The Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, marked the first time Canadian Armed forces fought en masse in WWI
Reinforced by British units almost 100,000 Canadians took part in the assault on the heavily fortified 110 metre high escarpment near Arras France. Included in those Canadian forces were units that were the forerunners of two Hamilton units–the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) and Hamilton’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada. The British commander was General Julian Byng who would later be Canada’s Governor General. The Canadian Commander was General, later Sir Arthur Currie.
The assault was meticulously planned. There would be wave after wave of artillery bombardment, of an intensity not seen previously, punctuated by staged advances by infantry. Many of the techniques used at Vimy were the result of lessons learned at the battle of Verdun—a 303-day marathon that resulted in more than 700,000 casualties. More information and decision-making capability was pushed down to the platoon level to ensure flexibility in response to changing conditions. More than 1400 kilometers of telephone and telegraph lines were buried to ensure good communications were maintained.
The battle began on April 9. By midday the Canadians had made significant progress. By the end of the second day all objectives save one ridge (the “pimple”) were captured .It was eventually overrun on the 12th. The corps suffered 10,602 casualties: 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded. The German Sixth Army suffered an unknown number of casualties with approximately 4,000 men becoming prisoners of war. Four members of the Canadian Corps received Victoria Crosses, the highest military decoration awarded to British and Commonwealth forces for valor, for their actions during the battle. The British newspaper, the Telegraph, declared Vimy was the most significant allied victory of the war to date.
Hamilton’s Vimy Connection
Vimy, just a few miles south of the border between France and Belgium is not very accessible except by car.
One can take a train to nearby Arras, and pay about 50 Euros for a taxi to the monument, otherwise it’s the car; and from Brussels it is an easy two-hour drive on good motorways. One gets a strange feeling, approaching Vimy, to see road signs that have place names so familiar to Canadians who visit cenotaphs on Remembrance Day—Arras, Lens-Douai, Cambrai and Artois, to name but a few. This is the Flanders fields that Guelph native John McCrae wrote about—mostly a drab flat plain—you could easily be driving through Southern Ontario farm country.
Finally on the horizon you can see the monument at a distance. What first strikes one is how white it is, no doubt benefitting from the $30 Million restoration that was completed in 2007 (the original cost of the entire monument was $1.5 Million.) On close inspection the Vimy monument is breathtaking with its twin spires and the various sculpted figures, Even though the original design is over 90 years old, the overall impression is of a moderne school, rather than classical. Sheep graze around the base of the monument to keep the grass short, and to avoid the possibility of mowers triggering an explosion of an unspent shell, as a guide told us—something that still happens in this area 3 or 4 times a year. Nothing can detract from the monument and the nearby reconstructed tunnels and trenches. Original shell craters are left as they were in 1917, except now they are covered with grass and trees.
There is a strong Hamilton connection to this monument. The selection of the site and of the architect was largely overseen by Major General Sydney Chilton Mewburn, a prominent Hamilton lawyer and businessman. In keeping with expectations for upper class men at the time, Mewburn was a lifelong militiaman, who rose to become commanding officer of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. When the Great War broke out Mewburn, over 50, volunteered for overseas duty, but instead was placed in charge of raising a home defence army. His energy and capabilities brought him to the attention of Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. Mewburn, a Liberal, nonetheless advocated compulsory conscription, something opposed by the Quebec wing of his party. In 1917 Borden decided to implement conscription and in an attempt to maintain national unity, invited several prominent Liberal MPs into his cabinet. One of these was Mewburn who, without a seat in the Commons was appointed Minister of Militia and Defence. As minister, Mewburn made several trips to the European front and was highly regarded for his handling of the portfolio. At war’s end, Mewburn, ever modest, refused an offered knighthood, resigned from Cabinet and was appointed as Chair of the Battlefields memorial Commission—a body established to establish appropriate memorials to Canada’s war dead.
