Article written by Sergeant Juan D. Nino, RMR
Westmount, Quebec – 27 April 2017: As we drove near Vimy Ridge on April 6, 2017 Canadian flags hung outside the window of every home in a small countryside French town. Still, 100 years later, the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle remembers. Not much further down the road, we stopped at our staging area, just past the municipality. In April of 1917, the four Canadian Divisions fought together for the first time, here, where I now stood. Walking out towards the monument, I could not yet grasp the tactical and strategic importance of this ridge during WWI.
On our walk towards the monument, I noticed something interesting, No, it was not the Veterans Affairs Canada sign, but the ground it stood on. It was the grass eerily green, and the unnatural undulations left behind by a combination of trench warfare and artillery barrages. Even massive craters created by the underground warfare, were scattered throughout the scarred land. The trees seemed ancient, as if they had stood there for centuries, though I know that during the famous battle this would have been a barren, flooded land of mud and blood. As we continued our way towards the monument, I saw it. The view from the ridge was spectacular. A picture from my iPhone could not capture the sight so I did not bother. The line of sight was unimpeded for nearly 40 Km. Owning this strategic high ground meant having a tremendous tactical advantage over the region, one that the Power Point presentation of the battle and the Arras offensive back in CFB Trenton, could not depict in the least.
The most impressive part of the trip for me was the battlefield tour. The group was divided into 4, each with its own historian as we were guided the entirety of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s line and through the many cemeteries alongside it. The RMR, as part of the 1st Division (known then as the best division), was part of the division that attacked the ridge somewhat differently from others… downhill. Near the town of Thélus, many of the churches, buildings, and fields remain the same as in those times. As I walked around where those of the 14th Battalion had fought and fallen, I took a minute to look through the online database for the written orders that were given to the men for the 9th of April 1917. Typewritten and painstakingly detailed, much like the orders of today, the men were conveyed every aspect from timings to the minute, down to where in their jacket to put each bullet. Looking up at the open country where I could identify some of the battalion’s objectives, I saw that, despite downhill, the men were very vulnerable to enemy artillery. One letter from the area described the raining of shells and incessant machinegun fire as a thunderstorm with no end, so loud that you could not even hear the man next to you.
As a Canadian soldier, there is a lot of pride when talking about this battle. Many interesting links to Montreal can be made here. The CGG fought directly towards where the monument stands today. Arthur Currie was a “McGillian” who commanded the 1st Canadian Division and innovated Canada’s Artillery techniques which, arguably, enabled the victory at Vimy. All the other proud Infantry regiments in the city of Montreal have numerous stories from the Arras Offensive. The radical approach of allowing every single man to be given: maps of the area, detailed mission objectives (typically reserved for Officers) and a perfectly detailed lay of the land allowing mission specific rehearsal periods, contributed to mission success. A century later, these methods are still used by the CAF to continue our success and uphold our reputation as some of the most competent and professional soldiers in the world. They, who fought in Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday one hundred years ago, are more like us than we could possibly imagine. Take some time today, read about them, remember them.