Battle of Arras 3
08 min 23 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
The British advance eastward in the winter of 1917 was not a military victory, but soldiers and civilians alike rejoiced at any ground gained. The destruction wrought by the enemy, as at Arras, ought to have eliminated any such joy. Certainly it increased hatred for the enemy and the desire for vengeance.
This clip includes a fine scene of South African infantry staging a raid on an enemy trench position and returning with German prisoners.
Pieces of History
Canadian Small Arms of the First World War
Historian, Canadian War Museum
Although the carnage of the First World War was unprecedented, there was nothing truly new about the small arms used during the fighting. The story behind these weapons and their terrible efficiency stem from the tremendous advances in science and technology made throughout the late 19th century.
By 1850, arms factories in Europe and the United States were making the most of advances in metallurgy and mass production, and were capable of manufacturing hundreds of rifles daily. Repeating rifles, which could fire several shots before being re-loaded, were used extensively during the American Civil War (1861-65), as were the first simple multi-barrelled machine guns. More powerful ammunition was available in the 1870s. The American inventor Hiram Maxim introduced the first true machine gun, capable of firing 450 rounds per minute, in 1884. The water-cooled barrel gave Maxim’s machine gun the ability to fire for hours without stopping. By the turn of the century, most European and North American soldiers carried high-powered rifles that could fire 15 shots per minute at an effective range of 800 metres. The days of reloading a single-shot rifle, in the open, five or six times a minute, were long gone. The stage was set for the killing fields that were to come.
Two late-19th-century inventions, the Lee-Enfield rifle and the Ross rifle, the first Canadian-made military rifle, are central to this story.
In the late 1870s, the British Army accepted Scottish-born Canadian James Paris Lee’s rifle design for trials, ultimately resulting in the adoption of the Lee-Metford rifle, then later the Lee Enfield Mk 1 rifle. It was purchased by Canada and used in the South African War.
Sir Charles Ross designed his straight-pull bolt-action rifle and patented the design in 1897. The bolt mechanism, based on the Austrian Mannlicher rifle, also included Ross’s own innovations. In theory, this type of bolt-action was very easy to use and could be reloaded very quickly. The more quickly a rifle can be re-loaded, the more firepower it provides. Its drawback was a complicated manufacturing process and its fragile loading mechanism. Ross revised his design, introducing it as the Model 1900, then later with an improved bolt mechanism in 1901, both of which were submitted to American trials as a potential service rifle.
After the South African War, Sir Fredrick Borden, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, lobbied unsuccessfully to have the Lee-Enfield rifle built by a British firm in Canada. When the British turned down Borden’s request, the Canadian government turned to Ross and his rifle. After a series of modifications, Canada accepted the design, Ross built a factory at the Citadel in Quebec, and the rifle went into production. In 1904, the Royal North West Mounted Police received 1,000 rifles, the Department of Marine and Fisheries another 500. In the coming years, the rifle underwent continual modifications and developments to suit various requirements, including target shooting by the Canadian team at Bisley, where the Ross excelled. In August 1905, the militia received its first order of 1,000 Ross Mk 2 rifles. By 1911, the Mk 3 had been accepted and was being manufactured for the militia.
Britain tested the Ross rifle between 1900 and 1912, rejecting it because of problems with the design, including a propensity to jam.
The British Army continued to use the Lee-Enfield and in 1903, introduced the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (S.M.L.E.) into service. The S.M.L.E., a shortened version of the Lee-Enfield Mk I, had been developed as a result of experience gained during the South African War. The design and construction were simple, if not crude, but also robust, functioning under less than ideal conditions.
Ross continued to develop and fine-tune his design, resulting in dozens of variations. Between 1903 and 1915, 419,130 Ross rifles were manufactured, with most going to Canadian troops, and some to Newfoundland and Britain.
The Canadian forces entered the First World War with the Ross rifle, Mk 2, Mk 3, and its subsequent variations. Almost immediately, its shortcomings became evident.
On March 10, 1915 the 1st Canadian Division went into battle at Neuve Chapelle, France. The Canadians were heavily engaged and, to the horror of the soldiers, their Ross rifles began to jam. The reasons for this were numerous: the ammunition provided was often inconsistent in size; muddy conditions allowed dirt to build up in the complicated loading mechanism, and the heat generated by rapid-firing caused the closely machined parts to expand and seize. A design flaw also made the bolt difficult to lock, if it had been assembled improperly, and some bolts were said to have blown back into the user’s face. Canadian soldiers soon began discarding the Ross in favour of the British S.M.L.E. Mk 3*, when they could find them in the field. General E.A.H. Alderson, commander of the 1st Canadian Division, was forced to issue an order banning the use of the S.M.L.E by Canadian troops.
When the Canadians fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, in late April 1915, the Ross failed again. Outnumbered and facing the first gas attack of the war, the Canadians found their rifles jamming. Some reports had them “Clubbing furiously at their seized bolts with trenching tools and boot heels.” By the end of the battle, hundreds had discarded their Ross rifles in favour of the trusted S.M.L.E.
By June 1915, British Field Marshal Sir John French ordered the Canadians under his command to be re-armed with the S.M.L.E. However, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions that soon arrived in Europe still carried the Ross.
In May 1916, a study into the Ross’s problems confirmed the jamming and recommended modifications to the rifle’s bolt-stops. Earlier tests had reported the Ross worked well with Canadian ammunition made at Dominion Arsenals in Quebec, but this ammunition was in short supply. New, poorly fitted stocks made from improperly seasoned birch were also causing problems as the wood warped and pressed against the metal frames. In light of the report, a few rifles were re-built with 26-inch barrels, trimmed stocks and larger bolt-stops. Although the rifles were reported to have worked “superbly,” soldiers had lost all confidence in them. In mid July, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig re-armed Canadians with the S.M.L.E. and the Ross was officially withdrawn from front line service by the end of that year.
By this time Sir Charles Ross was running into other problems. Skilled labourers were finding better work in the United States, machinery ordered in 1914 had yet to arrive, and supplies were increasingly difficult to secure. Ross won a $22,500,000 contract to make one million rifles for Russia, but had to let it go to the United States due to inability to meet his deadline. A second order from Russia was cancelled after the Mk 3 was withdrawn from Canadian service. On March 28, 1917, the Canadian Government expropriated the Ross Rifle Company. Canada’s first and only national rifle had failed as a battlefield weapon.
The Machine Gun
In 1912, the British Army adopted the water-cooled Vickers Mk 1machine gun, an improvement over the 1884 Maxim design, as its standard machine gun. The slightly lighter Vickers, like the Maxim, made use of an ammunition belt, and could fire 450 rounds per minute. Its water-cooled barrel could sustain this fire over very long periods of time, often for hours. Classified as a medium machine gun, the Vickers Mk 1 was used primarily on a tripod from defensive positions. It could be fired directly at a visible target, or indirectly, like artillery, at targets or positions at long range or behind obstacles.
In response to the need to provide quick-moving infantry with machine gun support, light machine guns appeared on the battlefield in 1914. The Lewis, the first light machine gun used by the British and Canadian forces, had been introduced into service with the Belgian army in 1913. It weighed about 18 kg and could be carried “over the top” like a rifle, to give advancing troops added firepower.
Due to a shortage of light machine guns, the British and Canadians also adopted the Hotchkiss machine gun in 1916. The Hotchkiss was based on the French medium machine gun the Mitrailleur Mle. 09, modified for use as a light machine gun. Although lighter than the Lewis, the Hotchkiss was more complicated and was used mainly by the cavalry. The Hotckhkiss remained in service for training and home guard use after the First World War and was not declared obsolete until 1946.
The decisions regarding when and how to deploy, or advance against small arms fire relate to the concept of the ‘beaten zone’ or ‘killing zone’ that existed between the lines, and the time-versus-lead equations; the idea that a storm of bullets and/or artillery shells poured into a given area made the task of ‘advancing to contact’ extremely difficult, if not impossible. This led to obvious challenges: crossing the zone more quickly (tanks) or by stealth (surprise attack, often without pre-shelling); better tactics to bypass resistance (storm troops, combined arms warfare); and heavier bombardments to keep enemy heads down, destroy obstacles, etc; and in the meantime, drove troops into the ground (trenches) to escape slaughter.
Most of the casualties during the war were inflicted by artillery or small arms fire coming from a distance. However, there was still some close and brutal fighting, often as part of larger operations, but particularly during trench raids.
All rifles were fitted with bayonets, which took the form of a long knife or spike that could be attached to the muzzle of the rifle, effectively forming a spear. By the First World War, British, and Canadian soldiers had been training to use bayonets for 200 years and were very efficient in its use. The bayonet also had an enormous psychological impact. Hundreds or thousands of enemy troops running towards you firing their rifles, screaming and brandishing long blades or spikes, was a terrifying and demoralizing sight. Despite the psychological advantage, many officers considered the bayonet perfectly useless, even in the 19th century. Firepower and broken terrain could keep cavalry at bay from c1860 onwards in most battles, thereby removing the bayonet’s one real advantage – warding off cavalry. When fighting in the confined spaces of the trenches, the length of a bayonet fixed to the muzzle of a rifle could be a great disadvantage. To this end, many soldiers equipped themselves with other weapons, both standard and non-standard issue. These weapons were especially important for trench raids.
Usually conducted at night, trench raiding was extremely brutal, tending to resemble medieval warfare. Soldiers made use of pistols, grenades, clubs, axes, morning stars, knives and even sharpened shovels. As a defensive measure, body armour was brought back into use and worn openly by infantry for the first time since the 17th century.
Pistols were issued officially to officers and NCOs exclusively, but they were also occasionally picked up or traded by soldiers and used for close fighting.
At the beginning of the First World War, Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defence, ordered 5,000 semi-automatic .45 ACP calibre Colt model 1911 (Government Model) pistols through one of his “Honorary Colonels,” causing a short-lived political scandal. The pistols were issued to non-commissioned officers and made available to officers for purchase, along with some older Colt revolvers left over from the South African War. Canadian officers serving with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, or other units assigned to British formations, were issued with Webley revolvers of various marks.
With the forces rapid expansion, the military needed more pistols by mid 1915. Due to shortcomings found with the Colt Model 1911, the government purchased 1,500 Smith & Wesson .455 Hand Ejector Second Model revolvers on August 21, with later orders for 13,000 between 1915 and 1917. Revolvers were considered more reliable in harsh conditions.
Immediately after the ceasefire of November 11, 1918, many First World War small arms developments were shelved. Advances had been made in designing lighter, more efficient machine guns and submachine guns, but, in the debt-ridden postwar years the last thing most governments wanted to spend money on was small arms.
The Department of Militia and Defence was now faced with the disposal of the unwanted Ross rifles. Some 120,000 Mk 2 and Mk 3 rifles were taken overseas and turned over to the British, and 20,000 were sold to the United States for training. Of the rifles sent overseas, 9,334 were later returned to Canada. The Ross continued in use as a sniper rifle throughout the war, and well into the Second World War, making use of its initial design as a sporting and target rifle. Many Ross rifles were also re-issued during the Second World War for training and Home Guard use and eventually made their way into the hands of the armies of China, Chile, the Baltic states, Spain, New Zealand, Holland, India, Indonesia and the Soviet Union.
The S.M.L.E. remained in service well into the Second World War and was replaced in 1942 by the Lee-Enfield No. 4. James Paris Lee’s basic rifle design is still in limited service with the Canadian Forces in the 21st century with the Canadian Rangers and Cadets.
The machine gun continues to be a vital part of the arsenals of all armies. The Vickers machine gun was used in the Second World War, the Korean War, and was not officially declared obsolete until the 1960s. The Lewis gun saw limited service in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, notably at Hong Kong.
The bayonet is stilled issued and used as a standard attachment to most military rifles worldwide.
The small arms designs that were rooted in the late 19th century and used during the First World War evolved very little throughout the first half of the 20th century. Although infantry tactics evolved considerably and the casualty figures of the First World War seem incomprehensible today, killing over open sights remains the foot soldier’s basic role.
Edgecombe, David W. Defending the Dominion, Canadian Military Rifles 1855-1955. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2003.
---. Small Arms of the World: A Basic Manual of Small Arms. 12th rev. ed. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1983.
Ezell, Edward C. Handguns of the World: Military Revolvers and Self-Loaders from 1870-1945. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1981.
Hogg, Ian V. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Firearms. London: New Burlington Books, 1978.
---. Military Small Arms of the 20th Century. 7th ed. Iola: Krause Publications, 2000.
Law, Clive M. Canadian Military Handguns, 1855-1985. Bloomfield, ON: Museum Restoration Services, 1994.
---. Without Warning: Canadian Sniper Equipment in the 20th Century. Ottawa: Service Publications, 2004.
Maze, Robert J. Howdah to High Power: A Century of British Breechloading Service Pistols (1867-1967). Tucson: Excalibur Publications, 2002.
Meek, John F. Over the Top: The Canadian Infantry in the First World War. Orangeville, ON: John F. Meek, 1971.
Morton, Desmond. A Military History of Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1985
Nelson, Thomas B. The World's Submachine Guns. Cologne, Germany: International Small Arms Publishers, 1963.
Phillips, Roger. The Ross Rifle Story. Sydney, NS: John A. Chadwick, 1984.
Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Saunders, Anthony. Weapons of the Trench War, 1914-1918. Phoenix Mill: Alan Sutton, 1999
Skennerton, Ian D. The British Service Lee, Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield Rifles and Carbines 1880-1980. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1982.
---. The Lee-Enfield Story. Piqua: I.D.S.A. Books, 1993.
Artillery: The Great Killer
Historian, Canadian War Museum
In 1914 and 1915, artillery proved it was the great killer. For those caught in the open, shrapnel and high explosive shells wreacked havoc. Thousands were left rotting on the battlefields. However, artillery guns were vulnerable to small arms fire, and they could be driven away from the front. But the guns were soon firing indirectly from hidden positions several kilometeres to the rear, still causing terrible damage. Soldiers were forced to find safety in trenches, digging beneath the ground to escape the murderous fire.
As trenches were strengthened with barbed wire, deep dugouts, and machine -guns, an enormous weight of fire was needed to smash the enemy defences and support the infantry. But there were not always enough shells in the early years to feed the guns. And so the infantry were killed in the tens of thousands as they attacked undamaged enemy trenches in frontal assaults. As the war lengthened, artillerymen received nearly unlimited supplies of shells through the enormous production of munitions factories. New tactics were also developed to improve the accuracy of the guns.
Artillery shells contained high explosives, shrapnel, and, later in the war, poison gas and smoke. Both the high explosive and shrapnel shells were timed to detonate in the air above a target. High explosive shells blasted holes in the trenches and the concussion alone could kill, as lungs collapsed under the force of the explosion. Shrapnel shells were equally deadly, consisting of more than 300 rounded metal balls that exploded downward in a cone-shaped rain of whirling metal. As well, the casing of the shell was designed to explode outward, creating jagged, uneven shards of steel that tore through flesh.
By 1916, commanders believed that massive artillery shoots, involving hundreds of thousands of shells, would annihilate the enemy defenders. This would allow the infantry to punch a hole through enemy lines and restore mobility on the Western Front.
