The victory at Vimy Ridge remains Canada's most celebrated attack of the war.
On Easter Monday, 1917, the Canadian Corps captured one of the most dominating geographic features on the Western Front. Two Canadians in particular, along with British General Julian Byng, developed the plan to crack the German fortress at Vimy.
The first was General Arthur Currie, a real estate broker from Victoria, British Columbia, who rose from the militia to become Canada's top soldier. The second was McGill scientist Andrew McNaughton, who coordinated the creeping barrage artillery tactic that helped propel the Canadians to victory.
The goal of the creeping barrage was to create a line of suppressing shellfire just in front of the Canadian troops that moved forward as soldiers advanced across the battlefield. The timetable of the attack had to be precise.
While others had tried the tactic before, none had marched forward so close to the line of fire as the Canadians at this battle. It was risky, but if it worked, the Canadians would catch the Germans before they could emerge from their fortified dugouts.
On the morning of April 9th, 1917, along the entire length of the ridge, all four Canadian divisions advanced side by side for the first time in a single attack. With the artillery hammering the Germans, the Canadians advanced quickly despite taking heavy casualties.
As each German defensive line was captured, fresh troops moved forward to continue the attack. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Canadian divisions achieved their objectives quickly. A final push by the 4th Canadian Division on April 12th captured the last major position.
But victory came at a cost. During four days of fighting, Canada suffered more than 10,000 casualties. This was in addition to the 10,000 lost in the four months leading up to the attack. While the battle itself did little to change the course of the war, it cemented the Canadians' reputation as fierce attacking soldiers.
Battle of Passchendaele
The Canadians didn't want to go to Passchendaele. They had been to Belgium's Ypres Salient before, and they knew the near impossible task that lay ahead.
It was 1917. The British under General Sir Douglas Haig had been slogging through an offensive in the area since the summer. On July 31st, they officially launched the Third Battle of Ypres.
Heavy German counterattacks, as usual, limited the success of British attacks during the month of August. Throughout September and October the British, Australians, and New Zealanders used a series of short rapid attacks to repel the German counterattacks.
Slowly they advanced forward, but their objective of capturing Passchendaele ridge, the only high ground in the region, remained elusive.
Months of battle and the onset of rain in October transformed most of the battlefield into a quagmire of mud and water that devoured men and material. The Canadians moved into the front lines at the end of October and were tasked with capturing the town of Passchendaele.
For two weeks they scrambled to build the infrastructure necessary for a successful attack, including miles of wooden duck boards that allowed them to transport men and material across the swampy ground.
General Arthur Currie, the Canadian commander, devised a series of four set-piece attacks over a two-week period that would allow them to capture the ridge. Currie ordered the 3rd and 4th Canadian divisions to launch the opening assault with the 1st and 2nd Canadian divisions carrying the attack through.
The Canadians advanced through the wasteland towards Passchendaele, slowly clearing each German pillbox and machine gun strongpoint. In the confusing morass of mud, the attacks quickly broke down into small actions. Individual valour often helped turn the tide.
By capturing Passchendaele, they managed to bring an end to one of the most controversial battles of the war. However the human cost was unimaginably high. As if to underline the futility of fighting, nearly all of the territory the Canadians captured in 1917 was recaptured by the Germans during their spring advance of 1918.
The Last 100 Days
In the spring of 1918 the Germans, fearing America's entry into the war, sought to knock France out of the fight with a massive offensive. Overwhelmed, the French and Allied forces were pushed almost all the way back to Paris.
But in July 1918 at the Second Battle of the Marne, the Allies counterattacked, halting the German advance. The Germans had lost tens of thousands of soldiers only to fail in their goal of winning the war. It was now the Allies' turn to strike.
The first blow came on August 8th, 1918 at Amiens, France. Attacking side by side with the equally experienced Australian Corps, the Canadians punched a twelve-kilometre hole in the German line that changed the entire tempo of the war.
German General Erich Ludendorff described it as "the black day of the German Army" due to the large number of soldiers who chose to surrender rather than fight to the death. The Battle of Amiens delivered a staggering blow from which the German Army couldn't recover.
For the first time, the end of the war was in sight.
Next, Canadian and Allied troops moved north to the Arras region of France to commence a final push against the Germans. Reaching the Drocourt-Quéant Line, one of the most daunting German defensive positions on the front, the 1st and 4th Canadian divisions pushed forward. Despite heavy casualties they captured the entire German position.
Next came the Battle of Canal du Nord where a bold strike on September 27th again drove the Germans into retreat. Every square inch of ground cost the Canadians thousands of casualties, but the victories demoralized the Germans who now realized the war was lost.
Over the final month of fighting, the Canadians would liberate the French cities of Cambrai and Valenciennes, pushing a further seventy-five kilometres to reach the Belgian city of Mons.
All told, the last hundred days of the war, including the Battle of Amiens, cost the Canadians more than 45,000 dead and wounded — a staggering total. The soldiers' sacrifice was critical to ending the war against Germany.