The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is situated about five miles from Arras, France in a 250 acre park that is considered sovereign Canadian territory. The park is operated and maintained by Veteran’s Affairs Canada rather than by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The ridge is an escarpment seven miles long and 475 feet above sea level at the highest point.
The park features a small section of preserved front-line trenches and a section of tunnel which can be visited, as well as extensive mine and shell cratering. The centerpiece of the park is the Vimy Memorial itself, a massive structure designed by then-renowned Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward and dedicated on July 26th, 1936 by King Edward VIII in one of his few public duties in his short reign. Over fifty thousand persons were in attendance that day, including everyone who was anyone in France and Canada.
Made from 6,000 tons of Croatian limestone, the monument sits on the highest point of the ridge and features two pylons nearly a hundred feet tall and numerous symbolic sculptures which are described in the image shown above. The pylons are subtlety inclined towards each other to represent the special bond between Canada and France. The most famous sculpture, which is iconic of the monument and perhaps the entire war experience in the eyes of Canadians, was carved from a thirty-three ton block of stone and stands over a symbolic soldier’s tomb with a Brodie pattern helmet on the top. Allward called this piece Canada Bereft although it is also widely known as Mother Canada Mourns her Dead. It is in the Renaissance style called Mater Dolorosa made famous by Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Although not part of the original concept, around the base are inscribed the names of 11,285 Canadians declared in 1931 to be missing on the battlefields of France. Today the official number of these missing is 11,169 but there is no practical way to remove a name as they are listed in a continuous stream, alphabetically within rank.
In a previous article I mentioned the French attempts to capture Vimy Ridge in 1915. In early 1917, as a part of the Arras Offensive, which was really a diversion to a large French attack familiarly known as the Nivelle Offensive, Vimy Ridge was on the northern flank of the chosen battleground and its capture would deprive the Germans of superior artillery observation, end the shelling of Arras and force the Germans back to the brand-new Hindenburg Line on the other side of the Douai Plain.
BEF commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig decided to give this task exclusively to the newly-formed Canadian Corps. This would be the first time that all of the Canadian forces on the Western Front fought together and they prepared a meticulous and tactically perfect plan which was likewise perfectly executed beginning at dawn on April 9th, 1917 resulting in the capture of the entire ridge after only four days of fighting. Thus the new Canadian Corps rose to the top of Haig’s list of ‘Go To’ outfits.
Although Vimy Ridge was considered a great victory there was a high cost: 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded. At the time this was the highest casualty toll suffered by Canadian arms in one battle and the news spread like a shock wave across the nation of 8 million. As a result of the casualty count, there developed concern about being able to secure sufficient replacements from volunteers as well as rising public resentment of able-bodied men who weren’t serving. Parliament soon passed the Military Service Act and conscription began in August. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden predicted that the Act would raise 50 to 100,000 men and he was proven right, although less than 25,000 conscripts had served on the Western Front by the Armistice.
Before the year was out the grim results of the Vimy Ridge battle would be exceeded at the Third (and final) Phase of the Third Battle of Ypres, known for evermore as simply ‘Passchendaele’, when the Canadians captured yet another ridge. Another story for another time.
A visit to Vimy Ridge is also a WW1 educational experience because of the surviving tunnels. The Canadians built fourteen of these which they termed ‘subways’, over thirty feet below ground, and the longest was nearly 4,000 feet.
There were three types of tunnels dug by the combatants in WW1, which can be classified by their purpose: Offensive Cover, Defensive Cover and Explosive Mines. Although both the French and the Germans did some small-scale explosive mining on the ridge in 1915, the 1917 Canadian tunnels were built to provide Offensive Cover for the attacking forces as they moved to the forward trench. This tactic proved to be entirely successful and the Germans copied it in their 1918 Ludendorff Offensives.
Large sections of the Vimy tunnels are still intact, but due to safety and cost considerations only about 1,200 feet of one subway are open today. Some of the tunnels were later used to store explosives and some of these dumps remain in place.