102 years ago, April 9th was a snowy Easter Monday in northern France.
April 9th is now Vimy Ridge Day, a national holiday in Canada. It commemorates a World War One battle that took place between April 9th and 12th 1917.
Four divisions of the Canadian army, commanded by British Lieut-General Julian Byng, and supported by British artillery, tunnellers, and the Royal Flying Corps (the RAF would not be formed until April 1918) took an escarpment in the Calais region that had been held by the German army since 1914.
The escarpment dominated the surrounding area and the German position prevented an allied advance to retake French territory. There had been previous attempts to take it by the French and British armies, but these had failed and had incurred huge numbers of casualties.
Whilst I would prefer not to use military analogies for risk, this battle featured an approach that was novel, and very different from the previous, horrific battles of WWI. What was different about it was the following:
* The objective was clear – to take the escarpment. But then it was broken down into four key objectives, one for each division. And then objectives were cascaded down to individual platoon level. This was communicated throughout the divisions, supported by 40,000 trench maps that were distributed, so each platoon understood where they fitted into the overall plan. The platoon became the basic tactical unit and that provided flexibility of action.
* The battle had been planned for months, using detailed analysis of what had worked and not worked in previous battles such as Verdun and the Somme. The analysis was shared at a series of lectures.
* The battlefield was recreated in a plasticine model, largely based on aerial reconnaissance from balloons and planes (a dangerous activity in those early days – the other side had the fighter planes of Jasta 11 in the area, commanded by the infamous Red Baron). The understanding of the battlefield was shared using the model.
* Miles of telephone cabling was laid at night to ensure battlefield communication could take place during the forthcoming battle.
* The key feature of the attack was a rolling barrage of artillery supporting infantry advances where platoons leapfrogged each other to maintain momentum. This was both innovative and complex but was practised extensively on hills away from the battlefield, with the trench positions marked as lines of tape and officers on horseback indicating where the rolling artillery barrage would be landing.
* Platoon roles were shared; there were back-ups for each role – multiskilling in a word.
* The intensity of artillery firing was varied to confuse the enemy as to intention. The level of artillery support was three times greater than on the Somme, a vital piece of learning from that disaster.
* The use of mines in tunnels was adapted for learning from previous battles – it created trenches in the battlefield that allowed safer advances, but avoided previous mistakes where craters were created which had simply signalled to the enemy where the advance was going to take place.
Four Victoria Crosses were awarded following the battle, and the General was made Baron Byng of Vimy. There is now a large memorial to this battle at Vimy in the Pas de Calais. And the coat of arms of the village has been adapted to include maple leaves.
Source: Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia