Last Friday, I made the decision to travel out from big city Paris to the small farming town of Vimy. Although most of the world is not aware of this little village, almost every Canadian has heard of it. Vimy was the site of such fierce fighting in World War I, it was almost certainly a German success until the Canadians showed up in 1917.
I study history, so I’ve been over this story dozens of times, but for any non-Canadians or those who are less familiar with the tale of Vimy Ridge, I will set the stage for you.
As I head out towards Vimy, I realize that not much has changed across the French landscape since the war 100 years ago. The little villages that had previously never seen a Canadian soldier have not seen many Canadians since. The flat stretches of farmers’ fields seem to ignore the hidden metal buried under the surface. Over 4 million explosives were laid during World War I and remain today lost and unexploded under the earth’s surface. Every year, this part of France experiences an “Iron Harvest”, where farmers put the shells they’ve dug up with their tractors out by the roadway for authorities to pick up like the weekly garbage collection.
I’ve heard collection day is Wednesday.
As is my habit when I travel, I use my history background to place myself in the time period of my visits. In 1917, this highway certainly wouldn’t have existed. I erase the electrical poles with my mind. The fields are the same, as are the trees, the rivers, the red clay shingles on the fieldstone houses. The hills that I travel over now have seen more soldiers march over them one way than the other. Over 11,000 soldiers didn’t need a return ticket.
Even though I am arriving in late January and the Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought in early April, this winter has been considerably mild in France and therefore, the conditions are better today to what the soldiers would have encountered. On the first day on fighting, April 9, 1917, there was rain and snow falling into the trenches. On April 10, a full force blizzard. My 10°C day today would have been a luxury to fight in.
I tried to put myself in the mindset of the soldiers as they arrived. They would have heard that the French army had tried to take the ridge back from the Germans over the span of 16 months and at the cost of 150,000 men, without success. And they would have been told that the British forces they were relieving had tried for 8 months with only escalating violence and no progress forward. They would have been tired, hungry and longing for home. And each step forward was bringing them farther from home, closer to Germany, to the enemy, and for many, their final resting place.
The French had given up, the British had given up, and now this young, pioneering country, their efforts known to the world only as a part of the British Empire, was about to try and walk on its own for the first time. The four Canadian divisions had not fought ensemble ever before. How were they ever going to win this battle? Again, I place myself into the history itself to imagine the environment better.
As a soldier of the Canadian Corps, you have just travelled from the Battle of the Somme, where over 1,000,000 men died, including more than 24,000 of your own countrymen. You are young, maybe not even yet a man. Perhaps you lied about your age for the chance to fight for glory. Your leaders are a group of unlikely men. Commander of the 1st Canadian Division is Arthur Currie, once a public school teacher, the manager of an life insurance company and a real estate mogul who’s recently gone bankrupt. The Commander of the 2nd Division is Henry Burstall. Son of a Quebecois merchant, he is an experienced military man who had developed his military skills fighting in South Africa, but is a man already edging on fifty. Louis Lipsett of the 3rd is actually an Irishman with British training and the 4th’s David Watson is a Canadian journalist who owns a local newspaper. But despite their varied backgrounds, the four men seem to have all agreed on what the Canadians are going to do. For the first time in modern warfare, and the last time the circumstances of war will likely ever permit this to occur again, the commanders are making their soldiers rehearse the battle. Back from the front line, the soldiers have recreated their battlefield using sand. You’ve rehearsed the battle, time and time again, drill after drill until you were doing them in your sleep. Everyone has spent weeks doing this, preparing their own attacks.
If you are a gunner, you’re going to be attempting a creeping barrage attack. This new tactic has the artillery release a rain of fire only 100 yards in front of their own soldiers, then pause for the soldiers to advance before firing anew, 100 yards further out. You were firing out up to and sometimes over a kilometer ahead of yourself. Focus and accuracy were vital to the creeping barrage’s success.
If you are a private, this creeping barrage plan frightens you because the same technique had been first tried at the Battle of the Somme, and many gunners didn’t fire the guns far enough, hitting their own comrades in the back. That is why you have now given them all the nickname of Drop-Shorts. 36 hours before the attack, you head to the tunnels dug underground, leading to the front line. It is dark, wet, muddy and stuffy in those tunnels. There are no washrooms. There is very little food. You try to ignore the stagnant smell of fear all around you. You focus your days off by distracting yourself in town with the locals. Your free time you spend in the trenches with your comrades playing cards.
If you are instead a messenger, your situation is bitter sweet. You have the most dangerous job in the entire army. The enemy forces want you dead so that communications amongst your army is stilted. As such, your life expectancy in battle is about 3 weeks. You volunteered for this position though, as no one is ever forced to become a messenger. As a reward, you have your own quarters in the tunnels, which are much more comfortable than the regular private’s quarters. You also receive a pay 7 times that of a standard private, to help ensure that your family is taken care of after your very probable and quick demise.
