By Dan Walton
The time had come for the German Empire to surrender their Vimy Ridge garrison to the Triple Entente, exactly one century ago on April 9.
By pushing the limits of artillery assaults and employing a subterranean strategy to charge tens of thousands of fearless soldiers towards the impossible stronghold, an overwhelming besiege led by Canada forced the enemy into submission. The human sacrifice was more than 11,000 casualties.
“When you think of 11,000, and that’s just one battle – that’s double the population of Oliver,” said David Kassian, a local Okanagan College history student who visited the site of Vimy Ridge in 2007 for the 90-year anniversary.
It seemed as though Canada’s victory came against all odds, but in hindsight, “I don’t know if there’s anything the Germans could have done to defend against it,” Kassian said. “It was such a huge bombardment.”
Before Canada’s successful recovery of the territory, the global superpowers of France and Great Britain had both tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the coveted ridge. Canadians, the eventual captors, were merely citizens of a British colony only 50 years earlier.
“Our generals knew they had to be thinking outside the box; trying new tactics – and it paid off,” Kassian said.
Artillery technologies had just become unprecedentedly accurate, dropping curtains of bombs on the German defenders while the advancing Canadian troops were only paces behind. When Entente forces reached enemy lines, many of the Germans were defenceless in a state of shell shock.
“It was a huge risk to our own soldiers, dropping such huge amounts of artillery so close to our own men. How do you practice walking behind a line of exploding artillery?”
Soldiers were also given better training in terms of mapping and territory, reducing their vulnerability with a better understanding of the enemy’s sight lines.
“Being there in person definitely put things into perspective,” Kassian said. “Strategically, that was a really important place. It looked deceivingly small from a distance, but standing up there and seeing all the landscape around you – it was huge. You could just see flat farm land for miles and miles.”
From atop Vimy Ridge, the vantage point secured by the Germans would have been intimidating for anybody running towards their machine guns head on. That challenge was mitigated by a clever idea to build a network of underground tunnels. Twelve tunnels were engineered to go as deep underground as 10 metres, safely delivering Canadian troops up to 1.2 kilometres closer to the high ground. The three-day assault, albeit successful, cost the Entente the lives of 3,598 soldiers and 7,004 injuries.
“That was one of the biggest victories for Canada and one of the greatest losses for Germany.”
Tunnel warfare had been practiced by both sides during the war, and the two sides often came so close that Entente tunnellers could often hear their German counterparts digging in the nearby underground.
“It was neat to walk through these tiny, tiny tunnels,” Kassian said. “They were very claustrophobic; very small. And those were the ones the public is actually allowed in – I think some of them you had to crawl in. Maybe they built people smaller back then.”
As military technologies continued to rapidly advance throughout the 20th Century, the cutting-edge tactics that led to the Entente’s successful recovery of Vimy Ridge quickly became outdated.
“It was a great strategy for the end of the war and then I don’t think it was ever used again. But as the war was toning down, that was a pivotal victory.”
During the 90th anniversary ceremony of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 7, 2007, he was among thousands paying their respects, including Queen Elizabeth II, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his old history teacher and librarian from Southern Okanagan Secondary School, Greg Smith.
Once he was there, Kassian was overwhelmed by the giant limestone monument on site, built in 1936 to commemorate all 11,169 of Canada’s dead and missing soldiers from the First World War in France.
“I’ve never seen anything that big, it was just incredible.”
And Kassian was impressed by how diverse the audience was, saying how those paying their respects ranged vastly in age and culture.
“Just seeing that spirit of people 90 years later – I felt very proud to be there.”
Vimy’s centennial anniversary – April 9, 2017 – will be commemorated at the Oliver Legion. Legion members are preparing a special tribute to Vimy Ridge, and they are also marking the occasion to hold the annual honours and awards ceremony for volunteers. Doors open at 11 a.m. and the ceremony begins at noon.