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100 years since the Battle of Vimy Ridge

Royal Canadian Legion to mark significant anniversary with special ceremony in Rotary Park
OVER THE TOP: Canadian troops begin the assault on Vimy Ridge.

It will have been 100 years since the assault on Vimy Ridge, a First World War battle that helped define Canada as a nation.

To mark the occasion of one of the most significant anniversaries in Canadian history, the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 24 Cranbrook, will hold a special ceremony Sunday, April 9. On Sunday, the parade will begin at 2 p.m., the ceremony itself at at 2:30 p.m. in Rotary Park.

Where is Vimy Ridge, and what is its importance?

Vimy Ridge is 107 kilometres southwest of Calais, and eight kilometres northeast of Arras in the northern part of France.

The ridge is approximately seven kilometres long, and reaches a height of 145 metres, offering a view in all directions for several kilometres.

The ridge fell under German control in October, 1914, whereby they began installing heavy defenses, including trenches, tunnels, and placements of mortar, machine gun and artillery.

In May, 1915, the French forces attempted to remove the Germans, but were unable to hold the ridge due to lack of reinforcements.

The French tried again in September, 1915, but again failed with the cost of 150,000 casualties.

In February, 1916, the British under the command of General Julian Byng relieved the French and began tunnelling operations to combat the Germans’ mining operations.

In response, the Germans launched an attack on May 21, 1916, over a 2,000-yard front, to eject the British. As a result, several British tunnels were captured.

Small counter-attacks were launched by the British, but did not change the situation.

The Canadian Corps relieved the British in October, 1916. This would be the first time all four Canadian divisions would participate in battle, with one British division reinforcing. This brought the Canadian Corps to about 170,000 men.

Early in 1917, Canadian and British officers held meetings with the French regarding their experiences at Vimy, and a battle plan was drawn up with General Byng in command.

For two weeks before the main assault, Canadian and British motor and artillery bombarded the German positions day and night.

Then, on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, at precisely 5:30 a.m. on a cold sleet and snowy day, the main assault began. Thirty seconds later, engineers detonated charges that were placed in the tunnels under German positions.

The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions had captured their objectives by 7:30 a.m. The 4th Division encountered trouble due to German machine gun nests that had survived the bombardment.

Flying overhead were the reconnaissance aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps. Among them was Canadian air ace Billy Bishop.

Although the battle lasted four days, the Canadian Corps was in full control of Vimy Ridge by nightfall, April 12.

Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadians for their part in the battle.

The victory did not come without a heavy cost to the Canadian Corps. There were 10,602 casualties — 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded.

Among those killed were five Cranbrook boys: Lt. H. Banfield, brothers Lawson and Harold Cadwallader, Billy Harrison and John McDonald. Their names are on the cenotaph in Cranbrook.

German casualties are undetermined — about 4,000 were taken prisoner.

To quote Brigadier General A.E. Ross, “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

A school teacher from Victoria, B.C., with only militia training, went to Vimy, and rose up through the ranks to later become the commanding officer of the Canadian troops. He was General Arthur Currie.

In 1920, the government of Canada announced that war memorials would be built in Belgium and France. France ceded 250 acres on Vimy Ridge to Canada for a battlefield park — thus the Vimy Memorial was built on the highest ground. Walter Alward of Toronto designed and oversaw the construction.  It took 11 years to complete.

On July 16, 1936, five trans-Atlantic liners, carrying 6,200 passengers, and escorted by the HMCS Champlain Saguenay, set out from Canada, arriving at La Havre on July 24 and 25. The passengers were part of a contingent of more than 50,000 Canadians, French and English, who were in attendance as the Vimy Memorial was unveiled on July 26, 1936, by King Edward VIII.

The memorial stands 150 feet high, and incorporates 20 sculptures — one representing Mother Canada, her head down, chin resting in one hand as she mourns Canada’s dead.

The memorial has inscribed on its wall the names of 11,285 Canadians killed in France who have no known resting place.

Submitted by Larry Miller