Vimy Ridge is one of two relatively insignificant topographical eminences on the Artois Plain - the other is the Notre Dame de Lorette Spur - that are situated north east of the town of Arras in the Pas de Calais département of Northern France. Vimy Ridge is just 60 metres (66 yards) at it highest point - Hill 164 or The Pimple - but offers for an army a strategically vital overview of the town Arras and the surrounding countryside of the Artois Plain
In 1914, the invading Germans realised the military importance of both the Lorette Spur and Vimy Ridge and, in September 1914, they occupied them. Once they had taken possession of them the Germans feverishly fortified them; expanding the existing tunnels and caves in the chalk rock by building artillery proof bunkers and trenches to make them their major stronghold in the Arras Sector. They then installed heavy artillery and began a relentless shelling of the town of Arras, eventually reducing the whole town to rubble.
In immediate response, the French brought up their Tenth Army and built their own network of trenches along the base of the spur and the ridge. They also began the process of mining into the western slope of the Vimy Ridge with the objective of laying large quantities of high explosive underneath the German defences.
French counter attack
Between May and November 1915 the French attempted, by repeated frontal assault techniques (l'attaque à outrance = immediate and relentless counter-attack) to drive the Germans off both the less strongly fortified Lorette Spur and the massively fortified Vimy Ridge. In the former case they were entirely successful, but Vimy Ridge was a much harder nut to crack. One spectacularly courageous surge, on the 29th September 1915, carried the French soldiers onto the crest of the ridge itself, but they were unable to hold it against the strongly entrenched German resistance and counterattacks: eventually they had to relinquish their hold.
Other attempts had met a similar bloody fate. So, despite the loss of 150,000 casualties, the French Tenth Army had been unable to effectively breach the ever-improved German defences; the Germans maintained their implacable hold.
In March 1916, the British took over the Arras Sector from the French. The Germans responded with a pre-emptive attack on the British trenches and succeeded in dislodging the British from their front-line for over 2km (one and a quarter miles). The British counter-attack failed. Pre-occupied as the British were with The Somme and Flanders Sectors, they moved into a passive defensive role of the whole Arras Sector.
However, this German stranglehold on the Arras Sector could not be allowed to go on indefinitely. Meticulous planning and preparation went into the British 1917 Spring Offensive in the Arras Sector, including Vimy Ridge, (The Battle of Arras) that was to be launched in on the 9th April 1917, Easter Monday. However, the capture of Vimy Ridge was not the prime objective of the offensive. This was to draw the Germans attention from the Aisne Sector where the French, under General George Nivelle, planned an ill-fated follow-up attack, a week later, on the 16th April 1917.
The British attack
In preparation for the attack on Vimy Ridge, the British continued the French Army's mining activities with the additional construction of kilometres of tunnels, so the attackers could approach the German lines both undetected and protected from the almost ceaseless shelling. These extensive tunnels even connected with the sewerage system of Arras to facilitate access from the town itself.
The attack on Vimy Ridge on the 9th April 1917 was made by all the four Canadian Corps on the Western Front, part of General Sir Henry Horne's First Army and led by British General Sir Julian Hedworth George Byng. It was proceeded by five days of heavy shelling by 2,800 guns of the British artillery and, on the day, by an effective creeping barrage, reconnaissance aircraft support and the firing, beneath the German defences, of many mines. Emerging from the network of tunnels and despite, or perhaps because of, the onset of a blinding snowstorm, the 30,000 Canadians proceeded to take one after another of their objectives, until the entire ridge was in their hands. The Germans were effectively dislodged from it by the 12th April 1915.
By any standards this was a spectacular success for, although it cost the Canadians 11,000 casualties, with 3,000 killed, German losses were even higher with 20,000 casualties: an usually favourable ratio for the attackers over the defenders on the Western Front in the Great War. The other attacks in the Battle of Arras were generally less successful and, overall, produced the highest average rate of casualties per day - 4,100 - of any battle thus far in the war.
Vimy Ridge had yet another keystone role to play in the war on the Western Front. In March 1918 General Erich Ludendorff launched his Spring 1918 offensive - the so-called Kaiserschlacht (Emperor's Battle) or Plan Michael. The rapid advance by the German Army severely routed the British Army which went into retreat on a wide front. But the British defences on Vimy Ridge held.
Part of Vimy Ridge today is occupied in perpetuity by the Canadian Memorial Park which has an impressive white marble War Memorial. Its two vertical columns (representing the Gates of Immortality) dominate the ridge and can be seen from many kilometres across the Artois Plain.