Arras – Vimy Ridge

Vimy Ridge gives sweeping views across the coalfields of the Douai Plain. As you stand upon the Canadian Memorial today gives you will see one of the best views available on any World War 1 tour.

By September 1915, a series of French assaults had established a line along the western slopes of Vimy Ridge, leaving the Germans holding the crest. In March 1916, British troops took over the line on the ridge, relieving French troops for the defence of Verdun. A furious mining campaign developed along the ridge as each side tunnelled beneath the enemy lines and exploded huge underground charges, with 70 mines exploded in two months. In order to disrupt the British mining campaign by capturing mine shafts and workings, the Germans launched an attack in May, capturing a mile of the British front line on the ridge. The mass of craters visible today is stark evidence of scale of the mining campaign which took place.

The capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps in April 1917 is regarded as one of the most successful operations of World War 1. The attack was also the first occasion on which the four Canadian Army divisions had fought side by side as one army corps and the event is seen by many as a major milestone in the emergence of Canada as a fully independent nation.

The view from the Canadian Memorial
The view from the Canadian Memorial

The Battle of Arras

It was clear that the German Army had been placed under great pressure on the Somme, which had seriously affected German confidence and begun to place a great strain on manpower and resources. It was essential for the allies to keep up the pressure and as the Battle of the Somme came to an end in November 1916, a conference between the British and French agreed the allied strategy for the Spring of 1917. It was planned that the British would launch an attack in front of Arras in order to draw German reserves, followed by a French attack to break the German lines to the South.

Many new features were to be employed during the British attack, some of which had been learned during the fighting on the Somme, often from the more experienced French. The British planned to bombard the German lines with a concentration of artillery greater than anything used previously. The artillery was to cut German wire with high explosive, but it was also to destroy German artillery batteries in order to protect British infantry. Attacking troops were to advance behind the protective wall of a “creeping barrage”[1] and a barrage of machine gun fire would also be placed down behind the German lines. Another novel feature of the attack was to use an extensive network of underground tunnels to shelter men prior to the assault. The attack would be on a ten mile front and the Canadian Corps was given the task of taking Vimy Ridge.

The initial British attacks were a major success. The sheer weight of the artillery bombardment meant that when the British infantry attacked in rain, sleet and snow on 9 April, they were able to sweep over the German positions.  During the first three days, the British captured 11,000 German prisoners, inflicted heavy casualties and advanced over two miles. The most striking success was the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge.

Canadian troops following capture of Vimy Ridge
Canadian troops following capture of Vimy Ridge

However, the initial success of the opening day was not continued. The Germans recovered quickly and began to bring forward reserve troops to halt the British advance.  This proved to be successful and, although the British attacks continued into May, no further ground of significance was gained and British casualties had reached 150,000.

[1] A wall of exploding shells which advanced in front of the infantry. Enemy defenders were forced to take shelter in their dugouts as the barrage swept over their lines, giving the attacking infantry, who were following some 50 yards behind, protection as they crossed no man’s land. 

To the South, the French attacks quickly took the German front line positions, but attacks against the German second line positions ground to a halt. French soldiers were thrown against the German lines for five days in appalling weather, suffering 140,000 casualties. The failure of these attacks, which were a stark contrast to French successes on the Somme, produced a crisis of morale in the French Army, the outcome of which was the famous “mutinies” of 1917. Large numbers of French soldiers made it clear that they would stand their ground against the Germans, but would not take part in futile attacks.

The Canadian Corps

The Canadians had been amongst the first Imperial troops to arrive on the Western Front, arriving in France in October 1914. Further Canadian units continued to arrive until, in 1916, the Canadian Corps comprised of four army divisions, numbering 97,000 men. The great majority of these men had been born in Britain and had emigrated to Canada. This becomes obvious if you look at any of the cemetery registers on Vimy Ridge. At the time of the Vimy attack, many of the senior officers were also British, including the Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng. Much of the Corps’ artillery provision was also British.

However, as the war continued, a much greater proportion of senior officer roles were taken over by Canadians, including the Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie.  The majority of men in the ranks continued to be British born until near the end of the war, by which time the number of soldiers born in Britain and born in Canada was roughly equal.

