Britain at War contributor Alex Bowers explores an upcoming event marking the centenary and significance of Vimy Ridge, an inspirational and historic military milestone in Canadian culture.
There are a number of moments in history which play out to define a nation, writes Alex Bowers. For Canada, many consider the Battle of Vimy Ridge a “baptism of fire” for a new country only officially established in 1867. To mark the 100th Anniversary of the Canadian victory at that battle, a French cultural non-profit organisation has begun planning a commemoration event spanning almost 3,000 miles across three countries.
Initial planning has been in reflection since 2012 but with the centenary fast approaching, the association, named Odyssée de la Culture, has officially announced the event which will see a number of their members embark on a journey which follows in the footsteps of a Canadian serviceman who tragically lost his life in the battle. At various legs of the journey, members are expected to be joined by approximately 1,000 other participants collectively, including descendants to the late Private John Arsenault; the serviceman to whom the event is dedicated to.
Private Arsenault was selected to represent the 3,598 other Canadian dead sustained during the fierce fighting at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The battle saw the four divisions of the Canadian Corps attack the German-held ridge as part of the wider Battle of Arras. Their main objective was to take the ridge to prevent German forces from firing down from the high ground and into the southern flank of the Allied advance. This was the first time all four Canadian divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were assembled to fight in the same battle and this evolved into a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice.
In early 1917, under their new commander, the British Field Marshal and future Governor General of Canada, Julian Byng, the Canadian Corps was readied to take the ridge. The assault drew heavily on lessons from French experiences at Verdun, and the meticulously detailed and innovative plan called for highly-trained assaulting units to leapfrog each other to maintain momentum.
The increased operational level and scale of the recently unified corps necessitated it be supported by resources far beyond the normal operational capabilities of it’s divisions when fighting independently. Therefore, British 5th Infantry Division and other assets such as artillery and engineer units supplemented the fighting capabilities of the original four Canadian divisions. Nevertheless, the Canadians formed the largest Allied component within the corps, at least 97,184 Canadians were included in the 170,000 strong force.
To prepare for and to support the operation, the British made available 24 brigade artillery groups – some 480 18-pounder field guns, 138 4.5-inch howitzers, 96 2-inch trench mortars and 24 9.45-inch mortars. In addition, 245 larger guns were allocated, this meant there was one heavy gun for every 20 yards of front, and one field gun for every 10 yards. This represents a three time increase in heavy guns when compared to the Battle of the Somme, and a higher density of other guns when compared to previous averages. A total of 1.6 million shells were made available, leading to rapid and sustained rates of fire. In addition, coordinated counter-battery activities were conducted for a week prior to the battle and effective mapping, aerial reconnaissance resulted in four fifths of German batteries being hit.
Born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, on 24 May 1888, Private John Arsenault was just one of many Canadians who took part in the battle. He had worked as a coal miner before the war broke out, but was conscripted into the 85th Battalion of the Nova Scotia “Overseas” Highland Brigade. He would train in the provincial capital of Halifax before embarking on the six day crossing to Liverpool on 12 October 1916. Private Arsenault would then spend a few months training in Milford, Surrey, before being shipped out to the front in February 1917 – just months before the infamous four day battle.
The Nova Scotia “Overseas” Highlanders would play a pivotal role in the capture of Hill 145, now the site of the Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial. Sadly, Private Arsenault would not see the end of the bitter fighting, as he was killed on 9 April 1917. His sacrifice, along with thousands of other brave Canadians, was not forgotten with the victory at Vimy Ridge becoming a defining moment in Canada’s history – now considered to be “the Birth of a Nation”or a coming of age.
The Canadians launched the offensive at 5.30am on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, taking advantage of poor weather conditions, gas, mines, and utilising a creeping barrage. The plan called for strict timetabling, which, if all went as intended, would see a gain of 4,000 yards and much of the ridge by 1pm on the first day. Although various complications occurred and resistance, in some places (in particular facing 4th Division), fierce, the bulk of Vimy Ridge was taken on the first day of battle.
On the second day, the town of Thélus fell to the Canadians as did the crest of Vimy Ridge after the Canadian Corps overcame ferocious resistance to seize a salient. The attack pressed on, support by fresh British troops, tanks, and with machine guns – which had to be redeployed further forward. The final objective, a fortified knoll located outside the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, fell on 12 April and forced the German defenders to retreat back to the Oppy–Méricourt line.
Although likely not the greatest Canadian contribution in terms of strategic importance, the unification of Canadian divisions into one corps for the pivotal battle in regards to Canadian national history arguably installed the symbolic image of national unity in the postwar era.
Canada had approximately 8 million inhabitants in 1914; 650,000 of whom would see some form of action in the First World War. By 11 November 1918, 65,000 of those servicemen would be killed, never to return home. A further 180,000 were wounded.
The commemorative journey undertaken by Odyssée de la Culture aims to follow the route of John Arsenault as closely as possible – starting in his hometown of St. Joseph du Moine and continuing on to Cheticamp, Baddeck, Sydney, Glace Bay, Port Morien, Louisbourg, and L’Ardoise. For this Canadian leg of the journey, 12 members of the association will be present with local townspeople, who are encouraged to join for symbolic walks throughout Cape Breton.
Within the group of Canadians will be descendants of the 85th Battalion including two members of John Arsenault’s family and one descendant of Captain Percival Anderson, who was the Commanding Officer of Companies “C” and “D” and who led the attack up Hill 145. From L’Ardoise, the French and Canadian members will travel to Halifax, the city from which Private Arsenault embarked on his Atlantic journey – before flying to the UK in preparation for the second leg of the journey.
After arriving in London, Odyssée de la Culture will spend two days in Milford, Surrey, during which a service will be held at All Saints Church before being joined by a local rambling club and walking through part of the Milford camp, where Private Arsenault spent most of his time in the UK. Another service will be held at Milford cemetery; the home of John Arsenault’s namesake grave – before the group journey down to Folkestone, Kent. At the Canadian cemetery based nearby, a final UK commemorative service will be held followed by a walk along the White Cliffs of Dover to Dover itself, thus concluding the UK tour.
Members will disembark from the channel ferry and continue their journey through France to be officially received by nine towns including Calais, Audruicq, Saint-Omer, Hazebrouck and Houdain before finally arriving at Givenchy-en-Gohelle, from where Vimy Ridge is situated as well as the organisation itself. At the site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, the Mayor of Givenchy, Pierre Senechal, will inaugurate ‘Le Square du 85ème Bataillon des Nova Scotia Highlanders’ ’ in the name of all Canadians who served in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
These official ceremonies will be followed by a joint French – Cape Breton gastronomic meal, a concert featuring French and Canadian musicians, as well as a Cape Breton square set dance in the hope of creating lasting ties between the two regions such as school exchanges in the near future. To accompany the commemorative event, a mobile exhibit will follow the Odyssée de la Culture from both sides of the Atlantic and will include elements such as artefacts, photographs and a documentary film, compliments of the National Vimy Memorial Visitor Centre. The exhibit will be catered towards all inhabitants from Nova Scotia, the United Kingdom and France with a special dedication towards educating students from local schools in all three countries.
2017 will mark a very important year in Canada’s history with the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge also coinciding with the 150th anniversary year of Canadian confederation. For further information on the event, or if you wish to find out how you could get involved, please visit the Odyssée de la Culture website at odysseedelaculture.e-monsite.com/ or on their Facebook page.