The Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April 1917)

Canadian Forces headstone badge, drawn by CWGC Graphic Designer MacDonald Gill

© CWGC Archive No. 1202/1

In April 1917, Commonwealth forces launched an offensive against German lines around Arras. It was intended to support a major French attack along the Chemin des Dames ridge, near the River Aisne to the south.

Vimy Ridge dominated the area north of Arras. The Canadian Corps was tasked with capturing this vital high ground.

Soldiers trained thoroughly for the task. They rehearsed their advance in full kit, over fields laid out with tape to mark the German lines. To mimic the 'creeping' artillery barrage, men on horseback rode ahead of them waving flags to simulate the shell fire.

For weeks before the offensive began, artillery bombarded the German positions, destroying trenches, fortifications, ammunition and supply dumps.

On Easter Sunday a sharp north-westerly wind blew flurries of snow across no-man’s land. The troops received a hot meal and a tot of rum. By 4 a.m. on 9 April - Easter Monday - 15,000 Canadians were in position.

Canadian soldiers on Vimy Ridge, April 1917

© Collections Canada PA 1085

The Battle

At 5.30 am, a final ferocious bombardment opened up, and mines were detonated beneath the German lines. The attacking troops scrambled out of their concealed positions and advanced across the shattered, muddy ground, with a barrage of shells exploding just ahead of them, just as they had practised.

Along the southern part of Vimy Ridge, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions quickly fought their way through the German lines. The highest point of the ridge, Hill 145, was the objective of the 11th Brigade of the 4th Canadian Division.

Canadian soldiers catch a lift after the fighting at Vimy Ridge

© IWM CO 1405

Hill 145 had been strongly fortified with several rings of trenches. Deep dugouts of concrete and steel protected the German soldiers from the bombardment, and many were able to reach their machine guns before the advancing Canadians arrived. The 11th Brigade suffered heavy casualties, but gradually fought their way forward. By dusk, Hill 145 had been taken, along with the rest of the ridge to the south.

Over the following three days, the remaining German forces were cleared from the northern tip of the ridge, and the high ground was entirely in Canadian control.

By taking Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Corps established a reputation as elite assault troops. For Canada, the battle became a symbol of national achievement. 

Canadian Cemetery No.2 by Mary Ritter

© Collections Canada C-105221

The Cost

During the Battle of Vimy Ridge the Canadian Corps suffered some 10,000 casualties, of whom nearly 3,600 were killed.

The fallen were buried by their comrades. Small cemeteries appeared across Vimy Ridge, a visual reminder of the cost of victory. Many of these original cemeteries were later formalised by the Canadian Corps burial officers.

After the Armistice they were passed into the care of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission. Today, we continue to care for the final resting places of all of those who died in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Original concept watercolour of CWGC Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery by Frank Higginson. © CWGC Archive

Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery

Cabaret Rouge was a small red brick café on the road between Lens and Bethune. It was destroyed by shellfire in March 1915, but gave its name to the area just to the west of Vimy Ridge. The first British servicemen were laid to rest here in March 1916, and burials continued until September 1918, including many Canadian soldiers.

Today, these war time burials can be found in Plots I to V. After the war, the remains of over 7,000 servicemen were brought here from over 100 burial sites. For much of the twentieth century, this cemetery served as one of a small number of ‘open cemeteries’ at which the remains of newly-discovered servicemen were buried.

The architecture was designed by former Canadian Army officer Frank Higginson. Frank worked as an architect for the IWGC in the 1920s, and later served as Secretary to the Commission.

The Unknown Canadian Soldier

Cabaret Rouge has a particularly close connection with Canada. Over 740 headstones here are inscribed with the Canadian maple leaf, marking the graves of those who died while serving with Canadian units. 

In May 2000, the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier were removed from Cabaret Rouge and taken to the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada. Now a focal point for national remembrance, he represents more than 65,000 Canadians who died during the First World War. A special stone in Plot VIII. Row E. Grave 8. marks his original resting place.

Unique headstone marking the original resting place of the Canadian Unknown Soldier. © CWGC

The Canadian Unknown Soldier is laid to rest in a special tomb at the national war memorial, Ottowa, Canada.

The Vimy Memorial

The Vimy Memorial © CWGC

The Vimy Memorial is dedicated to all those who served with Canadian forces during the First World War, and the 65,000 who lost their lives. Inscribed on its walls are the names of over 11,000 soldiers who died in France and have no known grave.

After the end of the war, the highest point of Vimy Ridge - Hill 145 - was chosen by the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission as the location for the Canadian National War Memorial. Designs by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward were selected after a competition which attracted over 160 entries.

Construction began in 1925. It took two years just to build the 3.5 kilometre road to the proposed construction site. Some 15,000 tons of steel and concrete were needed to create the foundations, and only then could more than 6,000 tons of limestone be transported to the site to construct the memorial.

Mother Canada © CWGC

Twenty stone figures were carved in situ at Vimy, including the statue of Mother Canada, who mournfully looks down upon the sarcophagus at the base of the memorial. The two stone towers, which can been seen from across the Douai plain, represent the gates to eternity. They are adorned with the Fleur de Lys and the Canadian Maple Leaf, in recognition of the joint sacrifices of French and Canadian soldiers throughout the war.

The Vimy Memorial was unveiled by King Edward VIII on 26 July 1936, in the presence of over 100,000 pilgrims who had travelled from across the world to witness the unveiling. They gathered to remember those who fought, those who died, and those whose final resting place remained unknown.