When General Sir Douglas Haig finally called an end to the Somme offensive in December 1916, he claimed that the main objectives had been achieved. He had concluded that the pressure on the French army at Verdun had been “relieved,” the German army was held on the Western Front—allowing Russia time to recover—and the enemy’s forces in France had been “worn down” in a series of attritional battles.
Most of this was pure rationalization. Haig had planned for a breakthrough on a wide front and kept his cavalry divisions in place, waiting to exploit opportunities and join in the pursuit. He held to this view as late as Sept. 29, 1916, when orders to begin a new offensive on an increased scale were issued. These events, known to military historians as the Battle of the Ancre Heights, are memorialized in hundreds of our towns and villages with cenotaph inscriptions listing the names of young Canadians killed in the fighting for Regina and Desire trenches.
Today, the entire battlefield that consumed so many lives can be viewed from the war memorial just outside Courcelette, France. The start line, where 1st and 2nd Canadian divisions began their part in the offensive, is immediately behind the site. Regina Trench, parts of which have left faint tracings on the ground, is less than 1,500 metres to the north.
Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, commanding the Canadian Corps, was less optimistic than Haig, but equally determined to press home the attack. The operation, which began on the first day of a cold, rainy October, brought heavy casualties and bitter recriminations. Heavier rain forced Byng to call off attacks for a full week, allowing time for 1st Div. to replace the battered battalions of 2nd Div. before the action was resumed on Oct. 8. This time, small groups of men made it to the objective before being killed or forced to retreat. However, the Canadian Corps, which suffered 1,364 casualties that day, was stopped cold. The wire covering the approaches had not been cut by artillery and the barrage directed at Regina Trench had fallen in the usual widely dispersed pattern. This left the German defenders and their fortifications intact.
The defeat marked the last battle fought by the corps on the Somme. However, 4th Cdn. Div., which had arrived in France in August 1916, was assigned to 2nd British Corps to continue an offensive that Haig insisted could achieve success and bring “full compensation for all that has been done.…” Major-General David Watson, who had led the 2nd Cdn. Battalion at Ypres as well as 5th Cdn. Brigade before his promotion, possessed the experience and temperament to command a division. However, there was little he could do to influence the renewed assault on Regina Trench.
The key to success was the prolonged, systematic artillery bombardment that broke the wire and the walking barrage that allowed the troops to reach the objective before the enemy could recover. This small victory left much of Regina Trench in enemy hands and a second attack supported by much less intense artillery fire collapsed soon after it began. The battle and the rain continued until Nov. 8 when a cold spell offered senior commanders one last chance to stage a successful attack. This time, the barrage was “perfect” and in the Canadian sector Regina Trench and parts of the secondary line known as Desire Trench were captured though to what avail no one could say. Overall Canadian casualties on the Somme were 24,029.
The historical debate over the Battle of the Somme still rages with most of the energy focused on British leadership. Haig’s defenders cite estimates of German casualties which are said to equal or exceed the 623,907 Allied losses from July 1 to Nov. 28. Critics argue that even if attrition on the Western Front was the only realistic option in 1916, Haig failed to understand this and was therefore unwilling to plan “bite and hold” battles focused specifically on wearing down the enemy.
Detailed reports from British and Canadian units had demonstrated that only carefully prepared attacks with massive artillery support stood any chance of success. However, senior commanders still ordered ill-prepared assaults at an enormous cost in lives. And so it was not at all clear by the end of 1916 which of the armies would collapse first.
Wars are not only won on the battlefield. During 1916, the strains imposed upon the economies of the Central Powers by the need to sustain large armies and together with the British blockade created major food shortages in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. University of Calgary historian Holger Herwig’s book The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 should be on every history buff’s list. It notes that 1916 “was particularly disastrous” for the Dual Monarchy with severe grain and potato shortages and only enough meat for a “Sunday Weiner Schnitzel—provided the fat to fry it in was available.”
In Germany the food supply crisis led to severe rationing, widespread shortages and an active black market. Herwig writes that “the dismal harvest of 1916 ushered in the so-called ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17. Heavy rains, an early frost and a shortage of field hands reduced the potato harvest by 50 per cent. Turnips, whether boiled, baked or dried became the national staple.”
These near-famine conditions forced leaders in Vienna and Berlin to re-examine their war aims and briefly consider the possibility of making peace. Earlier attempts to end the war through negotiation had failed because both sides hoped for a military victory. However, in September 1916 German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg encouraged American President Woodrow Wilson to resume efforts to end the war. But Wilson was unwilling to act until after the 1916 presidential election and so Germany made its own proposal to open negotiations. No specific terms were offered because the most powerful groups in Germany, including the army, were determined to hold onto the territories conquered from Russia and retain control of Belgium.
Wilson tried to transform the German initiative by demanding that both sides state their war aims. The Allies quickly agreed on an outline of their conditions for peace demanding “the restoration of Belgium, Serbia and Montenegro…the evacuation of the invaded territories in France, in Russia, in Rumania with just reparation” as well as the liberation of the subject populations of Central Europe from foreign domination. No German government could possibly accept such terms while its armies occupied much of Europe so the only choice left was to gamble on the defeat of Britain through unrestricted submarine warfare. If Britain could be forced to sue for peace before the U-boat campaign brought the United States into the war, Germany might still be able to control the future of Europe.
