Victory at Vimy 100 years ago

Photo: Shirley Nadeau

This starkly simple wooden cross stands within the walls of the Quebec Citadelle in memory of the “officers, N.C.O.s and men of the 2nd Canadian Division and of the 13th Infantry Brigade who fell in the Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917.”

One hundred years ago, from April 9 to 12, Canadian soldiers fought and won the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the most important national event of the First World War.

Vimy Ridge, in northern France, was a stronghold in the German line of defense. The seven-kilometre-long escarpment that rises to an elevation of 475 feet stood as a fortress crisscrossed by tunnels, protected by steel and concrete fortifications and defended by three German divisions and many guns. The French failed on three occasions to take it and suffered 150,000 casualties in the process. The British never succeeded either.

The Canadian Army Corps, comprised of four divisions, was tasked with the capture of the German position. It was the first time that the 100,000 Canadian soldiers in France operated together. The Fourth Division was commanded by Major-General David Watson, a militia officer who in civilian life was the owner and managing director of the Quebec Morning Chronicle, a forerunner of the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph.

Watson had been the commanding officer of the Eighth Royal Rifles of Quebec City before the war. He was among the first 33,000 volunteers who assembled at Camp Valcartier in August 1914 and departed from the Port of Quebec aboard the 30 cruise ships that transported the initial Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The battle started at 5:30 a.m. on April 9 with an artillery barrage by 983 canons and 150 machine guns. The pounding lasted an hour and 40 minutes during which 250,000 shells and seven million bullets were fired at the enemy. One third of the guns aimed were aimed at the German trenches while the remainder provided a continuous protective curtain directly ahead of the advancing troops. One observer called it a “moving Niagara of steel.”

The victory was total. The Canadian troops occupied the ridge and the Germans never tried to take it back. The feat was a turning point in Canadian history and Vimy Ridge emerged as a symbol of nationhood. English-speaking soldiers who used to call themselves British now became Canadians. Men and women, at home or at the front, ceased to be colonials. The process was gradual, of course, and had already started before the battle, but the pride resulting from the victory at Vimy undoubtedly reinforced the feelings of the people.

At the end of the war, Prime Minister Robert Borden insisted that Canada be a signatory of the Armistice. The country obtained a seat and a vote at the League of Nations. And 14 years after Vimy, England finally gave Canada its full independence by adopting the Statute of Westminster.

In 1900, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier declared that the 20th century would belong to Canada. After Vimy Ridge, an anecdote seemed to prove him right. A young gunnery officer, returning to France after a stay in England, was sitting in a café and mentioned to a friend that he had just learned that Vimy had been captured. A group of French officers, at a nearby table, heard him and one of them declared that it was impossible. But when told that the Canadians had done it, he replied: "Ah! Les Canadiens! C'est possible.”