Updated Mon. Apr. 9 2007 1:26 PM ET
Mary Nersessian, CTV.ca News
Ninety years after the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, there is a renewal of interest in the landmark triumph, one of the nation's most storied military battles.
"My sense is that maybe young people are kind of poking around for some sense of who they are as Canadians," said Ted Barris, author of "Victory at Vimy" (Thomas Allen Publishers).
Historians have said Canadian nationalism was born atop the Vimy Ridge in northern France on April 9, 1917, when the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps claimed a strategic prize from the Germans near Arras, France that other allies had failed to capture.
"What it did was make them think they were terrific soldiers, and made them think Canada could do special things," military historian Jack Granatstein told CTV.ca.
One thousand Allied guns nearly hub-to-hub along the Vimy front fired relentlessly at German targets day and night for a week. (Victory at Vimy)
Reconfigured platoons of the Canadian Corps consisted of an officer, several sergeants, fifteen riflemen, eleven bombers and a equal number of grenadiers, a Lewis machine gun crew of six, a couple of scouts, and stretcher bearers. Each member of the platoon knew how to perform his job and the jobs of nearly every other man in the unit - the key to victory at Vimy. (Victory at Vimy)
The crenellated trench (like the top of a castle chess piece in this aerial view) ensured that an invading enemy had a limited field-of-fire up and down the line. (Victory at Vimy)
It was at Vimy that the Canadian Corps captured more ground, more prisoners and more guns than any previous British offensive in the two-and-a-half years of war leading up to the battle.
Nine decades later, an overwhelming number of Canadians expressed interest in taking part in the Easter Monday celebrations that rededicated the soaring National Vimy Memorial after a $20-million restoration.
"It's been beyond anything that anyone would have imagined," Robert Mercer, an assistant deputy minister at Veterans Affairs, told a Senate committee in February.
Birth of nationalism
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was considered one of the major allied victories of the war. It represented the first significant turning of the tide against the Germans, who were removed from a significant spot in the Western Front.
"In a way, it was a sort of inspiration to those involved that the war would soon be over, and that the Germans would have to relinquish what they had taken," Barris told CTV.ca.
The milestone victory also marked the first time the entire Canadian Corps fought as one unit.
"Suddenly there was this chemistry of people coming together, who had for the most part, come from somewhere else. They were immigrants, they had come from empire countries, like Britain, Scotland, Wales, maybe South Africa and Rhodesia and the Caribbean," said Barris, a broadcaster and journalism professor, who will be travelling to France for the 90th anniversary memorial.
"But on that day and in the campaign leading up to it, they had become Canadians," he said.
But the nationalism that emerged among the Canadian Corps was only among the English-speaking troops, Granatstein said.
"There was only one battalion of francophones in the 48 battalions of the Canadian Corps and if there was nationalism formed, it was English-Canadian nationalism," Granatstein said.
"Quebec was a reluctant participant in the war, and there was a real shortfall in the percentage of francophones enlisting, there was real opposition to the war, and there was the fear that casualties would lead to conscription as of course it did," he said.
Battle of Arras
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the earlier battles in a larger British campaign, known as the Battle of Arras, during the First World War.
The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize the seven-kilometre ridge in April 1917.
A key asset for most of the First World War, the strategic ridge was one of the most heavily defended points on the entire Western Front and held a commanding view over the Allied lines. Rising 61 metres above the Douai Plain, it allowed the Germans a vantage point that gave them control over much of the surrounding territory.
The ridge, which was considered one of the Germans' most impregnable strongpoints, protected an area of occupied northern France where mines and factories were in full production for Germany.
Where other allied armies, such as the French and the British, had repeatedly tried and failed to seize the difficult position, the Allied commanders decided to launch another assault in 1917.
This time, the duty was handed to the relatively fresh Canadians, who carefully planned and rehearsed their attack.
As the Canadian Commander of the 1st Division, Maj.-Gen. Arthur Currie, said," Take time to train them."
And so they did -- building full-scale replicas of the Vimy terrain where Canadian units rehearsed exactly what they would do during the attack.
"They took every man and infantryman back behind the lines trained everybody over a replica of No Man's Land," Barris said.
"They rehearsed the attack over and over and over again, sharing information about the strategy from the top man to lowest man on ladder. This was unheard of because information was the domain of officers. Suddenly information was the domain of every man in the Canadian army."
'Week of suffering'
On April 2, the Canadians initiated the largest artillery barrage in history at that point.
Using over one million shells, the Canadians shelled the German trenches.
