Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of June 2017

As of today, 450,355 of 640,000 files are available online in our Personnel Records of the First World War database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. So far, we have digitized the following files:

  • Latest box digitized: Box 7646 and last name Patterson.

Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

First World War photographs in private fonds at Library and Archives Canada

By Rebecca Murray

A.F. Duguid, an early Canadian military historian, noted as he researched the First World War in its aftermath, “It is remarkable how much of the most useful historical material is still held in private possession.” (Clio’s Warriors by Tim Cook, page 79)

The photographs of the Canadian War Records Office photographic collection (accession 1964-114) are illustrative of the life and work of soldiers during the First World War. As many of the photographs are digitized and available online, they are heavily used by researchers.

That said, many researchers come to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) wanting to see images of the conflict that aren’t part of the official government records. This is a great example of when our private holdings—archival documents donated to LAC by individuals or organizations—can serve as an excellent complement to government holdings by providing an alternative view of an historic event.

This blog post highlights three fonds within our holdings, but there are many more. Please note that the complete references are provided below (in italics) to allow researchers to easily order the material for consultation, as not all of the items are digitized.

W. L. Kidd collection, accession 1974-137

Extent: 405 photos

Content Description: Personnel and activities of No. 7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, France (KIDD, W. L. 1974-137 SC 0333); examples of various types of wounds suffered by Canadian soldiers during the First World War (KIDD, W.L. 1974-137 06221). (1916–1918)

Comments: Search using the keyword “1974-137” in Archives Search to see descriptions and digitized images for a portion of the collection.

A black and white photograph of a group of soldiers and nursing sisters in a tent.

“Nursing sisters attending to soldiers in the dressing tent at the No. 7 Canadian General Hospital” (1917). Credit: W.L. Kidd (MIKAN 3603386)

Margaret D. Cooke collection, accession 1989-248

Extent: 57 photos

Content Description: Canadian Army Medical Corps in England during the First World War, including 21st Battalion personnel; Saltwood Castle; soldiers at outdoor kitchen; Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital at Cliveden, Taplon; No. 2 New Zealand Hospital at Walton-on-Thames; Moore Barrack, Shorncliffe, Kent; Mount Felix, Walton-on-Thames. War photographs: destroyed tank; trench; destroyed town (COOKE, MARGARET D. 1989-248 04147).

A black and white photograph of a woman in a nursing sister uniform with the cape, pin, hat and white gloves.

Nursing Sister Beatrice Baker, 1916 (MIKAN 3596850)

Anne E. Ross fonds, accessions 1982-174 and 1965-041

Extent: 1588 photographs

Content Description: Photographic material depicting […] activities and personnel of No. 3 Stationary Hospital, C.A.M.C., in Canada, England, and in the Mediterranean theatre of operations while based on the island of Lemmos, 1915–1917; photographs by E.R Owen of staff, patients, faculties, major events and visitors at the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Taplow, England, 1915–1916; photographs from the First World War (ROSS, ANNE E. 1982-174 05618, ROSS, ANNE E. 1965-041 05680A).

A black-and-white photograph of a group of four women sitting on deck chairs with blankets. Three of the sisters are wearing the dark overcoat while one is wearing a lighter coloured jacket. A soldier can be seen slightly in the middle of the group.

Nursing sisters sitting on deck of ship with a soldier (1916). Credit: Anne E. Ross (MIKAN 3195179)

If you’re interested in discovering these or other photographs held in private fonds at LAC, please contact us using our online form.


Rebecca Murray is a reference archivist in the Reference Services Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Air Marshal William Avery Bishop, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

The subject of today’s post in our blog series, First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients, is one of the best-known Canadians of the First World War: flying ace William “Billy” Bishop.

A black-and-white photograph of a military officer seated with his hands in his lap. He is wearing the characteristic Sam Browne belt, which is a wide leather belt with a narrower strap that passes diagonally across the body over the right shoulder.

Lieutenant-Colonel W.A. Bishop, VC, in Lieutenant Quinn’s studio, undated, London, England (MIKAN 3191874)

William Avery Bishop was a cadet in the Royal Military College of Canada when he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on September 30, 1914. After briefly serving in the trenches, Bishop transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He received his wings in November 1916, and shot down a total of 12 planes in April 1917 alone, which won him the Military Cross and saw his promotion to Captain. By the end of the First World War, Billy Bishop had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and was credited with 72 victories.