By the end of the war the Canadian Corps was regarded as one of the best formations fighting within the British forces and has certainly been regarded so by historians subsequently. Part of the Corps’ success was a result of its cohesive nature; divisions were not moved in and out as in most other Corps. The Canadians also developed a reputation for flexibility in the use of tactics, thorough training and the professionalism of supporting units, such as engineers. The Canadians spearheaded a number of the most important offensives in the final year of the war, such as the Battle of Amiens and the crossing of the Canal du Nord. By the end of the war 420,000 Canadians had served abroad of whom 57,000 had been killed.

The Assault on Vimy Ridge

Just as the British and French were developing new offensive tactics as described above, the Germans had also developed new tactics and moved to a system of defence in depth, with a lightly defended forward zone and a zone of strong points, beyond which was a further defensive line and reserve troops. However, this system was difficult to implement on Vimy Ridge, where the German positions were across the narrow summit of the ridge, behind which was a steep slope down to the plain below. This gave the Canadians some assistance, but the defences were still formidable, especially around Hill 145, the present day site of the monument.

The Canadian Corps was given the whole of the First Army’s heavy artillery for the attack. A period of intensive training and preparation took place, including the creation of scale models of the battlefield and rehearsals of the attack. At 4.00am on 9 April 1917, Canadian troops emerged from 12 tunnel systems along a four mile front and took up their positions. At 5.30am, they moved forward towards the German lines behind an advancing wall of exploding shells, while heavy guns silenced the German gun batteries.

The German forward positions were quickly overwhelmed, though resistance increased as the attack pushed deeper into German lines. There was particularly heavy fighting at Hill 145, which was not taken until the evening, following assaults by parties of bombers[1]. The 75th and 87th battalions of the 4th Canadian Division suffered heavy casualties at Hill 145 and you will find that many of the graves in the cemeteries on the Ridge are of men from these battalions. By evening virtually the whole of the ridge was in Canadian hands. However, the strongpoint named “the Pimple” by the British was still in German hands and was eventually captured on 12 April.  The Germans, now highly vulnerable on the plain below the ridge, were forced to withdraw four miles to the East

[1] Infantry bombers were soldiers trained in the use of hand grenades. Trained teams of bombers, carriers and bayonet men were used to capture trenches by systematically ‘bombing’ their way along from bay to bay of the enemy’s trench.

Vimy Ridge Visitor Education Centre and Memorial ParK
Vimy Ridge Visitor Education Centre and Memorial ParK

From the A26, leave the motorway at junction 7 and turn North onto the N17 towards Lens. Pass under the A26 and at the roundabout take the D917 towards Vimy, which is signposted for the Canadian Memorial Park. Continue straight on at the traffic lights and the entrance to the Vimy Canadian Memorial is on the left after 0.8 of a mile.

[2] Infantry bombers were soldiers trained in the use of hand grenades. Trained teams of bombers, carriers and bayonet men were used to capture trenches by systematically ‘bombing’ their way along from bay to bay of the enemy’s trench.

It is also possible to access the site from by the D55, through the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle. Approaching the site from this direction gives a clear indication of the imposing position of Vimy Ridge above the plain, while also giving a striking view of the Canadian memorial.

The Visitor and Education Centre

The centre was opened in 2017 for the centenary of the Battle of Arras and it has a large car park. The centre includes a number of interesting exhibits, together with information on the battle for the ridge and Canadians in World War 1. The site is staffed by Canadian student volunteers who also conduct tours. There are toilets and a shop. The opening hours are:

April 1 - September 30

Tuesday – Sunday; 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Monday; 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

October 1 - March 31

Tuesday – Sunday; 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Monday; 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Preserved Trenches

From the Visitor and Education Centre, you can visit an area of preserved trenches. A large area of the battlefield was granted to the Canadians following the war. Much of this area is taken up by the National Memorial, the visitors’ centre and car parks. However, a section of the 1917 battlefield was preserved. Much of this area was not systematically cleared of munitions and is not accessible, but the lines of trenches, shell holes and mine craters can clearly be seen amongst the trees. One area, however, was made safe in the 1920’s with the trenches preserved in concrete and this is accessible to visitors of the site. A section of the Grange tunnel system has also been preserved and the student guides conduct regular tours, which are free of charge.