The German artillery pieces were harboured behind the ridge, but with aerial reconnaissance and other spotting methods that used sound and light, the Canadians were able to locate and destroy more than 80 per cent of enemy guns before they even stepped into No Man's Land.
"They pinpointed all the German guns way, way, way behind the German lines. ... Canadians scientifically managed to pinpoint where all the German guns were, the ones that could inflict real damage," Barris said.
By the time the infantry set out, the Germans bore the brunt of a million artillery shells. The Germans called the period "the week of suffering."
Some said the attack was so loud, it was heard all the way in London.
At dawn on April 9, 1917, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps, totalling 100,000 men, launched their attack.
Creeping artillery barrage
The key to their victory was the innovation of a creeping artillery barrage that would not only isolate enemy trenches, but serve as a moving wall of high explosives and shrapnel that would protect the advancing soldiers.
While it had been used previously by the British at the Battle of the Somme, it had outpaced the soldiers in that confrontation and both sides often shelled their own troops.
The Canadians perfected the technique at Vimy Ridge, advancing behind a continuous line of shells.
"Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated," warned Canadian Corps commander Sir Julian Byng.
Behind the barrage advanced 20,000 soldiers of the first attacking wave of the four divisions.
The barrage would function as a screen for the troops to hide from view. Every few minutes, the cannons would target a higher aim, moving the artillery fire forward by about 90 metres.
The Canadian foot soldiers on the attack were expected to keep moving forward. If they fell behind, they would become targets for the enemy soldiers watching from the ridge.
But if they moved too far forward, they were in danger of coming under fire from their own troops.
Until the battle of Vimy, the ever-growing Canadian force had been farmed out to allied troops as reinforcements.
Suddenly the troops were battling alongside Canadians from across the country, fighting for a common cause on one front.
While there was some hand-to-hand combat, the greatest resistance came from the machine guns located in the German intermediate line.
Three of the four divisions overcame the resistance to capture their part of the ridge by midday.
In the final stage of the battle, the 2nd Canadian Division was assisted by the British 13th Brigade, which fell under its command for the operation.
"Several of diaries and manuscripts I found reveal that the men talked about a greater sense of being Canadian than ever before because they were suddenly these four divisions of Canada together," Barris said.
Greg Clark, who had left his job at the Toronto Daily Star to join the army, described the ridge as a symbol to the Germans of "a sort of bastion for their line of conquest across France."
Within days it would become a measure of the Canadians' success.
By April 12, Canadians controlled the entire ridge.
"For the first time in our history, the four Canadians lined up along that infernal and stinking front, shoulder to shoulder," Clark wrote, "in order ... the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Divisions. There is symbolism ... Canadians from Atlantic to Pacific, a solid line."
The Douai Plain below him looked "like the kingdoms of the earth ... As far as the eye could see, south, north, along the miles of ridge, there were the Canadians. And I experienced my first full sense of nationhood," Clark wrote.
It was a sentiment echoed time and time again.
"Next to you in this campaign was somebody from the Maritimes, or downtown Toronto, or Saskatchewan, or caribou country of B.C.," Barris said.
Brig.-Gen. A.E. Ross declared after the war, "in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation."
Indeed, Canada suffered its share of growing pains, with more than 10,000 casualties, 3,598 fatal. Still, the level of casualties at Vimy was far lighter than the average of many assaults on the Western Front.
Earlier French, British and German battles at the Ridge had cost them at least 200,000 casualties.
"The coverage in Canada immediately after -- and in Britain and the U.S. -- also painted this as a big victory. Part of it was because there weren't many big victories then for the allies," Granatstein said.
It is said that upon learning of the victory, a French soldier exclaimed "C'est impossible!" ("It's impossible!")
When he was told it was the Canadians behind the victory, he replied: "Ah! Les Canadiens! C'est possible!" ("Ah! The Canadians! It is possible!").
The Canadian success at Vimy marked a significant turning-point for the Allies. A year-and-a-half later, the Great War -- the war to end all wars -- had come to an end.
Granatstein believes the renewed interest in the Battle of Vimy could well be linked to the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.
"There has been a substantial growth of interest in Canada's military past and I think the Afghan war contributes to this as well, the fact that we're taking casualties in battle again," Granatstein told CTV.ca.
"The war may not be wholly accepted by the public -- but the interest in the soldiers and the fact that Canadians will say at the drop of a hat 'We support our soldiers' must be having some carryover into this," he said.
arryover into this," he said.