A black-and-white photograph of a man sitting in the open cockpit of an airplane looking at the viewer.

Captain W.A. Bishop, VC, Royal Flying Corps, August 1917. Photographer: William Rider-Rider (MIKAN 3191873)

Bishop was the first Canadian airman to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his single-handed attack on a German airfield near Cambrai, France, on June 2, 1917. According to his citation in The London Gazette:

Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machine about, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles south-east, which was at least twelve miles the other side of the line. Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground. He attacked these from about fifty feet, and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall. One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of sixty feet Captain Bishop fired fifteen rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground.

A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired thirty rounds at 150 yards range, and it fell into a tree.

Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome. One of these he engaged at the height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition. This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station (The London Gazette, no. 30228, Saturday, 11 August, 1917).

Air Marshal William Avery Bishop died on September 11, 1956 in Palm Beach, Florida. He is interred in the Bishop family plot in Greenwood Cemetery in Owen Sound, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file of William Avery Bishop.

Related Resources


Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of May 2017

As of today, 438,679 of 640,000 files are available online in our Personnel Records of the First World War database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. So far, we have digitized the following files:

  • Latest box digitized: Box 7452 and last name Oliver.

Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 2

A banner that changes from a black-and-white photograph of a battle scene on the left to a colour photograph of the Vimy Memorial on the right.Library and Archives Canada is releasing its latest podcast episode, “Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 2”.

April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the attack and capture of Vimy Ridge, when all four divisions of the Canadian Corps worked together for the first time. During the First World War, over 25,000 Canadians served with the British Flying Service as pilots, observers and mechanics, and even though the Battle of Vimy Ridge is better known as a ground offensive, many of the preparations for the assault on Vimy took place in the air. In Part 2 of this episode, we sit down with Bill Rawling, historian and author of the book Surviving Trench Warfare, and Hugh Halliday, author and retired curator at the Canadian War Museum, to discuss the role Canada and her allies played in the air over Vimy Ridge and Arras in April 1917, a month known as “Bloody April.”
A black-and-white photograph of a biplane with two aviators in the cockpits: one is piloting and the other is at the machine gun.

A Curtiss JN-4 gun installation, pilot’s gunnery, Royal Flying Corps, Canada, School of Aerial Gunnery at Camp Borden, Ontario, 1917 (MIKAN 3404272)

To view images associated with this podcast, here’s a direct link to our Flickr album.

Subscribe with RSS, iTunes or Google Play to automatically receive new episodes.

Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe, VC

Today in the series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients, we remember Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe of the 27th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). In this series, we profile each of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients 100 years to the day in action for which they were awarded this prestigious military medal.

Born August 5, 1880 in Aberdeen, Scotland, Combe enlisted in the CEF as a Lieutenant, a rank he resumed at his own request, despite having qualified as a Major.

A black-and-white image (blended photograph and sketch) of a soldier with close cropped hair and a mustache.

Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe, VC, undated (MIKAN 3645669)

While the Canadian Divisions had been successful in securing Vimy Ridge, the British and Commonwealth forces continued to push against German lines to provide a diversionary assault to draw the German Army away from the Aisne sector and allow the French Army to make a breakthrough. On May 3, 1917, at Acheville, France, Lieutenant Combe was leading his company forward against an intense barrage of enemy artillery. Having reached the German position with only five men, Combe inflicted heavy casualties and, gathering small groups of men to join him, managed to capture his objective and take eighty prisoners. His citation in The London Gazette, no. 30154, Wednesday, 27 June, 1917 reports:

….He repeatedly charged the enemy, driving them before him, and, whilst personally leading his bombers, was killed by an enemy sniper. His conduct inspired all ranks, and it was entirely due to his magnificent courage that the position was carried, secured and held.

Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his leadership and courage under fire. He was buried near Acheville, France. Ongoing fighting in the area resulted in the destruction of the military cemetery and the loss of his gravesite. For this reason, his name appears on the Vimy Memorial, along with the names of 11,000 other Canadian soldiers who have no known graves.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service file of Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe.

Related Resources

The Battle of Vimy Ridge – war art

A banner that changes from a black-and-white photograph of a battle scene on the left to a colour photograph of the Vimy Memorial on the right.By Katie Cholette

The Battle of Vimy Ridge captured the imagination of professional and amateur artists alike. Some of these artists served in uniform and participated in the battle. Other artists were not present, but painted the battlefields after the fact or from imagination. In a variety of styles and media, male and female artists, both Canadian- and British-born, responded to a number of aspects of the battle: the heroism of the soldiers, the massive number of casualties, the widespread destruction of buildings and the devastation of the natural landscape.