You must remember that in many respects these trenches are artificial; amongst other things, sandbags would have been made from hessian, the duckboards, on the trench bottom would have been wooden and there would have been an earth parapet in front of the trench, as well as barbed wire. However, the trenches do display some of the features of the trenches which would have existed here. The first trench on leaving the visitors’ centre can be clearly seen on 1917 trench maps and is part of the Canadian front line. A sap[1] has been dug forward to the lip of a large mine crater and you will see that the Germans have done the same on the opposite side. Mine craters were an important military feature and it was important to deny the enemy use of a crater if at all possible. There is also a large metal plate with an opening observation loop, which in its original state would have been built into the parapet.

[1] A sap is a small section of trench dug out into no man’s land and at right angles to the main trench.

Preserved Trenches on Vimy Ridge
Preserved Trenches on Vimy Ridge

As you follow the path to the right and cross a small bridge, you will see a communication trench running into the front line from the rear. This trench, named Grange Avenue, was the major means of access to this section of the front line for men and supplies. The mine craters in this immediate area are known as the Grange group and the tunnels which led into the line here are part of the Grange system. Continuing along the pathway, you will pass between two of the Grange craters. The sheer size of these craters indicates the force of the mine explosions. Manning trenches in a sector of this kind was a terrifying and demoralising experience, not knowing when the ground was about to erupt beneath your feet. A mine explosion would also inevitably be followed by a vicious fight as each side attempted to gain control of the crater.

Passing beyond the mine craters, you will come to the German trenches. The width of no man’s land along the front varied greatly.  Vimy Ridge is typical of areas where the two sides faced each other across key areas of high ground, where the opposing trenches are pushed closely together, sometimes as close as 25- 30 yards apart. Looking back to the Canadian lines from the German lines brings home vividly just how close the opposing lines could be. As you arrive at the German trenches, you will also see a concrete pill box. A few yards further along and to the left is a German mortar position, with the barrel of a minenwerfer (mortar) lying at the bottom. These were a very effective weapon, which fired on a high trajectory to drop a large, powerful shell into the enemy’s trench; many British accounts of the war refer to the fear of “minnies”.

On leaving the visitors’ centre car park, turn left onto the D55 and after 0.6 of a mile you will come to the memorial car park.

Moroccan Division Memorial

Before you leave the car park, there is an interesting memorial in the car park itself. The Moroccan Memorial commemorates the first allied troops to gain a foothold on Vimy Ridge. During The Second Battle of Artois in May 1915, the French Tenth Army pushed the Germans from the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette, captured a series of key villages and made an advance of two and a half miles; the greatest advance since the advent on trench warfare. The most spectacular advance was that of the Moroccan Division, which advanced two and a half miles in one hour to establish itself on Vimy Ridge.  However, the inability of the French to bring forward reserves quickly enough, left the men of the Moroccan Division isolated on the ridge and, facing German counter attacks, the division was forced to withdraw after holding the position for two days.

The Division was made up of units of colonial troops, French settlers from North Africa and the Foreign Legion. The Division’s troops included men from some 50 countries, including Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, Czechs, Poles, Swedes and Greeks. The Moroccan Division was one of the elite divisions of the French Army; its men were awarded the greatest number of decorations of any division and it was the only division to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur, which was carried on its colours.

The Canadian National Memorial

The Canadian memorial, standing on the highest point of Vimy Ridge and visible over a wide area, is undoubtedly one of the most striking of the World War 1 memorials in France. The events of April 1917 made this site an obvious choice for one of a number of memorials which the Canadians began to plan at the war’s end. It is now designated the Canadian National Memorial, commemorating the 11,000 Canadian servicemen who died in France and have no known grave and whose names are carved on its sides. The youngest soldier commemorated on the memorial is 15 and there are 17 aged 16. The origins of those commemorated vary enormously. Large numbers of the men were born in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and others are from Russia, Italy and Japan. Several hundred of the men are from the USA, some of the thousands of US citizens who crossed into Canada to join the war by enlisting in the Canadian Army.

The Canadian National Memorial
The Canadian National Memorial

The memorial was designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward, following a competition to find a design for a memorial to stand on each of the eight sites given to Canada for memorials in France and Belgium. The Vimy Memorial is highly complex in its design and took eleven years to complete. It was dedicated in 1936 in a ceremony attended by 50,000 people, at which the guest of honour was King Edward VIII. Allward’s design was in fact so complex and expensive to execute that another much simpler design was eventually used on other memorial sites.

