In 1917 two of Canada’s most famous battles occurred: The Battle of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. However, the result of these two battles could not be more opposite. The former is described as Canada’s coming of age as a country, in which we entered the battle as a colony of Britain in international thought and exited as a nation in our own right. The latter is known as the worst battle in World War I, in which over 275,000 British-Canadian soldiers were killed in wretched conditions. Both of these battles defined Canada and the soldiers involved were courageous and willful- something that Canadians will be forever thankful for. Many do not fully appreciate the sacrifices made by our ancestors for our freedom today, even when they are particularly poignant given that last year marked the 100 year anniversary of the battles of Vimy and Passchendaele.
Vimy Ridge Memorial (source)
Vimy Ridge was a colossal mound located in northern France. To the soldiers of WWI, capturing the ridge represented a near impossible feat. Taking the ridge had been previously attempted and failed numerous times by the French, and soldiers trembled at the German fortifications that soared above. Following several attempts at taking Vimy, the French buckled after the overwhelming loss of over 100,000 soldiers.
However, on Easter Monday, at 5:30am, the tide turned. Months before, the Canadians were asked to take the ridge. Canadian commander, Arthur Currie, formulated a plan which took into consideration the faults of the previous attacks. On March 5, the plan was approved. Thus began preparations unlike anything before.
The entirety of the German lines was mapped and studied religiously by every soldier involved. The militants practiced tirelessly for weeks. Every single soldier was well aware of the plan and reviewed until the day of the attack. A large part of the battle plan included the use of tunnels as access points, landmines and being able to transport equipment without German eyes on them. Also, for the first time ever all four Canadian divisions were assembled to participate, meaning every region of Canada was represented, creating an unbreakable bond between the men.
A week before the actual plan was to be put into action allied artillery wreaked havoc on the German lines, weakening their force until the day of the attack, April 9th, 1917. The morning was frigid as the troops began to assemble. Through the dark tunnels, they crawled, so as to remain hidden from the enemy. Some crept towards their death, and some towards victory.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge (source)
At 5:30am sharp, the armies mercilessly pounded the German fortress of tunnels and camps. Through the Canadians’ astounding bravery and courage, the ridge was taken and the Allies were deemed victorious, having caused about 20,000 German casualties.
Many attest that Vimy was, in fact, the dawn of a new era in Canada, one where Canada became a new international presence and facilitated relations between other powerful states. It is also said that this was the first time we were seen as a force to be reckoned with on a global scale. As Canadian Brigadier-General A.E. Ross said about the Canadians’ role in the battle: “I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
Canadian soldiers celebrating victory (source)
However, Passchendaele was another story. The battle began just three months after the victory of Vimy, however, Canadian troops were not called upon until October. The normally sturdy dirt ground of Zonnebeke, Belgium became an apocalyptic quagmire as water puddled between the mounds of moist mud. Shells exploded as they marked the ground with yet another hole that would swallow struggling soldiers. When the Canadians were called to relieve the Australians and begin fighting Germans for the land of Passchendaele, they were appalled when they realized they were fighting the land itself. Haig, who was responsible for the 650,000 deaths in the Battle of Somme, called upon Arthur Currie to brave the terrible conditions.
Arthur Currie (source)
From mid-October to November 6th, the Canadian troops crept through the abominable landscape and were gaining momentum as a force. Canada was even honoured with the acknowledgment that it was the best fighting force on the Western front. Finally, on November 6th, the Canadian militia stormed the town of Passchendaele itself. The final push occurred on November 10th, and Canada won the battle. However, this came at a cost that was much too high. At the beginning of the battle, Currie estimated a maximum of 16,000 Canadian affected. Roughly 4,000 Canadians were slaughtered and 12,000 wounded—almost precisely Currie’s estimate. Overall, the Allies suffered 275,000 casualties by the end of the Passchendaele massacre, to attain 11 km of land. The next year, German troops took it back. Passchendaele is known as the most miserable, abominable battle of WWI, in which many lives were lost for a reason that was short lived.
Despite a dissimilar aftermath, these two battles had a lot in common. Through the sacrifices taken by our ancestors during these two battles, I am now able to say that I reside in one of the finest countries in the world. I am also grateful to say that because of those men, I am a girl who is able to go to school and get an education. I am exposed to opportunities to pursue my dreams and I know I can be anything I want to be. That is why I believe that now, 101 years after these two battles, we must remember the thousands of men that fought for us in the battles of Vimy and Passchendaele. They sacrificed their lives so that ours would be better. Our memories of these brave men must never fade.