Monday, April 09, 2007

How Hill 145 and Vimy changed everything

The war which was to become known as the Great War probably should not have been fought. Europe was a powder keg of egos, suspicion, imperial ambition, dominant and over-built militaries, and the most tangled alliances one could possibly have imagined. Top it off with Europe's aristocracies having a mish-mash of intertwining relationships which fomented jealousy, greed and hubris. The "war to end all wars" was an imperial pig-fight which would would waste the youth of the countries involved and unleash a century-long bloodbath.

Canada was sucked into the Great War as a result of its political relationship with Britain. Lacking full independence, Canada was given no choice but to participate. Not that it mattered. Because of that relationship and the fact that large numbers of Canadians possessed a close British heritage, the willingness to join Britain in a fight against the Central Powers would probably have been there in any case.

The Great War was a peasant war. Britain had long employed the aristocracy as officers and generals, and the working class, the peasants and the poor as cannon fodder. Commissions were still being purchased and tactics still involved sending hapless souls directly into the fire of the enemy. If you had more troops than the enemy you could waste more than a few by sending line after line across a few hundred yards of killing ground.

Canada was different. There was no indigenous aristocracy. The "peasants" were large scale farmers and what can be viewed as a working-class were the backbone of a strengthening industrial economic base. It's not that Canadians were a nation of free-spirits. It's that Canadians had escaped the British class structure and no longer believed in it. One made one's way in Canada by what one did, not by inheriting or acquiring title.

From April 1915 to April 1917, the 1st Canadian Division and eventually the Canadian Corps was engaged in in several major operations. They underwent the horror of being gassed at Ypres and the slaughter of the Somme. It was in the latter operation that the Canadian Corps, after repeated assaults, captured the trenches known as Regina and Desire. At the Somme, the Canadian Corps took 24,029 casualties. British and French generals were vilified for wasting troops. But the Canadians, who had been little more than confused, uniformed civilians at Ypres in 1915, had become hardened soldiers and earned the reputation as the best storm troops in the Allied forces. They would be called upon to lead in future assaults, a dubious distinction given the way British commanders simply threw troops at the enemy, but one which was genuinely applied and based upon real accomplishments.

When the Canadian Corps was handed Vimy Ridge as an objective optimism was not running high. It was more than a little formidable. The defending Germans were firmly entrenched and had fought off several attacks with relative ease. Vimy was going to be a meat grinder. Worse, there was no cavalry, so this would be an infantry and artillery fight.

It was then that things changed. Instead of headquarters officers planning the operation in secrecy and isolation they did something unique. They planned the assault and then included every soldier in the plan. Maps, details and objectives were made a part of the daily training for six weeks. Model layouts of the ridge and Hill 145 were studied, not just by commanders, but by every soldier. Exercises were run in the weeks before the assault on a field laid out to simulate Hill 145 and the ridge. Units learned terrain, timing and cover. Where, up to that time, the taking of a position had been the objective of a platoon commander; it was now the objective of the whole platoon, and every soldier in that platoon knew the objective, the plan to take it and what adjacent units were doing.

There was, for the first time, anticipated succession of command. Instead of hoping the individual initiative of soldiers would replace casualties among leaders, they were trained to do it and expected to continue the assault as planned. Platoon lieutenants led, but if the need arose, any private could take over, having been briefed, trained and exercised.

Instead of the pre-assault barrage, which ended as the assault began, Canadian Lt. General Arthur Currie had developed the creeping barrage, intended to shield troops as they approached enemy defences. His use of artillery counter-battery fire helped neutralize German positions and he maintained constant pressure on German lines though relentless patrolling. By using machine guns, indirect fire was used to force the enemy down. Above all, the corps commander, British General Sir Julian Byng, encouraged Currie and placed his faith in the tenacity, intelligence, innovation and motivation of the Canadian troops.

The Canadian Corps carried it off and expelled the Germans from Vimy Ridge. It was a major victory for the Allies and with the overall success of the Battle of Arras, a turning point in the Great War had been reached. The European model of throwing away troops and mass attrition was broken.

The Canadian Corps would go on to distinguish themselves in what was known as Canada's Hundred Days, in which the four divisions of the Canadian Corps would defeat 47 divisions of the German army in battles at Amiens, Canal du Nord, Bourlon Wood, Denain, Valenciennes and Mons.

It was that "100 days" (actually 96) which would earn Canada a separate signature at Versailles. Canada had delivered a tough, professional army and had, through tenacious innovation, developed new and unique combined ground tactics still used by armies today.

Vimy, however, was costly. Canadians counted 3,598 dead and 7,104 wounded in a four day battle. And a good many of the dead were simply swallowed up in the mud that was the battlefield, never to be seen again.

It is said that Vimy was Canada's coming out as a nation. Perhaps, although I tend to view it differently. Canada, as a country, had many more hoops to jump through to achieve full independence and nationhood. Vimy was, however, where Canadians asserted themselves and stood out as unique. It wasn't just a national identity, it was a demonstration of sameness. Where people from a land which stretched from Atlantic to Pacific could prove the ability to act as one and stand above others.

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