Vimy Ridge's shock and awe remembered

The First World War fight to take Vimy Ridge cost Canada dearly, but the battle that began on April 9, 1917, would become the cornerstone of the country's image of its place in the world.

3,600 Canadian soldiers died, another 5,000 wounded in First World War battle

Second World War veterans carry Canadian flags, right, and the United Kingdom's flag, centre, as they march towards the Vimy War Memorial in northern France on April 7, 2002, as part of a ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge. (Associated Press)

The towering 10-storey white limestone Vimy Memorial monument near Arras, France, fell into disrepair as rain eroded the soft stone and winters cracked some of the building blocks. After three years of restoration work, which included dismantling and rebuilding much of the structure, the restored monument was dedicated on Monday, April 9, 2007. Five years later to the day, Monday April 9, 2012, marks the 95th anniversary of the beginning of the battle of Vimy Ridge.

We may marvel at the firepower of the hundreds of missiles and smart bombs the U.S. uses in its modern warfare, but an overwhelming battlefield fusillade creating shock and awe is not a new idea. In fact, Canadian soldiers fighting in the First World War were pioneers of the tactic.

It was at Vimy Ridge, a strategic 14-kilometre long escarpment that overlooks the Douai plain of France. German occupying troops controlled the ridge using a network of trenches that snaked along the crest and down into the valley, connecting with another network of natural caves.

The Canadian Light Horse rides into action at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

One hundred and fifty thousand French and British soldiers had died trying to take it back. Allied commanders believed the ridge to be impregnable.

But the Canadians had a plan, the first battle strategy for this new nation's commanders to conceive and execute on their own.

Even military "experts" of the time admitted dubiously that the Canadians' plan couldn't be any worse than the British tactics at the Somme, which cost 24,000 Canadian casualties. So the Canadian army — all four divisions, totalling 100,000 men — got the go-ahead.

The ground assault had been planned meticulously for months. Full-scale replicas of the Vimy terrain were built to rehearse unit commanders on what to expect both from the enemy and from Canadian units on either side. Canadian spotters had identified and mapped about 80 per cent of the German gun positions.

Five kilometres of tunnels were dug in order to move Canadian troops and ammunition up to the front without their being seen by German observers. And for a couple of weeks leading up to the battle, Canadian and British artillery pounded the Germans with 2,500 tons of ammunition per day.

Huge artillery barrage

At 5:30 in the morning on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, the assault began. It was raining. It was freezing cold. And it began with a huge artillery barrage — shock and awe 1917-style.

More than 1,100 cannons of various descriptions, from British heavy naval guns mounted on railway cars miles behind the battlefield, to portable field artillery pieces dragged into place by horses, mules or soldiers just behind the Canadian lines, fired continuously — in some cases until they exhausted their ammunition.

A large naval gun fires during the Vimy Ridge battle in April 1917. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

The Canadian battle plan was simple: the withering barrage provided a screen for the Canadian troops to hide behind. Hundreds of shells would land at once, spraying plumes of muddy earth upward like a polluted version of some giant decorative water fountain.

Every three minutes, the 850 Canadian cannons would aim a little higher, advancing the row of shellfire forward by 90 metres.

The attacking Canadian foot soldiers were expected to keep up, advancing, taking and occupying German positions, moving forward, never stopping, never racing ahead.

Falling behind would make them clearer targets for German guns mounted higher up the ridge. Getting ahead of the artillery would put them in danger of being blasted by their own guns.

Cornerstone of country's image

The giant naval cannons focused on the reinforced concrete bunkers protecting German heavy gun emplacements. The immense but inaccurate shells sent plumes of dirt, concrete and shrapnel skyward with every impact. The craters left behind were as large as houses.

The fight to take Vimy Ridge cost Canada dearly, but it would become the cornerstone of the country's image of its place in the world. In four days, 3,600 Canadian soldiers died, another 5,000 were wounded. But the ridge was taken, much of it in the first day.

The valour of the troops, the originality of the plan, the success where larger, more established armies had failed, all contributed to a new nation's pride.

Canadian soldiers return from Vimy Ridge in May 1917. (National Archives of Canada/William Ivor Castle/Canadian Press)

The battle was hailed as the first allied success of the long war, achieved mostly as a result of the innovation of using a creeping, continuous massive artillery barrage to protect squads of advancing troops. Both sides used the tactic in future battles.

But even today we're paying the cost. At Vimy and other former First World War battlefields, the ground is so full of unexploded ordnance that visitors are warned not to stray from marked pathways.

The risk from shells that fell and never exploded is still so high that it's too dangerous, nearly a century later, to walk onto the actual battlefield to search for remains of soldiers listed as "missing."

Today, there's a large park at Vimy Ridge dedicated to Canada. The striking memorial features a 30-tonne limestone figure carved from a single block, a hooded figure representing Canada herself, gazing down on a single tomb overlooking the Douai plain.

The twin stone pillars list the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in France and whose remains were never found.