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VIMY (Book Review)


Army.ca Fixture
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At times there has been some debate as to when Canada really, as opposed to officially, became a nation in her own right. The history books of course give the date as July 1, 1867, the date the British North America Act came into effect.

The late former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau would in turn have argued that really Canada only became it‘s own master with the repatriation of the constitution from Britain in the 1980‘s. Mind as he was the architect of that, perhaps he could be seen as more than a bit biased.

Popular Canadian Author and Historian Pierre Berton however suggests that in many respects Canada ceased being a colony and became a nation in her own right On Easter Monday 1917 on a battle scarred ridge in northern France.

The battle of Vimy Ridge stands as one of the greatest feats of Canadian arms in that war, if not for all time. Certainly it stands alone as one of the few clear cut victories in a war best known for its costly blunders and bloody defeats.

In 1914 the Dominion of Canada while nominally independent had no distinct foreign policy of her own. When Britain declared war on Germany, Canada along with the other Dominions and colonies automatically did so as well.

The vast but underpopulated country soon raised a rather substantial army for overseas service, as well as naval and later air contingents. By wars end a Corps of four Divisions would be fighting in France. More importantly it was one of the few Imperial (British) formations that always managed to be kept at full strength and well equipped.

That was in the future though. The army that was despatched to help the mother country in 1914, was for the most part untrained, under equipped and in many cases poorly led.

Political indifference to the local pre war militia which to many was more a social than military organization and a hasty and poorly thought out mobilization plan resulted in chaos. The first contingent to arrive in England in 1914 while willing was totally unprepared for combat.

The untrained amateurs though learned fast. They were almost all recent immigrants. Many had come from the British Isles and for them it was simple, one went back to defend the mother country. Others though came from all over Europe and had been attracted by the chances for success in the new land.

Unlike a generation later in the Second World War this was not a group of men beaten down by ten years of depression that flocked to the colours. The new country was full of adventurers and success stories, who for various reasons put their lives on hold for a few years for the great adventure.

The British commanders found the rowdy undisciplined Canadians a totally different animal than their own rather disciplined soldiers. For their part the Canadians found

the British unbearably stuffy and arrogant. Canadians often declined what they fought were ridiculous orders during the training period in England. Numerous attempts were made to have the Canadian units broken up to be used as replacements for the British formations fighting in France. The Canadian Government was hard pressed to refuse this request and maintain their national identity.

The Canadians first saw action in 1915. At the second battle of Ypres the 1st Canadian Division held firm, and tossed away the rule book, while the seasoned French regular soldiers fled when the Germans unleashed a new weapon, poison gas. The amateurs soon lost that status and over the next two years became some of the best trained and led troops on the allied side.

By 1917 the war on the Western Front had bogged down into a stalemate that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Unimaginative British and French Generals, trained in 19th century tactics and unable or unwilling to acknowledge the technological advances made in weaponry had decided on a war of attrition to beat Germany.

Their logic was simple the combined populations of Britain (including her empire) and France far outstripped that of Germany. Therefore they could afford to lose more men, and eventually bleed Germany white and therefore win the war.

This callous and unimaginative tactic would result in the tragic battles of Verdun, Ypres, and the Somme where literally millions of lives would be tossed away for no appreciable gain.

In 1917, the overall Allied commander the Frenchs General Nivelle decreed a new offensive would take place. The French armies would advance in the south in hopes of recapturing some of the ground lost in the previous years disasters. To divert the German‘s attention, the British Armies to the north would stage a similar offensive in the Arras sector.

The British commander Field Marshall Douglas Haig decided that as part of his planned offensive the strategic ridge near the town of Vimy should be taken, if possible. Haig seriously doubted that Vimy Ridge could be taken by any attackers. The Germans had captured this area in 1914 and spent the past three years fortifying it.

The British and French armies had numerous times attempted to storm the ridge and met with bloody failure. The attempt had to be made though as whoever controlled the ridge basically controlled the whole region. Haig assigned the job to the Canadian Corps.

The Canadian Corps had just arrived in the Arras sector having served at the Somme. Their new commander General Julian Byng, a career British officer had initially resented taking command of the Canadians considering it a demotion of sorts. This aloof English aristocrat and the rowdy undisciplined but almost fearless troops he would command made a good match though.

Byng and his Canadian officers most notably his senior Canadian divisional commander Arthur Currie set about a detailed plan on how to capture Vimy Ridge. Here the unconventional, amateur aspects of the Canadians came into play. Rather that the accepted norm of just standing up and walking blindly into the enemy fire with the expected results, they developed new tactics.

Every aspect of the target was studied and examined. The Canadians had developed a new tactic at the Somme, the trench raid and soon became the foremost experts on it. Rather than the old policy of live and let live at night they crossed into the German lines on a regular basis and with what appeared to be no effort, raiding trenches to gain prisoners and information and generally unnerve the enemy.

