Prince George Honours Canadians Who Fought at Vimy Ridge
Prince George, B.C. – The 100th anniversary of the start of the successful four-day battle by Canadian forces to wrest control of Vimy Ridge in France from the hands of the Germans in the First World War was marked in Prince George today, as it was across Canada and at Vimy Ridge itself.
War veterans, members of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 43, the Rocky Mountain Rangers, cadets, the RCMP, Prince George Pipe Band, Mayor Lyn Hall and members of council, provincial MLAs and members of the public gathered at Veterans Plaza in front of City Hall to commemorate the valiant effort of the members of the four divisions of the Canadian Armed forces who fought as a single, combined unit to take the ridge after British and French troops had been unsuccessful in their attempts to do so.
In a tactic drawn together by a Canadian general, heavy artillery barrages fired from the rear and over their heads as the Canadian troops, many of them in their late teens and early 20s, pushed forward in an epic battle that would take four days to complete. And they accomplished their mission.
The human toll in the encounters over that piece of elevated ground, the lone high spot in the entire area, was staggering. A total of 3,598 Canadian fighters were killed in their mission, upwards of 35,000 soldiers including the Brits, French and 20,000 Germans lost their lives.
The ceremony at Veterans Plaza included a short service, the laying of wreaths and two minutes’ silence in honour of the fallen Canadian troops at Vimy. The ceremony was led by Captain Walter McCue, commanding officer of the Rocky Mountain Rangers Army Cadets Corps in Prince George.
He says April 9th, 1917 “is the day that Canada became a nation. Prior to Vimy Ridge Canada was essentially thought of as a colony of the British Empire. Due to that sacrifice of lives and loss of blood on this particular day, taking a strategic objective that neither the French nor the British could conquer Canada did it in four day with tremendous losses. But they did breach the wire, they did take the ridge, and a very important day for all Canadians to remember in my opinion.”
What was the strategic significance of that ridge? “Well, the ridge was essentially called “the pimple”, the nearest bit of high ground on the battlefield” says Capt. McCue. “The Germans had dug in there early in the war, concentric layers of barbed wire surrounded the ridge, artillery bombardments could not dislodge the German forces they were securely entrenched on top of the ridge.”
“There were many attempts over three years to dislodge them and it was only the Canadians, through using walking barrages with artillery with the infantry following close behind, was able to breach the wire and take the ridge on day 4.”
Capt McCue believes it was the very first time such a tactic had been employed. “The Canadians rehearsed the battle in advance, six to eight weeks in advance, going over sand table mock-ups of the battlefield and the ridge and every soldier knew exactly what his role was, right from the lowliest soldier up to the generals and field marshalls commanding the Canadian corps. That’s a testament to good soldiering in Canada. Amazing tactics is what it was.”
“And I think it was the beginning of the end for the German army as well. That was a significant loss of life and piece of ground for them to lose, and things just started to go downhill for them after Vimy.”
Asked what goes through his mind while contemplating what the Canadian troops did there Capt. McCue says “Canada in that day was pretty much an agrarian society, a lot of the soldiers came from farms, rural areas, they brought with them a certain toughness and tenaciousness. That, combined with really top shelf leadership, won the day and that pre-prep of the battlefield, where every man knew his job and how to fulfill it effectively.”
“I just harken back to all those young people not much older than my cadets going overseas and fighting in those horrific conditions for as long as they did. I have greatest admiration for them.”
He says the tactic, called “creeping barrage” has been used repeatedly since. “Oh absolutely, both with air power, artillery, cruise missiles, it’s a very effective tactic. And the hard part about that tactic is the infantry has to follow with boots on the ground very close behind the explosions so that the explosions conceal with smoke and noise and shock on the enemy. And that takes a lot of guts to walk behind an artillery barrage. I’ve been on a field before where artillery was actively practicing and it’s a heart-stopping experience to listen to it.”