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ARCHIVED - Oral Histories of the First World War:
Veterans 1914-1918

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Graphical element: Rendering first aid to a wounded Canadian soldier

Vimy Ridge

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Essay on Vimy Ridge

The attack on Vimy Ridge was conceived as a diversion to draw German troops away from the area where the French army was to launch its main 1917 offensive. The Vimy Ridge assault was assigned to the Canadian Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng.

The Germans had held their position at Vimy since October 1914. In that time, they had heavily fortified their lines. These defences had proven their worth; by 1917, the Germans had already beaten off several French and British attacks, in which the allies had lost over 100,000 men.

The preliminary artillery bombardment opened on March 20. Superb preparations and a heavy concentration of artillery made the bombardment crushingly effective. The German troops referred to the unending barrage, which doubled in intensity from April 2 to April 9, as their "week of suffering."

The attack itself was launched on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, in the midst of a driving snowstorm. The four Canadian divisions swept forward behind a creeping barrage that advanced 100 yards every three minutes. The troops had to move uphill across difficult terrain, but the advance went so well that the Canadians were able to capture many German trenches before their defenders emerged from the dugouts where they had been sheltering from the barrage. Nonetheless, German shellfire and snipers took a significant toll, and in places there was fierce bayonet fighting.

By mid-afternoon, the Canadians had taken most of their objectives. Only on the left, at Hill 145 and a plateau called the Pimple, where the 4th Division faced the worst terrain and toughest German defences, were the Canadians held up. It took three more days of fighting before the Canadians were able to gain control of this part of the front.

The capture of Vimy Ridge was a great tactical success. It did not lead to a breakthrough, but it had not been designed to do so. Despite the stunning victory, losses were heavy -- there were 10,602 Canadian casualties, 3,598 of them fatal. Perhaps the most lasting significance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge was its emergence as a symbol of Canada's coming-of-age as a nation, which was later memorialized in stone with the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial in 1936.