Are you a gas sergeant? Then you aren’t particularly popular right now. You had planned an attack to wipe out most of the German soldiers for your comrades before the day of battle was upon you all. The plan was straight-forward: you had hundreds of gas canisters nicknamed “rats”, filled with a new type of gas called phosgene. Colourless and only slightly musty in odour, this gas was very promising. Every night, you had lugged these heavy rats four miles to the front line and buried them into holes known as “rat traps”. You had all been so careful in placing the rats into their rat traps, pointing their rubber hose tails away from your own trenches and into No Man’s Land. At 3:00 am on the day of your attack, the plan was to release one dose of phosgene gas, followed by a second dose at 5:00 am, this time of chlorine gas, to finish off any survivors. No Germans could fire any artillery while the gas was released, since it would cause an explosion. At 5:45am, 45 minutes later, a period deemed long enough for the gas to naturally dissipate, you were going to watch as 1,700 fellow countrymen went “over the top” as it was called, to pick off the remaining men. On March 1, 1917, a whole 39 days before the battle was to take place, your attack was launched. According to plan, at 3:00 am all the gas sergeants were in position. But soon after your first release, disaster struck. First, the Germans figured out what was happening, and sent the artillery barrage and machine guns raining down on you, exploding the buried rats outside your own trenches. Now there was colourless and near odourless poisonous gas seeping into the air outside your position. To make matters worse, the wind had changed, sending the second wave of chlorine gas not over to the Germans, but rather blowing the yellow cloud of poison back into the faces of the Canadian brigades. The gases also settled into the very shell craters of No Man’s Land that your comrades were seeking shelter in. In only 5 minutes, 190 of your own men were dead, along with two company commanders. Only 5 men even reached the German trenches, with 687 casualties of men who didn’t. Everyone else was captured and spent 21 months in a German prisoner’s camp. Two days later, after only silence since the attack, a German soldier carrying a Red Cross flag walked across No Man’s Land to Hill 145. He called out for a Canadian to meet with him and a Canadian officer obliged. The German offered a two hour truce from 10:00 am – 12:00 pm, during which time stretcher bearers and medical staff could freely cross into No Man’s Land and carry back remains of the dead. The Germans helped by bringing the Canadian casualties halfway.
If you were one of the troops that headed over the top on March 1, you may have survived the gassing, but it was unlikely. It’s 3:00 am. You are waiting for the signal to go over the top. The gas sergeants release the first dose of gas. You and your comrades all wait. You talk to the man waiting beside you. What was his name again? He was in your training program in Canada. You don’t suspect anything is wrong at first because the air looks and smells the same. But suddenly, your eyes and throat burn. There are a few coughs echoing around you. Without warning, you have the sensation you are suffocating. More coughs are heard. The man you were talking to starts blinking rapidly and rubbing his eyes like he is trying to get something out of them. Your chest begins to hurt. Ouch, what is that? You can feel it, right there behind the sternum. Ow! The pain is becoming severe. You suddenly realize what is happening, but the heavy gas is filling the trenches now. Even though you feel like you can’t breathe; you start coughing. You cough and cough but it doesn’t stop. A fluid like egg whites is rapidly gathering in your lungs. You need to fall back, you need to get away from this poison. The trenches are all a maze or curves and squiggles, making your retreat difficult. Your mouth starts salivating profusely as your body tries to dilute the poison. You probably lose your breakfast. You look around for your comrades but you can hardly see them through all the tears. Some are from the pain in your chest. Some are not. You lick your lips but they keep becoming chapped. You lick them again, and again. Your lungs spasm as they try to block the poison from entering your body. Through the tears you see that some of your comrades have reacted so strongly that he has suffocated. All this coughing is making your throat hurt. You lick your lips again but your tongue feels odd, like it is covered in a thick fur. You try to find your way back to the tunnels but your vision is not good. You stumble along with the others. Now your head hurts too. The headache is nearly as strong now as the pain in your chest. No, stronger. The pain of it makes your vision even more blurred. You feel dizzy from the headache. You pass fellow comrades on their knees, gasping for air. Your legs feel weak and your steps are wobbly but you won’t let them rest. You see the man from your working party to your left, lying down. He looks a little yellow. Or is it green? He stops coughing. You promise yourself to never lie down. Your breath is ragged and inconsistent. You can hear your heartbeat heavy and quick in your ears. You think you see a nurse up ahead. Is that a nurse? You trip your way towards her; your legs are so weak. You see a few others have made it too. They are loaded up on stretchers and rushed back to the medical station. One man’s face is a violent shade of red-purple. The man in the stretcher next to you has blue ears and matching finger nails. You find some temporary relief by sitting up and tilting your head back. You don’t know why it helps, but it does. The nurse tries to get you to lie down again. You try to tell her no but you don’t seem to be able to get the words out right. She forces you to lie down. You turn onto your side and the nurses tilt your head over the stretcher so you don’t choke. You feel cold. You feel so, so cold. The nurses are counting pulses and calling them out to be recorded. You hear the numbers 84, 75, 92, 100. You don’t know which one is yours. They then start counting breaths: 46, 81, 63, 58. Those numbers seem way too high. You feel the way your little brother back home describes his asthma attacks. You cough some more and spit out the froth. The coughing makes the headache worse. Your chest aches with each breath you take, and you are taking so many shallow, short breaths. Eventually, you are so exhausted that when you reach the medical station, you want to collapse into sleep. But the coughing will not subside and the pain will not let you. How long were you awake there? 