However, it was often hard to hit, and then destroy, the narrow and well-fortified trenches. The problem also lay in the shell fuses. Earlier types were not sensitive enough to explode on contact, especially with shells tasked to clear barbed wire. As a result, many of the shells exploded in the ground, killing very few of the enemy, leaving the infantry to fight their way through defences-in-depth. By the end of 1916, newer, sensitive fuses that exploded on the slightest contact harnessed the destructive power of the artillery and, equally important to the infantry, cleared barbed wire from in front of enemy trenches.
Tactics again changed during the later phases of the bloody battles of the Somme in the last half of 1916. The gunners would never be able to destroy all of the German defences, and even one machine -gunner could kill hundreds of attacking infantry. Instead, the artillery sought to suppress enemy fire through a “creeping barrage,” and give their own attacking infantry enough time to cross the killing zone of nNo Mman’s Lland.
Gunners fired their shells to create a “creeping” wall of fire that slowly moved forward over the enemy lines at fixed intervals: 50 yards (46 m) every couple of minutes, less for muddy ground, more for open warfare. In effect, it was a screen of fire and explosives. As this moving wall of shrapnel and high explosives chewed up the ground in its path, the infantry were told to “lean into the barrage” and stay as close as possible. Although friendly fire was expected and occurred, the casualties would still be lighter than if the creeping barrage moved off and allowed German machine -gunners, waiting in the safety of deep dugouts, to get to the top of their trenches before the infantry crossed nNo Mman’s lLand.
At the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the gunners had perfected the creeping barrage. Yet enemy gunners still took a fearful toll as they laid down their own counter-barrages to catch the follow-on waves of infantry. The enemy guns had to be stopped, or slowed, but it was exceedingly difficult to identify, target, and destroy camouflaged guns several kilometeres away.
Accurate intelligence was essential, and new and refined forms of science aided the gunners. The Canadian Corps was lucky to have Brigadier-General Andrew McNaughton, commander of the counter-battery office for much of the war, who embraced new technology and tactics. A prewar professor at McGill University, he turned to science to save his soldiers lives.
The Canadian Counter Battery Office (CCBO), established in February 1917, gathered intelligence and processed information on the enemy to assist in knocking out his guns. Aerial reconnaissance from the Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) was of great assistance as airmen photographed the front from great heights. Later in the war, observation aircraft circled the battlefield, passing real-time information to the gunners through letter drops and primitive wireless radio.
As the CCBO developed after April 1917, this information-gathering and target-selection became more sophisticated, with new technology, like sound-ranging and flash-spotting, assisting gunners to find and destroy enemy targets.
Flash-spotting involved the coordination of observers. At least three posts were needed, usually spread out along several kilometeres. When an enemy gun position was spotted by the revealing flash as the shell left the barrel, the observers were telephoned by headquarters to turn their attention to that spot. After studying the flash of the gun, the observers would hit a key that was connected to a lamp at headquarters. From the observers’ bearings, and by triangulating their estimates, enemy guns could be located with high precision.
Sound-ranging worked on a similar principle. Listeners sat two kilometeres behind the line with their microphones. Additional posts were manned well ahead of these positions. As long as there was not more than one shell per second being fired, on hearing the crash of an enemy gun, the forward listening post pressed a key that started an oscillograph, an instrument that recorded on film the sound of the shell in flight as it reached each microphone in turn. The time-intervals between the microphones allowed the CCBO to analyse the information and, if conditions were optimal, pinpoint enemy guns to within twenty-five 25 yards (23 m). All available counter-battery guns would be aimed on that spot to deliver a destructive shoot of 50-100 shells. Chemical shells were also used to kill or force the enemy gunners to wear debilitating respirators that severely affected the rate of fire.
In the last year of the war, artillery had perfected the creeping barrage and was steadily improving its counter-battery work. Further tactical refinement allowed gunners to fire more complicated barrages, like a box barrage. The box barrages set up a wall of fire and explosives around an enemy position —-- usually a trench —-- which effectively isolated it from reinforcements. It allowed assaulting Canadian infantrymen to capture and consolidate a position without fear of immediate counterattack.
By war’s end, 43,914 gunners had served in the Canadian artillery, and 2,565 had lost their lives from disease, injury, and battlefield wounds. They had fired tens of millions of shells, reducing the landscape to a desolate wasteland, and an estimated 60% of all wounds were inflicted by shell fire. The First World War was indeed a gunner’s war.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.
McNaughton, A.G.L. “Counter-Battery Work.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 3, 4 (July, 1926).
McNaughton, A.G.L. “The Development of Artillery in the Great War.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 4, 2 (January, 1929).
Nicholson, G.W.L. The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery, Vol. 1: 1534-1919 Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
Rawling, William. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Volume I. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
By late March 1917, some battle-weary troops thought the war would never end. Many had once thought they’d be home by Christmas in 1914. But now the war was in its 32nd month, with no end in sight.
Worse yet, they seemed bogged down in a stalemate of sodden, static trench warfare. In spite of fierce fighting and grievous casualty lists, there had been no Allied breakthroughs, no stunning victories and no major advances. On the contrary, there had been devastating slaughter on the Somme and at Verdun the year before. And German U-boats were wreaking havoc on the seas, sinking tons of Allied shipping daily. Would it ever end?
In early April came a glimmer of hope. The United States was finally entering the war. Canadian trench raids, though costly, were finding critical intelligence regarding the status of German defences. And the British were planning a new offensive in the critical Arras sector of France. Canadian troops, as part of the British First Army, would have a major role in the “Battle of Arras.”
