Today marks the 106th anniversary of the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in Northern France. The ridge was seen as an important strategic asset as it provided an outlook over the Douai plain to the north. The victory by Canadian forces which included elements of both Hamilton regiments—The Argyll’s and the RHLI followed years of failed attempts to retake the ridge, and months of planning and preparation for the operation. The ridge had fallen into German hands during the initial advances of 1914. Since then, around 150,000 French and British soldiers had fallen trying to retake it. The battle began on Easter morning 1917. Amid sleet, mud and shellfire, the soldiers of the Canadian Corps fought their way up the ridge to take the high ground.
The Germans had been fortifying their positions on the ridge for years with deep bunkers, overlapping fields of machine gun fire and layers of barbed wire. When the Canadians attacked, they directly faced around 8,000 entrenched German defenders, not counting another 2,500 in reserve, and many more to the rear.
A preliminary bombardment began on March 20 and lasted for thirteen days. In the meantime, Andrew McNaughton and his counter battery staff were hard at work finding and silencing the German guns. The Royal Flying Corps provided aerial reconnaissance, returning with photographs of enemy batteries.
The battle began at 5:30am on April 9, with the first wave of around 15,000 men advancing under the creeping barrage of almost 1000 heavy guns. Most objectives were taken on schedule, and by afternoon most of the ridge was captured, with the notable exception of The Pimple, a high point at the North end of the ridge, where defenders held out until April 12.
By April 12, the Canadians had taken all of their objectives, as well as 4,000 prisoners. The Canadians held Vimy Ridge. This victory came at a high cost as 3,598 Canadians lost their lives, and 7,000 were wounded during the four-day battle. April 9, 1917 is still the bloodiest day in Canadian military history.
Vimy memorial and its creator, Walter Allward
After the war, in 1920, the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission was established to oversee creation of eight Canadian battlefield memorials in France and Belgium. The most impressive is the majestic and inspiring Canadian National Vimy Memorial. With a wealth of symbolism in its sculptures, it is a lasting tribute to the ultimate sacrifice Canadians made in Europe in the First World War.
The monument was designed by Canadian architect and sculptor, Walter Seymour Allward. He said his inspiration for the monument came to him in a dream. His design was selected from 160 others in a competition held in the early 1920s. Work began on the monument in 1925. Allward set up a studio in London, England and toured for more almost two years to find a stone of the right colour, texture, and luminosity for the memorial. He eventually found it in the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace. Known as Seget limestone, it was a stone that came from an ancient Roman quarry located in Croatia. The stone had to be first quarried then shipped by boat to France and then transported to Vimy Ridge by truck and by rail. Eleven years later, on July 26, 1936, the Vimy monument was unveiled by King Edward VIII. About 100 Hamilton veterans were on hand for the ceremony. Examples of Allward’s work can be seen In Brantford where he designed the Alexander Graham Bell memorial, and on University Avenue in Toronto where he designed the Boer War obelisk.
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