no evidence of any of the men from CA40 there. Irwin Howard Simmons of Creston is one of those 44 men. Military historian Norm Christie believes he has found Crater CA40, and is now attempting to raise funds to explore the crater and, if possible, bury those men in official Canadian war cemeteries.
On the left, the 4th Canadian Division, tasked with capturing Hill 145 and the Pimple, found itself attacking the most heavily fortified section of the German line. The Canadian advance in this sector ground to a halt almost as soon as it left the trenches. Steady machine-gun fire from the Pimple kept the 4th pinned down, and its progress was further impeded by the steep, badly cratered terrain.
The 4th engaged in back-and-forth fighting on Hill 145 in mid-afternoon, but, eventually, the German position on the hill was outflanked and they were forced to pull back. The hill was captured and, except for the Pimple, the whole of Vimy Ridge was in Canadian hands by nightfall on 10 April.
Sapper William Smith of Porthill served with the Fourth Canadian Division, and took part in this attack. On 23 April, he wrote a letter home in which he announced that Private Stanley Reid had been killed during the battle for Vimy Ridge, probably during the attack on Hill 145.
William Fraser, of Ledlanet Ranch at Kootenay Bay, was serving with the 9th Field Ambulance attached to the Third Canadian Division. It was his job to help carry the dead and wounded off the battlefield. That job, though, did not eliminate the risk of being wounded; Fraser later wrote, “I recall the first glimpse of the Douai plain stretching into the distance, as we reached the crest of the ridge. As we moved over the summit, shrapnel was bursting overhead. One piece, which I still possess, penetrated the sleeve of my tunic.”
The delays that the 4th Canadian Division experienced at the start of its advance forced the delay of its final assault on the Pimple until 12 April. That morning, the initial Canadian assault began at 4:00 AM, but was promptly driven back by the defenders. At 5:00 AM, the 10th Canadian Brigade, one of three brigades involved in this part of the battle, began a new assault. The German defensive artillery, responding late to the renewed attack, lost the opportunity to repulse it and the Canadians were able to push through the German lines. A day of heavy fighting followed, but the entire Pimple was in Canadian hands by 6:00 PM.
One such attack/counter-attack took place at Willerval, just south-east of Vimy Ridge, on 14 April. The 8th Canadian Brigade, part of the 3rd Canadian Division, was tasked with attacking the German gun battery there. During the attack, an enemy shell fell among a gun crew of the 8th Canadian Brigade. Creston’s Private William McBean was serving with a medical corps attached to the 8th and rushed to the aid of the wounded gunners. At that moment, a second shell landed almost in the crater of the first, killing McBean and the remaining members of the gun crew.
Unfortunately, as had happened numerous times in previous battles, the success of the first days of the Battle of Arras could not be exploited. The stunning advance of the British army, (of which the four Canadian divisions formed a part, of nearly 5km on 9-12 April ground to a halt, and the spring offensive deteriorated into a series of localised, bloody battles. These included Arleux (28-29 April), Fresnoy (3-4 May), and Roeux (13-14 May). Hubert Mahood was killed in action at Arleux; Frank May, who also fought there, survived that battle, but was killed only four months later at Loos.