Canadian public opinion leaders were highly critical of the American initiative that seemed to place the Allies and their enemies on the same moral footing. Canadians believed they were fighting a just war to preserve the freedom of Belgium, liberate France from foreign occupation and remove the threat of German militarism. The war could only end when these goals were accomplished.
Canadian Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden had been invited to London to participate in the meetings of a newly established Imperial War Cabinet. His lengthy visit in early 1917 led to a renewed commitment to the war and the decision to introduce compulsory military service to maintain the Canadian Corps at full strength.
Borden’s determination to risk his own political future and Canada’s fragile national unity by imposing conscription was strongly influenced by his contact with the senior officers of the corps and hospitalized veterans of the campaign. The corps had spent the winter of 1916-17 in a temporarily quiet, 10-mile sector of the front north of Arras, France, resting, recuperating, absorbing replacements and training for future operations.
In his book Surviving Trench Warfare, historian Bill Rawling has offered a compelling description of the way in which the corps prepared for its part in the projected spring offensive. He writes: “In the days between the Battle of the Somme and the assault on Vimy, the Canadian Corps took a stock of its successes and failures and set out to develop a system of tactics, based on available technology that would allow the infantry to capture its objectives and hold them without the heavy casualties, characteristic of earlier battles.”
The crucial issue was the woeful inaccuracy of the artillery, a problem that could only be overcome through technical improvements in meteorology, survey, sound ranging and better quality shell production. The Canadians were fortunate to be able to employ the services of outstanding gunner officers, including Lieutenant-Colonel A.G.L. “Andy” McNaughton who introduced the latest methods of achieving accurate counter-battery fire to the corps.
Ideas about improving the quality of artillery support during an attack together with innovative tactics for the infantry were brought to the corps by Maj.-Gen. Arthur Currie who spent time studying the lessons learned by the French army at Verdun. The French sought much greater accuracy from their gunners, relying less on massive barrages. Currie was especially impressed with ideas about platoon tactics and weapons, going so far as to argue that “infantry do the conquering and artillery plays a supporting role.” This approach led to changes in the composition as well as the training of infantry platoons. “The new platoon,” Rawling writes, “would be formed of four sections, one each of bombers, Lewis gunners, riflemen and rifle-grenadiers.”
With such an organization the platoon could fight its own way forward, overcoming the enemy by fire and movement. Once the Canadians were informed that their task was to capture a four-mile stretch of Vimy Ridge, elaborate measures were taken to ensure German defences were targeted by the heaviest possible weight of shells.
By April 1917, 245 heavy guns and howitzers, most of them manned by British units, were in position to assist the 15 field artillery brigades. As G.W.L. Nicholson’s official history notes, “the provision of all this firepower gave a density of one heavy gun for every 20 yards of frontage and one field gun for every ten yards.” This was more than double the best ratio available at the Somme with greatly improved accuracy.
There was also time to rehearse the troops over ground that approximated the ridge. Maps and air photos were distributed down to platoon level and models were used to familiarize everyone with the smallest tactical features. The chalk sub-soil provided ideal conditions for Canadian tunneling companies who extended the existing tunnels and added new ones. Altogether, more than four miles of electrically lighted tunnels were excavated with large rooms added for battalion and brigade headquarters.
If success was to be won, much would depend on the skill and courage of the men of the Royal Flying Corps, who despite the marked inferiority of their planes in air-to-air combat, would be responsible for locating hostile batteries and correcting the fire called down upon them. Their work began well before the Battle for Vimy Ridge began on Easter Monday 1917 because the plan called for a lengthy preliminary bombardment beginning on March 20. To conceal the full extent of the support massed in this small sector, only half the heavy batteries fired during the first two weeks. But on April 2, all available guns began a “crushing bombardment” that destroyed entire villages and ushered in what the German defenders called “the week of suffering.”
The plan called for the guns to slacken their fire towards morning on the opening day. Then at 5:30 a.m., the main barrage began and thousands of young Canadians, grouped into 21 battalions, began their attack. Arthur Currie’s 1st Div., with Scotland’s 51st Highland Div. advancing on its right flank, captured the first enemy line without difficulty and “even at the second trench some of the garrison were caught underground.”
Further north along the ridge, 2nd and 3rd divisions enjoyed similar success, and by late afternoon their key objectives had been captured. Fourth Div., on the left flank, had run into much greater difficulties due to the strength of the enemy defences at Hill 145, the highest point on the objective, and the area known as the Pimple, located at the northern tip of Vimy Ridge. By April 12, the entire ridge was in Canadian hands, forcing a German withdrawal to the edge of the city of Lens.
The Canadian effort was singled out for praise in the world’s press using the oft-repeated phrase that “Vimy was Canada’s Easter gift to France.” An important local victory, the success at Vimy stood in sharp contrast to the collapse of the French Nivelle offensive to the south and the failure in strategic terms of the general British offensive at Arras. After the war, Canadians would come to associate the victory at Vimy with the emergence of Canadian nationhood, but in April 1917 there was no time for such abstractions. The Canadian casualty toll from the battle exceeded 10,600, including nearly 3,600 killed. At the time, it seemed a high price to pay for a pock-marked ridge and 4,000 prisoners.
Rawling insists that at Vimy the Canadian Corps “moved away from the concept of the citizen soldier…to an army of technicians, which even in infantry battalions specialized in particular aspects of fighting battles.” He also argues that the battle ended “with a different balance between costs and results.” Perhaps this is true, but the battles around Arras continued well into the summer and produced the same inconclusive results and a steady flow of Canadian and British casualties.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on March 1, 2005.