To the Canadian Corps, under the command of British Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng, fell the heavy responsibility of providing the defensive flank for the Third Army, and capturing what was reputed to be the strongest German defensive position in Northern France. It was “tactically one of the most important features of the entire Western Front.”1 Its name was Vimy Ridge.
There was just one problem. It was thought to be impregnable. Many, on both sides of No Man’s Land, believed the Ridge couldn’t be taken. After all, the Germans had held it since early in the war (October 1914) and had repulsed both British and French attempts to re-capture it2.
The Germans well appreciated its value, and to this end had tightened up their defensive lines, reinforcing them with concrete gun emplacements, complete with barbed wire. They had also fortified their trenches and dugouts, knowing that well-entrenched troops, with machine guns and artillery, could repulse a numerically superior enemy. They called their massive defensive system the Siegfried Stellung, more popularly known as the Hindenberg Line. Vimy was its “anchor point” or keystone.
And so the scene was set.
Byng had called upon the increasingly impressive Canadian, Major General Arthur Currie, Commander of the 1st Canadian Division, to assist in the Vimy preparations. Both Byng and Currie, respectful of the price their troops would have to pay, were careful planners. Both knew the importance of sound preparation for such an endeavour. They would leave nothing to chance. (Currie even visited Verdun for insights.)
Massive preparations had begun in February. Old roads were repaired. New roads were built. More ammunition dumps were constructed. Light railway tracks were laid. Additional cable and telephone lines were installed. And Byng and Currie insisted that not just the officers but every man know his task and what to expect in the confusion of battle. Soldiers received detailed maps of the enemy territory. (About 40,000 maps were distributed.) They were to memorize the location of every trench, every mound, every fortification. Even a replica of the battle area was constructed behind the Canadian lines to familiarize soldiers with the terrain. It was revised daily as aerial photographs revealed changes in the German front lines. Training was relentless, thorough, disciplined.
And there were more arrows in Canada’s quiver. The attacking troops would approach Vimy Ridge in stealth through 12 underground tunnels (“subways”) constructed largely by the British with some Canadian work parties. While the tunnels could hardly be called sophisticated, some had electric light, running water and ventilation systems. Most important, they would conceal and protect the attacking troops till the last moment.
But the real key to victory on Vimy Ridge would rest with the artillery. As some liked to say, “the artillery conquers and the infantry occupies.” And the artillery had several surprises in store for the Germans.
The preliminary bombardment, under Brigadier-General E.W.B. Morrison, had already begun (March 20-April 2). It was relentless, pulverizing German targets day and night. Using information from aerial observers, trench raids and prisoner interrogation, the artillery fired not only on trenches, machine gun emplacements and strong points, but ammunition dumps, roads and communication systems. And that was just for preliminaries.
The artillery had still more in store for the Germans. Lieutenant Colonel A.G.L. McNaughton, Counter-Battery Staff Officer, had studied the deleterious effect of gun barrel wear on bombing precision, and ensured that key guns were carefully calibrated for accurate firepower. Brigadier General Raymond Brutinel perfected “indirect” machine gun fire to disrupt German road traffic, incoming troops and supplies. By Easter Sunday, 1917, all was in readiness. Troops waited, taut with anticipation.
Overhead, fierce aerial battles had already begun. In the days prior to the Arras offensive, 28 British aircraft were shot down (to Germany’s 15). Among those who still plied the skies were Canada’s Billy Bishop (who won the Military Cross on April 7), and Germany’s Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
At 5:30 on Easter Monday morning, April 9, the heavens reverberated with the sound of nearly a thousand guns and mortars. In driving sleet the first waves of more than 30,000 men of Canada’s four divisions, all fighting side-by-side for the first time, stretched out over four miles in the clinging mud3. Immediately in front of them, in practised precision and split-second timing, the artillery spread a carpet of fire — a “creeping” (or “rolling”) barrage4.
The rest is history.
Twelve hours later, most of the ridge — expect for Hill 145 and “The Pimple — had been taken. By dawn of April 12, Canada had captured all of Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps had accomplished in a few days what neither the British nor French could do in two years.
They had advanced some 4,000 metres, seized 54 guns, 104 trench mortars and 124 machine guns. They had taken more than 4,000 German prisoners5. Four valiant men had won the VC, but nearly 3,600 troops would never see Canadian shores again. More than 7,000 were wounded.
It cannot be said that the capture of Vimy Ridge changed the course of the war. It was, in fact, part of a larger campaign that failed. But it can be said that Canada won the first major offensive of the First World War. Some say the Vimy Ridge “was one of the notable feats of arms of the entire war.”6 Some say that the real significance of Vimy Ridge came in 1918, when the German assault on Arras “would certainly have been successful had they still held Vimy Ridge.”7 Some say the feat helped earn Canada its own place at the League of Nations.
And still many others say that it was on that blustery day in April 1917 that Canada truly “came of age” when its noble sons did the impossible on the sodden crest of Vimy Ridge.
1Nicholson, Official History, page 244
2The French had suffered heavy losses trying twice to capture Vimy Ridge in 1915, and the British lost ground there in 1916.