This information and extensive aerial reconisance allowed the planners to build a picture of every aspect of the defences. The attacking troops were then extensively briefed on what they would face and how to deal with it. Models and full scale mock ups of enemy positions were built behind the lines and the attacking units practised and practised until their actions were almost automatic.

Battle drills were developed to deal with any possible enemy action and each and every soldier was fully briefed on the mission and not only his job but those of others around him. Junior officers practised taking command if their seniors became casualties and private soldiers learned the jobs of their NCO in case they had to take over.

Science and some pioneer ingenuity were applied to every aspect of the attack, from how to move forward supplies to moving prisoners and wounded back from the front. Communications at all levels was practised and fail safes built into every aspect of the plan. Nothing was left to chance.

Any professional soldier or student of military history will recognize that all of this is now almost standard procedures in almost any modern army in the world. In 1917 though it was not so. Many o the techniques and innovations developed by the Canadian Corps would later be adapted as the norm by the allies

One of the most innovative developments was in the use of artillery. A young artillery officer named Andrew McNaughton was tasked by Byng and Currie to deal with the German artillery at Vimy. McNaughton studied all the latest advances in artillery including many discarded by the professional artillery officers.

Using various techniques he was able to pinpoint almost every single German artillery piece. When the battle commenced most of the German guns were quickly put out of action. The allied guns were then able to lay down a creeping barrage which preceded the waves of attacking infantry as they advanced on the enemy trenches and kept the enemy‘s heads down, literally.

On the morning of April 79th, 1917 the four divisions of the Canadian Corps stormed over the top and up the slopes of Vimy Ridge. All the planning and perpetration, the long hours of training paid off. In a matter of hours the impregnable German position had fallen.

A massive rent was ripped in the front lines and a chance to move away from the stalemate in the mud of the past three years was at last possible. What the British and French had been unable to do in three years and repeated attempts, the rowdy undisciplined amateurs from across the Atlantic accomplished in a matter of hours.

The aftermath of Vimy was two fold. The balance of the British and French attacks bogged down and the war continued on for another year. So certain was Haig that the Canadians would fail, that he failed to have forces in place to exploit any breakthrough.

After Vimy Currie took command of the Canadian Corps which for the rest of the war had the dubiuos honour of becoming a shock formation. The Canadians would invariably lead all new allied assaults until the Armistice was signed on November 11th 1918. At the signing of that Armistice, Canada was granted the privilege of being a full partner, among the victorious nations no longer a dependant.

Pierre Berton is a well known Canadian author and popular historian, perhaps best known for his account of the building of the national trans continental railway. His well researched account of the battle of Vimy Ridge is possibly one of the most readable ones available. Burton is more a social historian than a pure empirical one.

Vimy does not dwell on all aspect of the battle. Those looking for exactly what each and every regiment did at each and every minute of the battle would be better off to examine any of the official histories of the battle and/or the various regimental histories of the units that fought there.

What Berton does, and does well is present an overall portrait of the battle and the events leading up to it through the participants. He introduces the reader to various characters who fought at Vimy and tells us their personal story and through that the story of the battle itself.

Arthur Currie, the unlikely hero is here. Currie was the exact opposite of what one would expect of a military hero. Overweight and pear shaped he was a former school teacher and real estate speculator who had joined the pre war Canadian militia mainly for the social aspects and possible business contacts it provided. He would emerge as one of the most brilliant of all the allied generals.

Alongside Currie and many of the other commanders though are the ordinary soldiers who fought through the snow and mud that day. The tales of the Privates and Sergeants, why they joined and what they accomplished or endured.

There are the feats of heroism including the accounts of all four of the men who would win the Victoria Cross that day. There are also the more mundane and ordinary memories too. The soldier who encounters his old school yard nemesis in the middle of the battlefield and how the former victim and bully act together against the common foe. These tales almost allow the viewer to experience what it must have like that day.

Berton is an unabashed patriot, an almost un Canadian characteristic. In this as in his other works he goes to great pains to show the development of a unique Canadian culture and identity. Hence his argument that a nation may have been born on the muddy slopes of a French ridge through the bravery and sacrifice of thousands of young men so many years ago.
Ok let me get a quick preemptive strike in here before Michael D. or someone else comes in guns blazing.

As I‘ve said, I write reviews for another site, including book and movie reviews which I‘ve begun posting here. This review of Vimy was written for that site and published there today as well.

The target audience is much different than here, hence the perhaps overtly long and yes I‘ll be honest over simplification of the role of the Canadian Army in WW1.

Also it‘s an American site and as our southern cousins are often famous for their ignorance of their northern neighbours, I had to really blow our proverbial horn once or twice. Mind Berton himself is guilty of doing the same thing in the book in question.
When I read this book it gave me the chills. Anytime I read about that war I am amazed that anyone could survive beyond it. The most profound paragraph I read discussed how the French and then the British were pushed out. When the Canadians arrived, they began to dig out the trenches. After digging a few feet they came across british bodies buried in the sludge. They dug a bit further, and found the bodies of French soldiers. How is that for a morale boost! Yet the Canadians did it where others failed.

Remarkable if you ask me.