Canada: The Story of Us

How a former insurance salesman became an unexpected hero at Vimy Ridge

It took months of drills and a total rethinking of traditional military protocol. But in 3 days, Canadian forces captured Vimy Ridge, a position allied forces had been unable to liberate for more than two years.

In 3 days, Canadian forces capture Vimy Ridge — something Allied forces had not been able to do for 3 years

General Arthur Currie's unconventional ideas helped Canada capture Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. One of his unusual ideas: battle plans were seen by everyone, from senior officers down to platoon commanders. (Canada: The Story of Us)

Watch Canada: The Story of Us on April 30 for more Canadian stories about WWI. 

It's April 9, 1917 and the Canadian Corps is going to try to succeed where other Allied armies have failed. They're going to push the Germans off of Vimy Ridge in Northern France.    

The German army has held the ridge for almost three years. Vimy Ridge is, in and of itself, not a particularly impressive topographic feature. It stretches for roughly seven kilometres and slowly rises to a height of about 145 metres. For the Germans though, it is crucial. From the top of the ridge, they can see for dozens of kilometres in any direction. As a result, the Germans guard it fiercely, with dozens of machine guns, barbed wire and artillery.

Previous Allied attempts to retake the ridge—by the French and French-Moroccans in 1915 and the British in 1916—have been disastrous, leading to roughly 200,000 Allied dead. But the Canadians have two things the French and British didn't: better intelligence and General Arthur Currie.

How do you take a ridge? Practice.

Over the course of the war, the Canadians have developed "trench raiding," largely the brainchild of Currie: sneaking behind German lines under cover of night and stealing crucial pieces of intelligence. As a result, the Canadian forces have the locations of the German tunnel entrances and machine guns.

Currie has created a mock version of Vimy Ridge several kilometres away from the ridge itself and has had the Canadians running up and down it in timed drills for months.

General Arthur Currie: from insurance salesman to commander

Unlike most of the Allied military commanders, Currie isn't a professional soldier. He was a reservist until the start of the war. He spent his adult life bouncing from job to job, working as a teacher, then in the insurance industry and later trying his hand at real estate speculation.

Currieis about to turn military strategy on its head.

Currie is about to turn military strategy on its head. The previous attacks on Vimy Ridge had been frontal assaults—wave after wave of infantry, charging up the hill.

Currie has a different idea: he wants artillery and infantry to work together in a tactic called the Creeping Barrage. Using precise timing, the artillery fire will saturate a specific point in the German defences, allowing the infantry to advance and capture key positions in the critical moments before the enemy soldiers can leave their bunkers. Gradually, they'll clear a path to the top of the ridge.

Empowering individual soldiers

Currie has other unusual ideas, too. He wants battle plans to be seen by everyone, from senior officers down to platoon commanders. He wants all 100,000 Canadian soldiers, down to the freshest private, to understand the details of the attack. That way, if their commanding officer is killed, or if they get separated from their unit, they'll still understand their objectives.

On April 9 (Easter Monday, 1917), at 5:30 a.m., the Canadians attack. This is the first time all four Canadian divisions have fought as one unit. Until now, they'd been part of British formations.

Their 983 artillery guns are so loud, they can be heard in England, 200 kms away.

Their 983 artillery guns are so loud, they can be heard in England, 200 kms away.

Currie's theories about empowering individual soldiers get put to the test when Capt. Thain MacDowell and two privates, Arthur Hay and James Kobus, get separated the rest of their battalion. MacDowell's three-man army follows a group of Germans to a tunnel where they've gone to escape Canadian artillery. When MacDowell goes into the tunnel after them, he finds himself face to face with 77 German soldiers (including two officers).

Canada: The Story of Us - The Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge

7 years ago
Duration 3:33
On April 12, 1917, after three days of battle, Canadians took control of Vimy Ridge, a feat that eluded the French and British for three years.

Forced to think on his feet, MacDowell calls out to his men, acting as if there is a larger force outside waiting to capture the Germans. Thankfully, Hay and Kobus follow his lead. MacDowell sends the Germans out in groups of 12, allowing his fellow soldiers to detain them. The three soldiers manage to capture all the Germans.

By nightfall on April 12, the fight is over. Roughly 7,000 Canadians have been wounded and 3,600 are dead, but the Canadians have succeeded in taking the Ridge back from the Germans, doing something in three days that the British and French hadn't been able to do in three years.