Revisionist historians contend that British leadership in World War I was not subpar and that the Western Front was not a byword for ‘senseless slaughter’.
Whether one agrees with them or not, it certainly can’t be denied that two smaller scale offensives conducted by the British in 1917 had considerable success.
One of these was Messines Ridge, a short operation in June that preceded and contrasted with the muddy slog and enormous death toll of Third Ypres, or Passchendaele, the centenary of which will occur later this year.
But even before Messines Ridge, British forces, including some ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and large numbers of Canadians, hammered the Germans at Vimy Ridge between April 9 and 12, 1917.
In ‘Vimy Ridge 1917’, Alexander Turner tells us that the hill, taken by the Germans during the opening moves of the First World War, rose only gently from the west, but more prominently in the east.
This, and the fact that it was beyond the captured coalfields at Lens and Douai, made it an excellent defensive position incorporating important resources.
But the attack on Vimy was not launched for its own sake.
Rather, it was one component of a larger French-led offensive meant to recapture vast swathes of territory in 48 hours.
The commander was General Robert Nivelle.
He was supremely confident after replacing the more cautious General Phillipe Petain at Verdun and winning back ground taken by the Germans earlier in 1916.
Nivelle’s success at Verdun gave way to grander ambitions the following spring.
As Turner explains, his objective was “the destruction of the main body of German forces on the Western Front” and a breakthrough at the Chemin des Dames heights (which dominated the area).
This, he felt, would enable the Allies to “roll up the entire German line to the Flemish coast”.
British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig had reluctantly agreed to put some of his forces under Nivelle’s command during the course of the offensive.
They would be used at Vimy to conduct a diversionary assault and tie down large numbers of German reserves to prevent them counter-attacking any French soldiers after they ‘broke through’.
Haig wanted to drive straight for the channel ports at Zeebrugge and Ostend in Belgium because taking these would severely hamper the U-boat campaign against shipments bound for Britain.
Thus, the prospect of Nivelle’s assault going on to enable a ‘roll up of the whole German line’ to these ports must have helped pitch the operation to Haig, and to compensate him for leasing his forces to the French general.
But there was a spanner in the works.
The Germans had compensated for their losses at Verdun and the Somme the previous year by building the Hindenburg Line, a new section of their front running from Vimy Ridge in the north to the Chemin des Dames in the south.
Although retiring to it meant ceding ground to the Allies, the great advantage lay in the fact that the German line would be shortened, requiring fewer men to garrison it.
This created a new reserve for them of 13 divisions.
So tying down German reserves would not be as straight forward as Nivelle had hoped.
The Germans though, were still largely outnumbered.
For every 150-man company front at Vimy (German companies were understrength on the sector by this point), they were to be faced by two or more 1,000-man Allied battalions (mostly Canadian).
However, the Germans were playing a defensive game, and facing the Allies was a murderous jigsaw puzzle of thick barbed-wire, some of which was deliberately skewed to channel attackers into murderous kill zones of overlapping machine-gun arcs.
The guns themselves were usually located in the second line of trenches to give their bullets, when fired up in arcs, sufficient distance to spread out and separate more, creating conical ‘beaten paths’ of bullets.
But despite these cunning preparations, the Germans weren’t exactly comfortable on the ridge.
Their trenches were well-prepared (they invented quick-drying cement during the war to help with their defences), but during a barrage their dugouts became insufferable.
Alexander Turner describes the atmosphere vividly:
“The air down in those dugouts was foul. Everything was damp. When it rained on the surface, a few days later it would ‘rain’ in the tunnels and dugouts as well. They were infested with enormous rats that scuttled and scavenged fearlessly. The claustrophobia when under barrage can only be imagined and eyewitness accounts abound with instances of men going berserk.”
Turner also points out that although Vimy Ridge is remembered as a Canadian battle waged and won in the absence of former French and British victories (as is the message of the William Shatner-narrated piece below), no attempt had really been made to take the ridge since the French Artois offensive of 1915.
The Canadian Corps also had within it many British officers, and tunnelling preparations before the attack were carried out by British sappers.
As well as the mines these sappers would lay below ground, artillery preparations were extensive.