3Nicholson notes (Official History, page 252) that the Canadian Corps had a strength of approximately 170,000 men, all ranks, including British Units.
4The barrage had been introduced, with limited success, the year before on the Somme.
5Source; Nicholson, Official History, page 265
6Tucker, page 128
7Cruttwell, page 408
Wartime Letter from Captain Bellenden S. Hutcheson
This letter is transcribed from a rough draft found in an old trunk in 1989. Probable restorations of illegible characters are enclosed in brackets.
Dear Captain Gwynn;
Replying to your first series of questions, concerning the 76th Brigade of Royal Field Artillery:
The 76th Brigade was supporting the Canadian Infantry which was holding the line in front of Vimy. The brigade consisted of four batteries of 18 pounders (field guns) and one battery of 4.5 inch Howitzers. The cover of the guns, while poor was, I suppose, as good as that usually occupied by field guns in position only a few days, and the quarters of the gun that crews were in cellars near the guns, but the shells thrown at us were eight inch, and armour piercing. At least the artillerymen said that they were armour piercing, and after viewing the effects of their explosions I was in no position to argue with them. After several dugouts had been blown in, some of the uninjured personnel set to work digging out the injured while the bombardment was in progress and it was this rescue work which was carried out under scanty or no cover.
The bombardment lasted from 1 p.m. until 10 p.m., with a few periods of lull, and was apparently counter battery work on the part of the enemy. Our guns were not in action.
As you surmise, the gun crews had taken refuge in cellars, not anticipating a bombardment of such intensity with heavy stuff. Gas shells and high explosions were intermingled. My work consisted in dressing the wounded, checking hemorrhage, giving a hypo of morphine when necessary and seeing that the injured were evacuated to the rear. The gas used that day was the deadly sweetish smelling phosgene. It was my first experience with gas in warfare and I wore a mask part of the time and instructed the men to do so whenever there was a dangerous concentration. You ask about my own reaction. It was of course very disconcerting to endeavor to dress wounded while shells were showering debris about, and the possibility of being in the next few seconds in the same plight as the terribly wounded men I was dressing, occurred to me every now and then. The whole thing seemed rather unreal, particularly when it occurred to me, busy as I was, that the killing was being done deliberately and systematically. I felt particularly sorry for the young artillery men, (and many of them were about 19) who were being subjected to the ordeal. I remember one man who had a ghastly wound which would obviously prove fatal in a short time, pleading with me, amidst the turmoil of explosions, to shoot him. Every soldier who has seen action since knows that it requires the highest type of stamina and bravery for troops to lie in a trench and take a heavy shelling without being demoralized and panic stricken, therefore I shall always remember the orderly rescue work carried on by the officers and men of the artillery in the face of the concentrated shelling that occurred that afternoon.
You ask about the work of the artillery officers. They very bravely and ably directed the men in the work of rescue and tried to keep gun crews intact as nearly as possible, in order to fire at any time, should orders to do so, be received.
During the trench tours in front of Lens, I usually had a deserted gun pit or cellar communicating with the support trench as a dressing station. The actions about the G[um] Crossin and La Coulotte, though attended by heavy casualties, were more in the nature of raids or diverting attacks, than holding attacks, therefore, I did not accompany the attacking parties. During a trench tour I stuck close to the dressing station if the enemy was active, in order to look after the injured, if things were quiet I visited the different headquarters of the platoons and companies holding the line. Going into the line was sometimes the most disagreeable part of the tour, because of the darkness, danger of getting lost, the mud, and the shelling of the roads just behind the line. The Passchendaele Campaign was carried on in a sea of mud. I have never seen a drearier sight than the salient in front of Ypres -- churned up mud with mucky shell holes and never a tree as far as the eye could reach. It was necessary to march single file on duck walk because of the mud for a distance of five or six miles when going in for a tour. We were machine-gunned and bombed from the air and subjected to a terrific shelling on the way in and nothing like a real trench system was possible, the line being held by a series of posts in shell holes. My dressing station was located beside a concrete "pill box", an old German strong point. Captain Dunlap, medical officer of the 102nd Battalion, who was later killed, shared the dressing station with me. I had never met Dunlap before and when he appeared at our rendezvous, with four days growth of black beard on his face, a torn tunic and string like remnants of puttees, he looked so much like a stage hobo that I burst out laughing in his face. He was a fine chap and we became good friends.
The stretcher bearers had a very difficult time. The whole area was subjected to continuous shelling by the enemy. The pill box afforded shelter on one side for the dressing station and sheets of camouflage and canvas formed the roof. When no wounded were coming in Dunlap and I would crawl into the pill box for greater security. We kept no enlisted personnel with us as there was literally no place where they could stand without sinking to their knees in mud and the number of wounded men was not so great but that the two medical officers could do all that could be done. When we were relieved by the medical officer of the English unit that took over; Dunlap and I, with Captain A.A. Gray, adjutant of the 75th, started back towards Ypres, over the duckwalk. The different platoons of our battalion had trickled back as they were relieved. The two way duckwalk was, as usual, shelled heavily. We were passing the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders coming when a shell got a direct hit among them about 200 feet ahead of us. Their dead and wounded, lying in grotesque attitudes, were being cleared away by their comrades with feverish haste as we dog trotted past the smoking shell hole. We did not stop because their own medical unit was on the job, they had plenty of help and each unit was supposed to take care of its own casualties.
