April 9 is recognized as Vimy Ridge Day, a national day to commemorate the victory and sacrifice of members of the Canadian Corps in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place between April 9 and April 12, 1917.

Germany had captured Vimy Ridge in northern France early in the war and transformed it into a strong defensive position, with a complex system of dugouts and trenches manned by highly trained soldiers with many machine guns, mortars, and artillery pieces. Previous Allied assaults on Vimy Ridge in 1914 and 1915 had resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and had been largely unsuccessful. As part of an Allied offensive, a major attack was planned for April in the area of Arras, France. In this operation, the Canadians would be tasked with capturing one of the most fearsome positions on the Western Front: Vimy Ridge.

The Canadians moved to the front lines across from Vimy Ridge in the late autumn of 1916. The Battle of Vimy Ridge would be the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together as one formation, and the planning and preparations for the battle were extensive. The Canadians spent the entire winter strengthening the lines and raiding the enemy trenches, while the soldiers drilled on what they were to do, aided with new maps crafted from aerial photographs to guide their way.[1]

The four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on April 9, 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian infantry drove forward all along the front.[2] The Canadians advanced behind a “creeping barrage”, a line of intense Allied artillery fire that moved ahead at a set rate and was timed to the minute. The Canadian infantrymen followed the line of explosions closely. It was a brutal battle, with much intense combat. Through courage, skill, and grit, the Canadians captured most of the heavily defended ridge by the end of the day.

Three more days of costly battle delivered final victory. The Canadian operation was an important success, even if the larger British and French offensive, of which it had been a part, had failed. But it was victory at a heavy cost: 3,598 Canadians were killed and another 7,000 wounded.

Built in remembrance of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France who have no known graves, the Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial has been a site of pilgrimage since its unveiling by King Edward VIII in 1936, and a symbol for the sacrifice of the young Dominion.

True Patriot Love spoke to Tim Cook, Canadian War Museum chief historian and award-winning author of Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, about the intersection of fact and myth. His latest book, The Good Allies: How Canada and the United Stated fought together to defeat fascism during the Second World War, is coming out this fall.

The capture of the Ridge was a rare success of the war to that point. Your book explores how it came to be seen as symbolic of “the birth of a nation”.

Interestingly, Vimy wasn’t a strong symbol in the early 1920s. But with the building of the Vimy Memorial in France, the pilgrimage of 6,000 veterans to its unveiling in 1936 and King Edward VIII’s presence there, the monument was elevated to speak to all of Canada’s war dead. Canadians could ascribe their own meanings to Vimy. But it is not a made-up event. It is grounded in the bloody and victorious battle of April 1917.

At the time in 1917, though, Vimy is the start of a series of Canadian victories. Even though we are ably supported by the British, it is largely a Canadian battle and the first time the four divisions fight together. The corps captures a seemingly impregnable position. There’s an alchemy of reasons that will only later be forged into a myth, assisted by the building of the monument.

All myths take complex ideas and try to boil them down to something simple. There are a lot of ways to think about Vimy. In my book, I don’t try to tear Vimy down as a symbol, but you can’t dissociate it from the memorial, the ridge, the battle, and the terrible loss of lives.

Aspects of the history of Vimy are still reframed, like the Heritage Minute about Vimy that positions Major-General Arthur Currie as the master strategist – and talking back to Sir Julian Byng, the commander, to boot.

What I do in the book is try to understand the layers of memory and meaning, and why we’ve ascribed important meanings to certain people and events. I don’t want to discount Currie’s importance, and I wrote a biography of him in which I call him Canada’s best battlefield commander, but he could not have achieved his success in reforming infantry training before Vimy without Byng’s support. The Heritage Minute was interesting because they’re meant to celebrate Canadians, but Byng was in charge, and he wasn’t Canadian. His impact is downplayed.

How was the attack on Vimy different from the battles that preceded it?

There are six crucial months between the Battle of the Somme and Vimy. Canadians suffered 24,000 casualties at the Somme; the British commanders and Canadians learned from it and put new tactics into practice. There was the evolution of small unit tactics; there was training on diorama models of the advance to, and through, enemy trenches; there was greater and closer involvement with infantry and artillery; and infantry platoons were issued more of the light Lewis machine guns that provided essential firepower.

The Canadian Corps was a strong, self-contained fighting unit, and we were lucky to have very good officers: Arthur Currie and Julian Byng worked well together, as did other divisional commanders, brigadiers, and battalion commanders. At this point in the war, the Canadians are battle-hardened: the survivors have learned how to fight. They’re also implementing new tactics at the corps level, and at the brigade and battalion level.

Part of the hard lesson of the Somme was you had to prepare for casualties to your junior officers. You had to empower the sergeants and corporals to take over from the lieutenants should they be killed or wounded. This idea of moving on and continuing to your objective and not stopping if your officers are down was important.

But the success at Vimy was not a preordained conclusion. By reading thousands of soldiers’ letters, diary entries, and memoirs, I came to understand some aspects of the face of battle, especially the unending strain on those at the sharp end. The Canadian soldiers were better trained and ready for Vimy but on the day of battle it still came down to the infantry. There were no victories on the Western Front without sacrifice and bloodshed.

Your book paints a graphic picture of the carnage of the battlefield and its often devastating impact on the soldiers who witnessed and survived it. What was known about shell shock (what we would today call PTSD) at the time?

There were about 15,000 recorded cases of shell shock in Canadian soldiers. At the time, it remained deeply contested by those in command who were worried about armies dissolving under the intense strain of sustained combat. That created an antagonistic relationship between the doctors and those in high command who wondered why they were losing hundreds and thousands of soldiers to invisible injuries. I recounted that in a recent book, Lifesavers and Body Snatchers, which unpacked the rapid evolution in medical care in order to respond to the cruel fighting along the front. The high command’s worry about shell shock was linked to concepts of masculinity and discipline. There were also doctors who saw it as their role to ensure discipline and send wounded soldiers back into the line to address the manpower shortage.

PTSD is a new concept, but soldiers have always suffered from mental wounds. Almost from the start of the war soldiers were returning to Canada ill or injured. In 1915 authorities in Canada had to extend the medical system to care for wounded soldiers – there were new hospitals, prosthetic limb factories, and specialized hospitals for shell shock. It was the very first state-run medical system.

But of course, many others who could keep fighting came back with PTSD and to a country not prepared to deal with their mental trauma. Today we have a better understanding about how war imprints itself onto individuals but there’s still more work to be done.

With more than 100 years of hindsight, where do historians stand on the First World War now?

The Western Front remains unquiet. The war’s meaning is deeply contested. We continue to study it, argue about it, and explore its many legacies. It continues to matter deeply to millions of Canadians who have a family member who served in the war. At the Canadian War Museum, where I’ve been lucky to work for over 20 years, I’ve been drawn to the personal experience of people who served and the powerful language of eyewitnesses to history. In books and exhibitions, I’ve tried to draw out the experience of combat, and why we continue to be haunted by war. We can’t turn our backs on those who died in the service of the country. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves.

Learn more about Vimy

  • The National Film Board and the Vimy Foundation produced Return to Vimy, a nine-minute film which uses colourized archival footage and contemporary animation to tell the story of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces’ efforts during the First World War from the perspective of a young woman visiting the Vimy Memorial in honour of her great-grandfather.
  • Released in 1935, and the first feature-length documentary film with sound made in Canada, Lest We Forget tells the story of Canada’s involvement in the Great War. The account of Vimy Ridge starts at the 1hr 06min mark.

[1] The Battle of Vimy Ridge – Veterans Affairs Canada

[2] The Battle of Vimy Ridge | Canadian War Museum