The task of constructing the memorial was enormous. Allward searched Europe for a suitable stone and eventually chose a white marble, extracted from an ancient Roman quarry in Croatia; Allward chose the stone after seeing the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, for which it had been used. Transporting the huge blocks of stone, of which the largest weighed 30 tons, was an enormous task it itself. The creation of the foundations was another major challenge, requiring the use of over 11,000 tons of concrete and reinforced steel.

The most prominent feature of the monument, is the twin pylons of stone. There is some debate in relation to the meaning of this feature, which is most commonly said to represent Canada and France, two allies standing side by side. The pylons also perhaps represent a gateway, through which there is a passage to a better world. From the car park, you approach the memorial from the rear. The base resembles a fortress and as you approach there are two large figures on either side of the steps, one a man and one a woman, both in mourning.

The figures around the base of the memorial represent the cost of war. One of the most prominent is the figure of the torch bearer. The dying torch bearer hands the torch on to be carried by others. It is difficult not to think that this was inspired by the poem of Canadian World War 1 medical officer John McCrae, which became highly popular. The final stanza is:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields


Rising up the monument itself are figures which symbolise the highest human values, protected by the fortress around the base and by those who fought and died. Towards the top of the pylons are knowledge, truth, hope and charity. Rising above these are faith, honour, justice and peace.

Below the front of the memorial there is a tomb and standing above is Canada in mourning, the largest of the figures. It is not possible to visit Vimy without being struck by the incredible view from the front of the memorial. The plain of Douai with its numerous colliery waste tips stretches away from the ridge. The town to the left is Lens, a major centre of mining in World War 1. Also to the left are the twin peaks of the colliery waste tip at Loos, the site of the battle in which British used gas for the first time in September 1915. On a clear day it is also possible to see the city of Lille in the far distance, to the front of the memorial and to the right.

Men Commemorated on the Memorial

Private William Johnstone Milne VC

Four of the men commemorated on the memorial were awarded the Victoria Cross. One of these was Private William Johnstone Milne VC of 16th Bn Canadian Infantry. Private Milne was killed in the attack on Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917.

Private Milne was born in Cambusnethan, Scotland and had emigrated to Canada.  He enlisted at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan on 11 September 1915 and arrived in the UK in November.  He arrived in France in June 1916.


Private William Milne VC
Private William Milne VC

His citation for his VC reads:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack. On approaching the first objective, Pte. Milne observed an enemy machine gun firing on our advancing troops. Crawling on hands and knees, he succeeded in reaching the gun, killing the crew with bombs, and capturing the gun. On the line re-forming, he again located a machine gun in the support line, and stalking this second gun as he had done the first, he succeeded in putting the crew out of action and capturing the gun. His wonderful bravery and resource on these two occasions undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades. Pte. Milne was killed shortly after capturing the second gun.

Private Merlin Hamilton Rae

Private Rae is listed by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission as age 15 when he died. He was from Grande Prairie, Alberta, and enlisted on 22 September 1915 into the 31st Battalion of the Canadian Infantry. His attestation form recorded his date of birth as 27 April 1899, which if accurate would have made him 17 when he died, sometime between 24 and 30 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. On arriving in France he was given duties in a hospital, his superiors being reluctant to send him to the front, being aware of his age

In his last letter home written on 16 September 1916, he explained that he had now joined his battalion which had been engaged in working parties at the front. He described towns as flattened to the ground and lots of shells bursting around where he was. However, he assured his parents that he was “fine and could not be better.” Before he went back behind the lines he intended to, “have a German helmet and more souvenirs too.”

Private George William Tomkinson MM

Private Tomkinson was born in Manchester in 1865. The Commonwealth War Graves records state that prior to World War 1 he had served for 22 years in the Royal Navy, retiring with the rank of Chief Petty Officer. His naval record shows that in fact he served for 22 years in the Portsmouth and Plymouth battalions of the Royal Marines, enlisting at Liverpool in 1883. For much of his service he was a medical assistant in military hospitals and on board various ships, retiring as a Sick Berth Steward in 1905.

On leaving the navy he emigrated to the USA. He enlisted at Edmonton on 21 January 1915, falsely giving his birth date as 3 October 1874. The medical officer declared him fit for overseas service, though it was also recorded that his hair colour was, “Black (turning grey).” Tomkinson served in the 49th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry and was awarded the Military Medal. He died at the age of 50 on 15 September 1916 in the Canadian attack on the village of Courcelette during the Battle of the Somme.