As chair, Mewburn oversaw the competition that ultimately picked Walter Allward to build the monument. During the war, Vimy was known simply as “Hill 145” owing to its elevation 145 meters above sea level. Interestingly, Vimy was not first on the list of possible sites for a Canadian memorial. Indeed, the commander of the Canadian forces in Europe Sir Arthur Currie, was quite opposed to Vimy, writing, “it will confirm for all time the impression…that Vimy was the greatest battle fought by the Canadians in France. In my mind that is very far from being a fact. We fought other battles where the moral and material results were greater and more far reaching than Vimy’s victory. There were other victories also that reflected to a greater degree the training and efficiency of the Corps. Vimy was a set piece for which we had trained and rehearsed for weeks. It did not call for the same degree of resource and initiative that were displayed in any of the three great battles of the last hundred days (of the war).” Mewburn in acknowledging the lack of enthusiasm for Vimy said “that while many of the army officers” held that Vimy was by no means the most important battle fought by the Canadian Corps,” there was something “distinctive about Vimy Ridge that comes very close to the hearts of Canadians.” One of those Canadians who favoured Vimy was newly installed Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and it may well have been his intervention that clinched the site selection.
Vimy Monument: man and his vision
Examples of Allward’s earlier work can be seen closer to home in Brantford with the Bell Monument and on University Avenue, Toronto with his Boer War obelisk. Allward won a design competition for Eueopean War memorials in 1921.
Allward began work on the Vimy memorial in 1925 and completed it 11 years later. Roughly 120 feet high, it is adorned by 20 allegorical figures representing faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge, and hope. A key figure, “Canada mourning her fallen sons,” speaks to the country’s wartime losses. Allward sculpted the figurative elements in clay in a newly acquired studio in London, England. Meanwhile, clearing the100-hectare site of the dangerous detritus of war – unexploded bombs, artillery shells, and grenades – took two and one half years. It also took two years to find stone that Allward considered suitable for the memorial. Allward eventually found stone for the monument in a Roman quarry near the town of Seget in what is now Croatia, not far, ironically from Serajevo where the War was triggered. The stone from this quarry had been used by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for his palace at Split.
When the project was ready for unveiling in 1936, Sydney Mewburn, aged 73, returned to the site not far from where his own son John had been killed in the war; to participate in the dedication by King Edward VIII, (carrying out one of his few official duties as king before he abdicated), before a crowd of more than 100,000 spectators.
Eight decades after the completion of the Vimy Memorial, Walter Allward’s greatest works are a vibrant part of our national heritage. This month many Canadians will have had the opportunity of travelling to France to visit the Vimy Memorial.
Hamilton was in the midst of Canada’s unprecedented WWI recruitment effort
Throughout the war, but especially in its early months, Canadians rushed to enlist for reasons of patriotism, adventurism, opposition to German aggression, or personal ties to Great Britain. Public attitudes also influenced individual decisions, in particular the widespread view in many parts of the country that those who failed to enlist were cowards.
Daily newspaper editorials, political speeches, and lectures from the pulpit implored men that their duty to King and Country meant serving in the military. Early recruitment posters urged enlistment on the basis of patriotism and emotional connections to the war’s major issues. Later, more desperate posters tried to shame men into enlisting by questioning their loyalty and their manhood. Wartime propaganda also urged women to pressure men to enlist.
The early strength of Canada’s voluntary recruitment waned in 1916 in the face of growing casualty lists. Local newspapers reported daily on the war’s human costs, and many public places posted the official casualty lists. Canadians had come to realize that the war would be neither short nor easy, and not all of them agreed that troops should continue to go overseas as the conflict dragged on. Industry and agriculture at home needed workers in order to produce munitions and foodstuffs, and ‘doing one’s bit’ for the war could also mean serving only in Canada. Others claimed simply that Canada had already sacrificed enough, as the casualty rolls appeared to indicate.
As voluntary recruiting weakened in the face of continuing losses overseas, the government gradually eased previous restrictions on recruitment. It lowered medical standards for the acceptance of volunteers, and allowed community groups to raise their own battalions. Men less than 5 feet tall were permitted to form bantam units and, from 1916, the government cautiously accepted some visible minorities. The latter soon enlisted in significant numbers, including 3,500 Aboriginal Canadians, 1,000 Blacks, and several hundred Canadians of Chinese and Japanese descent.
These minor successes raised more troops, but not enough to replace the many thousands killed and wounded in the battles of 1916 and early 1917.