In the weeks leading up to the offensive, three phases of bombardment had been unleashed, each one getting more intense.
The last, dubbed by the sheltering Germans as the ‘Symphony of Hell’, was so intense that windows 20km away were shattered by it.
German guns fired back before they were taken out, and the effects of this meant that the Canadians took 10 percent of their casualties before the battle had even started. Still, the preparation would save lives.
Part of this effort involved trench raids, meant to ascertain the state of German trenches before the main infantry assault was launched.
The Allies had air superiority, but the rudimentary nature of photographic equipment limited the scope of aerial reconnaissance and made it difficult for details to be grasped in this way.
But combining this with raids yielded tremendously useful intelligence.
In one instance, on the night of April 8, a raid was used to confirm that German barbed wire was still in place in front of the German lines.
(Aerial shots had said that it was, while distant ground observations had contradicted this).
So the artillery bombardment was stepped up to take out this remaining wire before infantry were sent over the following day.
The picture below illustrates the ‘box barrage’ technique of using field artillery and mortars to create a perimeter that would isolate a given pocket of the enemy line.
Trench raiders would dash into the area at a pre-arranged time to take prisoners and gather intelligence.
After all the raiding and shelling was done, the British troops (Canadians and ANZACs were considered ‘British’ as they were under British command) assembled in the front lines, laden with supplies.
Each man had 170 bullets, two Mills bombs (bombers had 15 and rifle grenade lobbers 12), bayonets, gas masks, 48-hours’ worth of rations, two water bottles, sandbags, rubber groundsheets, and two signal flares.
Lewis gunners carried drum magazines between them, and shovels, picks, and wire cutters were shared amongst members of a battalion.
They filed to the front, ushered on by a traffic light system and military police through subways and communication trenches, “tripping on duckboards, snagging on communications cable and bumping into each other (in the darkness)”.
Again, Turner describes brilliantly the building tension that troops must have felt as they readied themselves to attack:
“Around 0400 (on Easter Monday, 9 April), the subway exits were opened and having had their customary rum ration and final mug of sweet tea, the leading assault waves filed noiselessly into no man’s land… they clambered up trench ladders and crawled forward into shell holes. Those final moments witnessed pats of encouragement and handshakes. By now, a grim determination was setting in. As one Canadian private recalled it, ‘First a little rum, then blood …’”
At 5:30 am, the attack began, with only five of the 18 intended mines detonating.
Aircraft took to the skies as soon as it was light enough to locate any enemy guns not already taken out.
Of course, they were in the path of this duelling artillery, and three Allied planes were smashed out of the sky by ‘friendly’ artillery fire in this way that morning.
For the infantry, though, the assault went well, with first (black) line objectives taken from stunned and disoriented German defenders by 6:15 am.
Those further back were often driven back by the oncoming Canadians, with their Lewis (machine) gun and rifle-grenade support.
Unfortunately for the Germans, they couldn’t run all the way back to their rear – the creeping barrage was still falling on the trench lines behind them.
Although the artillery was there to help them, it must have unnerved the Allied troops too.
German Stormtrooper Ernst Junger described the barrages of the First World War as a ‘storm of steel’, and one Canadian veteran used similar language about Vimy:
“As our men went over the parapet, the heaven above them was a canopy of shrieking steel.”
The enemy were also harassed by heavier Vickers gun fire. One German recalled:
“About 200m south-west from the abandoned fire trenches (I Stellung), the first English were appearing… who had brought into position… a machine gun whose monotone melody crackled incessantly from here on. Hotly pursued by fire from this troublesome machine gun in the midst of artillery fire raging directly over Vimy village, the staff hurried to the Zwischenstellung in almost knee-deep mud. Besides the Adjutant, the Signals officer, both orderlies and three radio operators were lost.”
Some Germans dealt with the pressure the only way they could.
Unable to retire, they counter-attacked in sections, leaving one group of Canadians desperately beating them off whilst clinging to the cover of tree stumps in what had been an orchard.
Some, such as the Canadian Black Watch, were also harassed by enfilade machine-gun fire.
Turner points out that for the Germans, this was very much a platoon and section battle as small isolated units presented pockets of resistance to the attacking waves.