12 hours? One day? More? You count the different nurses you see, how many shifts have passed. It must be close to 36 hours by now. The nurses take a lot of blood from you. It is dark in colour and clots quickly. The procedure is repeated among many of the survivors. The men around you stop looking so blue. The coughing slows down. You are so exhausted from fighting for each breath that you collapse into a restless sleep. When you awake though, you feel immensely better. The peace is temporary however. The next day, the nurse observing you tells you that you have developed pneumonia. After a short chat with the man lying in a bed next to you, you learn that he has pneumonia too. Another comrade has developed bronchitis. He looks to be in a much worse state than the rest of you. Two days later and his bed is empty. The nurses keep counting and recording things your body does. Your heart rate is very weak, but it hasn’t slowed down since it started pounding in your ears a few days ago. Your breathing hasn’t slowed down either. In fact, it has been getting faster. You have a fever and argue for the nurse to take off the woolen sheets covering you. A few of the men have gone delirious. You are fighting to maintain your own sanity but it is hard when you feel so, so hot. They serve you hot drinks and don’t seem to listen when you say you don’t need anything hot. You hear the word pleurisy thrown around a lot, but you aren’t sure what it means. Many of the men now have lung infections. Somehow, two men have gangrene. After a few weeks the bronchitis has subsided but you don’t feel any better. You are prone to waves of breathing difficulties. The man in the next bed sometimes turns a bluish colour for no reason, but he seems fine. You try to walk around more in the following weeks but you sometimes get vertigo and are exhausted easily. Almost all of the men suffer from headaches, indigestion and panic attacks. The anxiety is always there.
(Of the 91,000 gas-related deaths of World War I, phosgene gas was accountable for approximately 85% (about 77,000), compared to 2-3% with mustard gas (about 1,800-2,700). Chlorine gas accounted for over 1,100 deaths when it was first used at Ypres.)
As I head into the tunnels that lead to the Canadian 3rd Division’s trenches, there is moss growing along the walls and water drips through the pores of the chalk ceiling. The nurse’s station is at the rear. It would have seen many people during the four days of battle. As you head towards the front line, there is an officer’s quarters to the right. Although not anything special, it was spades better than the privates’ quarters to your left. Prone to flooding and only a feet feet wide, this was where they waited in darkness before entering the trenches. As I continue through the tunnel, there are communication lines running along the wall. For every one metre of tunnel dug, 200 sandbags of chalk would have been created. I reach the exit.
The trenches are not tall, and although the wooden duckboards are now cement, the sandbags filled with concrete and the bags themselves disappeared long ago, the trenches look nearly the same as they would have 100 years ago. What struck me was firstly, how short the height of the walls were, and secondly, how close the trenches were to each other at points.
Here you can see the distance of No Man’s Land between two observation points. At the top of the little hill on the left hand side is the Canadian observation point. The little white flag on the right hand side marks the German observation point. The crater in the middle was created by a “sapper”, when tunnels are built underground and landmines buried for a later explosion.
The battlefield itself caught me really off guard. I knew there would obviously be craters from the explosives used, but I suppose I pictured them to be more eroded and smoothed over by now, not so fresh looking. Most of them were six to eight feet deep, and ten feet wide. Others were big enough that they had names, and could easily bury a one story house inside. Sometimes tuffs of grass clumped around the craters and looked like they had been last minute afterthoughts. The trees here today were not there during the war. The staff explained that the shade helps prevent too much vegetation from growing since, as the numerous signs will tell you, the area has not been demilitarized and is still live with buried explosives. To maintain the grass, the staff therefore release sheep into the fields to graze on it. Occasionally a sheep goes boom and well, at least it wasn’t you.
The memorial in memory of the Canadians that fought at Vimy Ridge is located in a clearing on the ridge in front of where the Canadian 3rd and 4th Divisions would have fought. The view from this memorial shows why the ridge was so desperately needed – you can see for miles and miles in all directions. Of course, also for miles in each direction is the militarized zone.
One thing that kind of made the soldiers in the pictures seem so real to me were the artifacts that have since been dug up from the area surrounding the trenches. A fork. A helmet. A razor blade and a mess kit. A YMCA mug. Ordinary things owned by ordinary people. The photo to the right above is a Lewis machine gun magazine. It was a favourite weapon of the Canadian Army.
It was also nice to see that the war cemeteries are both being so well taken care of as well. I had such an amazing day and an eye opening experience at the Vimy Ridge Memorial site. It was definitely worth the visit and I have never felt so proud before to be able to call myself a Canadian.