Regarding the citation for the Military Cross: "The open ground" mentioned consisted of the wheat fields and other flat unwooded ground through which we passed between Beaucourt and Le Quesnel on the immediate left of the Amiens-Roye road. As we advanced we were frequently under direct observation by enemy balloons directing artillery fire. When one shell landed half a dozen others were pretty sure to land in a very short time within a radius of 50 yards or so of where the first one did, consequently when the first few caused casualties they had to be attended in a shower of debris caused by the explosion of succeeding shells.
It was necessary to pass through the streets of Le Quesnel several times during the barrage in order to find the wounded who were scattered throughout the town. I supervised their collection, during lulls in the shelling in a cellar I used as a dressing station. The platoons furnished stretcher bearers. My medical section, consisting of a sergeant, corporal and two privates were with me part of the time, or were in the dressing station when I was out, or they themselves were engaged in looking for wounded.
Excerpted and reproduced with permission from Veterans Affairs Canada website http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/
World War I Warfare, Part A
Grade Level: Secondary 9-12
Time Allowance: 45 minutes
Films: Battle of Arras 1, 2, 3 & 4 and Canadians Advanced East of Arras 1
Summary: Students study film clips to answer questions to gain an understanding of what the war was like for the soldiers who fought it. This is the first of three related lessons.
Watch Battle of Arras 1, 2, 3 & 4 and Canadians Advanced East of Arras 1 and answer the questions below based upon the evidence that you see in this film excerpt. Some evidence may contradict other evidence. The captions appearing on screen are underlined in the section below. The questions are in chronological order.
Battle of Arras 1
How the Germans in their retreat blew up…
1- What did the Germans blow up to harass the Canadian advance?
a) Woods b) Canadian trenches c) Main roads
2- What two methods of transport did we use in the advance?
a) Cars and bicycles b) Trains c) Helicopters, ships
3- Canadians blew up French houses to build:
a) Trenches b) Canal banks c) Roads
An advance cyclist patrol
4- This “welcoming” was most likely shown to Canadian audiences. Why?
a) To prove we were winning b) To show our soldiers victorious c) Both a & b
A British Tommy reading the news…
5- What is ‘Tommy’ slang for?
a) An airplane b) A soldier c) A citizen
6- Who is listening to the news?
a) Men b) Women c) Young children
7- Where were the men of this village?
a) Working b) In prison c) In the army
A merry group
8- What message is this scene conveying to Canadian viewers about the French?
a) They don’t care if they are liberated b) They dislike Canadians c) Our soldiers are welcome
Building a bridge over the Somme
9- Much of the building in World War I was done by:
a) Machines b) Factories c) Human muscle power
Another bridge over the Somme
10- Besides soldiers, what else provided much of the power to build things?
a) Electric power b) Women c) Horses
A battalion of the North Hampshire regiment
11- On this evidence, was World War I mechanized at the front lines?
a) Yes b) No
Our engineers blowing obstructions
12- What was the Somme?
a) Town b) Bridge c) River
Fruit trees ruthlessly cut down
13- What did the Germans do to French agriculture?
a) Encouraged it b) Left it c) Destroyed much of it
14- How did actions such as this influence the peace talks?
a) No effect b) Helped them c) Made the French want compensation
German observation post
15- What does this clip tell us about German soldiers? They were:
a) Brave b) Cunning c) Cowardly
Incidents in the recaptured village / French president visits / Well constructed dugouts
16- If these are evidence of “comfort,” what does that tell you about World War I?
a) It was easy b) It was safe c) It was difficult and harsh
A huge crater at the crossroads
17- Why would armies blow up crossroads?
a) Minimize disruption b) Maximize disruption c) It was an accident
18- On this evidence, was it easy to pursue the Germans?
a) Yes b) Don’t know c) No
Battle of Arras 2
A major commanding a gun battery
20- Transport in World War I consisted of:
a) Horses b) Trucks c) Automobiles d) All of these
21- Roads at the front were:
a) Paved b) Muddy c) Blocked with barbed wire
Various ways of supplying
22- The mud in World War I was crossed at the front by:
a) Trains b) Men and horses c) Canals
One of the difficulties
23- Why was it difficult to supply the guns?
a) Distance b) Enemy fire c) Mud
24- An important disability in World War I was:
a) Obesity b) Blindness c) Trench foot
25- Soldiers went to the front line by:
a) Truck b) Horse and cart c) Both a & b
The Pack Train
26- Feeding and watering the horses was a major problem in World War I because:
a) There were many horses to feed b) The climate was poor for wheat c) The rail system was poor
A two-seater albatross
27- What did Germany use as its symbol during World War I?
a) A cross b) Swastika c) Star
The bombardment of Vimy Ridge
28- The bombardment caused the French landscape to become:
a) Desolate b) Fertile
Battle of Arras 3
Rifles are tested / The infantry moving up / More guns used in
29- Is it easy to see the German lines?
a) Yes b) No
Gunners who have been at the front
30- What did the soldiers do to relax at the front?
