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ARCHIVED - Canada and the First World War

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We Were There

Donald Fraser

The Battle of Vimy Ridge

The 32-year-old Donald Fraser enlisted in the 31st (Alberta) Battalion on November 24, 1914. His experiences, which he meticulously recorded in his diary, were typical of the thousands of Canadians who served King and Country during the Great European War. Private Fraser first went into action in September 1915 at Kemmel, near Ypres, Belgium, and over the next two years he fought in every major battle in which Canada participated -- St. Eloi, Mount Sorrel, The Somme, Vimy, and Hill 70 -- before being wounded at Passchendaele in November 1917. Fraser's account of the Vimy operation brings the common soldier's perspective to one of the more decisive battles of the war. Over a four-day period, the Canadian assault on the 60-metre high, muddy scarp gained more ground, seized more guns and captured more prisoners than any previous British offensive.

Donald Fraser's Diary

Donald Fraser's account of the Great War is representative of the common soldier's story. Fraser began his detailed diary shortly after his arrival at Kemmel and kept his entries up-to-date throughout his entire two-year stint at the front, even though it was against Army orders, because it could fall into enemy hands. A narrative of his experiences, based on his diary, was started in the summer of 1918 while he was recovering from wounds. Unfortunately, the original diary has been lost, but the narrative remains. It was later edited by Professor Reginald H. Roy of the University of Victoria, and published by Sono Nis Press in 1985. A paperback edition was published in 1998 by CEF Books.

With the permission of professor Reginald H. Roy.

Vimy Ridge

Vimy Ridge was of great tactical importance to the western front, since it was the only significant height of land in northeastern France. It formed a key position linking Germany's new Hindenburg Line with the trenches that led north from Arras, France. The Canadian assault on Vimy was undertaken as part of a much larger initiative by armies of the Entente - the name given to the British and French alliance. The Canadian operation was to help secure the flank of the British Third Army which had spearheaded an attack against the German lines south of Vimy in the Scarpe Valley. The combined British-Canadian offensive was intended as a diversion for a much larger attack by the French between Soissons and Reims. Unfortunately, despite Canada's success, British and French forces were unable to make much headway. As a result, the great break through that the Entente had hoped for would take another 15 months. In a war that had given the people at home little to celebrate, news of Canada's well-planned attack and clear victory was greeted with wide enthusiasm.

First Army Administrative Report of the Vimy Ridge Operations, Part V, Maps, Plans and Diagrams

The success of the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge immediately prompted a number of specialized studies by various military authorities of the Entente. The intent, of course, was to try and duplicate the Vimy experience in subsequent engagements with the Germans. This part of one report shows the disposition of units along the Vimy front, the communication plan between the front and rear sections of the line, and the extensive use that the Canadian Corps made of its ammunition supplies.

Canadians at Vimy Ridge

The attack on Vimy Ridge called for an in-line frontal assault by all four Canadian divisions. The plan was simple in principle but complicated in practice since the advancing infantry had to be protected from German machine gun fire by a creeping barrage, which called for accurate and timely artillery fire. However, before the attack could begin, the Canadian Corps spent almost three months reinforcing their own lines and mapping German defences (in particular their trenches, gun emplacements, barbed wire entanglements, dug-outs, supply dumps, listening posts, roads and railway lines). In the weeks leading up to the attack, the largest concentration of artillery since the beginning of the war delivered some 2,500 tons of ammunition a day on German targets in an effort to paralyse their resistance. The attack called for careful coordination and open communication between infantry, artillery, aerial observers and senior command. It also required that every man understand fully his responsibilities and the objectives of his unit.

Prisoners and Casualties

No figures are available on German losses during the months of bombardment leading up to the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge; however, earlier assaults by the armies of the Entente resulted in about 220,000 casualties on all sides. Out of the 40,000 Canadian infantry who participated in the April advance, casualties totalled about 10,500, of which 3,500 were never to return home. The Canadian Corps captured about 4,000 German prisoners during the assault.