Many of the details of these men’s brave exploits, he says, obviously died with them as they were overwhelmed.
Attacking was nerve-wracking, but defence, in this case, was probably worse, as men were pinned down, freezing and slime-covered and often isolated:
“Imagine a 19-year-old private sheltering alone in the cover of a shell hole. Every ten seconds or so, the methodical traverse swept his position, some rounds snapping over, others clipping the lip of his hole and showering him in mud and grit. Beyond view were the cries of leaders, flat bass crump of grenades and the haunting screams of wounded. He would have already seen his friends cut down in a heap, some mutilated beyond recognition. Men of a ghostly pallor lying in their own entrails, others clutching shattered limbs feebly.”
But, Turner reminds us, “worst of all were the head and facial injuries – brains blown out and jaws shot away” and that fear would have turned these men into ‘cowering empty vessels’ quaking in the muddy shell holes.
The British pressed on, and by 10:30 am the Canadian 3rd Division was able to glimpse the green fields beyond no man’s land.
One veteran interviewed in the BBC’s 1964 series ‘The Great War’ recalled:
“When we reached the top of the ridge, a remarkable site was unfolded. We saw before our eyes all the German-occupied villages around Lens, the mining villages with the slag heaps and mine shafts and you could even see beyond lens. They didn’t seem to have been affected at all, they still seemed to be intact.”
Some of the men even got through to the German artillery guns in the rear, but, having had to snip their way through uncut barbed wire 'as thick as brambles', and then being shot at over open sights by the nearby artillery, they were seething when they reached the enemy.
A bayonet charge followed and the German gunners were quickly overwhelmed, and impaled when caught.
But the success of the attack was running into the same problem the Germans faced at Verdun, and would face the following year during Operation Michael: Mud.
The British very soon found that they weren’t able to drag their guns forward to continue supporting the infantry, and the attack slowed.
By the end of the first day, the Canadians had suffered 1,660 men killed and a further 979 missing (who, most likely, were also dead and had simply disappeared into the morass of no man's land).
German resistance hadn’t entirely disappeared either.
On April 10, ‘the Pimple’, a bit of raised ground in the middle of the front that was honeycombed with bunkers and dugouts and zigzagged by trenches, would be occupied by fresh German Guard Grenadiers.
They subsequently harassed British troops.
They were right to. When Germans did flee for the rear, they were shown no mercy in many cases.
One war diary reports that:
“A large party, estimated at 80 to 100 of the enemy, ran out of the dugouts in the direction of Givenchy (in the rear). These men were taken on by the Lewis guns of D Company so effectively that not a single man reached Givenchy.”
But the slogging would not continue for months as it had at the Somme, and would again at Passchendaele.
Things had largely wound down by the early morning of April 13.
There were calls to renew the offensive, but here Haig showed restraint, realising it would be fruitless to continue without being able to get artillery forward.
Attacks did start again on the Scarpe valley on April 23 on a small scale, but by 24 May the line had settled down.
As the BBC’s Great War put it:
“They (commanders) had not the means nor the experience to follow up this great feat of arms.”
For the British, attention would shift north to Messines Ridge and Ypres, in Belgium, where the next summer offensive would be unleashed.
Their attack had been a success, achieving the objective of pinning down large numbers of the German reserves (even if there were more reserves than had been expected after the German withdrawal to the shorter Hindenburg Line).
The real tragedy of Vimy lay in the larger French offensive effort it was a part of.
The grand breakthrough, as per usual on the Western Front, failed to materialise. What the French got instead was huge numbers of dead and wounded. Under the pressure, Nivelle's scheme soon broke down, and this time, so too did the French Army.
One French soldier commented bitterly:
“Our commanders are incapable of leading us to victory. Peace ought to be made straight away.”
Mutinies broke out, and Petain was brought back to replace Nivelle, ushered in to save the men as he’d done at Verdun the year before.
There were still executions – 55 that we known of (and possibly others we don’t). But conditions were improved and leave increased.
The Army, and the front, held.
For now, the British had been spared this, but they too would face smaller-scale mutiny at Etaples, later in 1917, as well as their own tragic slaughter at Third Ypres.
But that’s another story...