a) Smoked b) Swam c) Jogged
31- “No man’s land” between the Germans and Canadians contained:
a) Shell holes b) Barbed wire c) Both a & b
The enemy shell a recently captured village
32- This shows that the destruction in France was:
a) Slight b) Moderate c) Considerable
And still more 9.2 howitzwers
33- The location of Canadian guns near French villages brought about:
a) Damage to those villages by German guns b) Nothing
South Africans make a raid / and bring back 3 prisoners
34-Trench warfare was:
a) Mechanized b) Based on individual soldiers
35- The effect of World War I on French communications was:
a) Slight b) Considerable
36- Rebuilding French cities would be:
a) Easy and cheap b) Difficult and expensive
Battle of Arras 4
37- The shellfire in World War I battles was:
a) Enormous b) Moderate c) Slight
The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) go over the top and raid enemy trenches
38- This evidence indicates that most soldiers in World War I died from:
a) Rifle fire b) Machine guns c) Shell fire
39- Approximately 25% of the Canadian dead were never found because:
a) They were blown up b) Nobody looked for them
Fixing scaling ladders / The Hussars
40- How did soldiers climb out of trenches with their heavy packs?
a) Stone steps b) Brick steps c) Wooden ladders
41- Could cavalry have survived in the trenches?
a) Yes b) No
An observation balloon / Emergency parachute / Our airmen
42- How does the observer relay information to the ground?
a) By radio b) Flag signals c) Telephone
50- How did Canadian soldiers use the information from the observer?
a) Located targets on a map b) Shelled German positions c) Both a & b
51- How, on this evidence, were shells moved?
a) Horses b) Light railway c) Boat
52- Were men careful with heavy explosive shells?
a) Yes b) No
53- Why were light railways used near the front?
a) Insufficient horses b) Trucks were not invented yet c) Railways were more efficient.
54- What evidence is there that World War I was not hi-tech?
a) Men moved heavy shells by hand b) Horses were used extensively c) Both a & b
Canadians Advanced East of Arras 1
Christmas Greetings from Canada
55- What evidence suggests World War I was hi-tech?
a) Field guns were complex b) Men built railways to the front c) Jet engines were used
d) Both a & b
World War I Warfare, Part B
Grade Level: Secondary 9-12
Time Allowance: 45 minutes
Film Excerpt: Battle of Arras 1, 2, 3, 4 and Canadians Advance East of Arras 1
Summary: Students draw on their answers to the questions in the lesson World War I Warfare, Part A to respond to statements about the war.
After watching the films and answering the questions in Part A, use your answers to qualify the statements below.
|Statement||The film evidence suggests (see questions)|
|1. All the destruction in France was caused by the Germans.||Q 3 suggests|
|2. French peasants did not care who won the war.||Q 4 and 8 suggest|
|3. The French “faked” much of the damage in World War I to get compensation from Germany.||Q 9, 13, 17, 36 suggest|
|4. The Canadian army often fought in kilts; Canada’s equipment was outdated for this war.||Q 20 and 55 suggest|
|5. World War I was a modern war fought using up-to-date methods.||Q 43 suggests|
|6. There were very few “unknown soldiers” in WWI because most were killed near their trenches by machine-gun fire.||Q 4 and 39 suggest|
|7. Men were well trained and there were few accidents in this war.||Q 4 and 52 suggest|
|8. After the end of the war, the Canadians and British did not want to impose heavy penalties on Germany, but the French did. This was unfair.||Q 13, 32, 35 show that France, unlike Canada or Britain,…|
|9. Soldiers who survived the war were not affected by it.||Q 38 and 39 suggest|
|10. The costs of the war were not as great as earlier wars.||Q 9, 32, 35, 43 suggest|
World War I Warfare, Part C
Grade Level: Secondary 9-12
Time Allowance: 45 minutes
Films: Battle of Arras 1, 2, 3 & 4 and Canadians Advance East of Arras 1
Summary: After doing Parts A and B, students draw conclusions about the nature of the war.
After answering the questions in World War I Warfare, Part A, and qualifying the statements in World War I Warfare, Part B, answer the questions below.
1 . What evidence suggests that this was a traditional war similar in nature to wars in the 18th century? What other evidence suggests that it was a “hi-tech” war that used advanced methods of mass killing?
2. Explain why France, much more than Canada or Britain, wanted to exact high compensation from Germany at the Treaty of Paris, 1919.
3. List the methods of transportation used in this war. What major changes would you suggest if you were advising the generals on how to prepare for World War II? Remember that the generals do not want to waste money.
4. Did marching in straight lines, on parade, help to prepare soldiers for World War I? What training would you suggest if you had to train Canadian soldiers in 1916 to fight this war?
5. Explain why the tank and the airplane made World War II very different from the trench warfare of World War I.
6. Canadian soldiers were disciplined during the war, but were restless when they found themselves stuck in Europe after the war. Why were Canadian soldiers far more restless than British and French soldiers after the war was over?
7. Canada did not declare war on Germany but entered World War I as a colony of Britain within the British Empire. Imagine that you are advising the Canadian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Do you think Canada should remain subordinate to Britain in the Empire? What changes would you suggest to the Canada-Britain relationship?
8. In World War I, Canadians acquired a formidable reputation as soldiers. How did that influence the way other countries regarded Canada after 1918?