A colour lithograph of a desolate landscape showing a large crater in the middle of which is a cross drawn out with white stones. At the top and the bottom of the crater are two other stone crosses: one Roman and the other Celtic. Barbed wire circles the crater and stumps of bombed trees can be seen in the distance.

A Mine Crater – A Cemetery in the Old “No Man’s Land” on Vimy Ridge, 1917, a lithograph by Frederick Thwaites Bush (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 4014020)

British-born Canadian soldier Frederick Thwaites Bush created some of the most evocative images of the battle. Trained as an architect before the war, Bush served as a lieutenant with the 29th Battalion and the Canadian Engineers. While in Belgium and France he sketched a number of sites, including Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge. Based on a pencil sketch done on site, Bush’s colour lithograph of the mine crater and gravesite set within a degraded landscape captures the feeling of desolation and loss.

An etching of a group of soldiers around a canon being pulled by a team of horses, with the shell of a destroyed farmhouse in the background.

Berthonval Farm by Lieutenant C.H. Barraud, c. 1917–1918 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 4936627)

Lieutenant Cyril Henry Barraud worked as an artist and commercial illustrator prior to the First World War. Born in England, Barraud emigrated to Canada in 1913, and when war broke out he attested in the Winnipeg Grenadiers. He was sent overseas in August 1915 with the 43rd Battalion, and in November 1917 was appointed an official war artist. During his time in France and Belgium, Barraud sketched along the front. Based on these sketches, he later created many etchings for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. Images such as Berthonval Farm are typical of his carefully-composed style and combine war-damaged buildings with romanticized idyllic landscapes. This work was part of the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition held in London in 1919.

A watercolour of a broken brick and concrete wall scattered over a little hill with broken trees behind it and airplanes flying overhead.

Wrecked German Strongpoint During Battle of Vimy, 1917 by Reuben Alvin Jukes, 1917 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 3838519)

Reuben Alvin Jukes (Jucksch) was born in Hanover, Ontario. Listing his occupation as an artist, he attested in the 20th Canadian Battalion in 1914 and was sent to train in England. Jukes was sent to the front in January 1916. Although he was not an official war artist, a lenient commanding officer allowed him time to paint scenes while at the front. Due to an episode of what was then called shell shock, he was not present at the Battle of Vimy Ridge; however, he returned to active service in May 1917. He subsequently painted a number of highly detailed, almost surreal watercolours, such as Wrecked German Strongpoint During Battle of Vimy, 1917, depicting the aftermath of the battle.

A colour painting of several crosses festooned with flowers in the middle of a gaping stone wall. Behind is a brown structure and the sky is blue with white clouds.

Gun Emplacements, Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 2836031)

Some of the most expressive paintings of Vimy Ridge were produced by Canadian-born professional artist Mary Riter Hamilton. Although Hamilton was unsuccessful in her attempts to be appointed as an official war artist, she was commissioned by The War Amputations Club of British Columbia to provide images for The Gold Stripe, a veterans’ magazine. Hamilton was anxious to paint the sites where so many men died before any reconstructive efforts were undertaken, and left for Europe shortly after the war ended. She painted in Europe from 1919 until 1922 and produced over 300 works, including Gun Emplacements, Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge and Petit Vimy and Vimy Village from the Lens – Arras Road. In both of these works, Hamilton’s spontaneous and loose handling of paint combined with a light palette demonstrate a sense of optimism despite the circumstances. Hamilton refused to sell her war paintings. Hoping that they would benefit the men who fought and their families, she exhibited them several times in fundraising exhibitions. In 1926 she donated 227 paintings, drawings and prints to the Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada).

A colour painting of a road lined with broken trees leading down to a town. In the distance can be seen other villages and hills.

Petit Vimy and Vimy Village from the Lens – Arras Road by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 2836011)

A colour painting of a group of soldiers charging forth, in various poses of throwing grenades. Others are moving forward with guns and bayonets, while others lay on the ground, dead. The colours of the painting are very light pastels and the soldiers are painted with great delicacy.

Cede Nullis, the Bombers of the 8th Canadian Infantry on Vimy Ridge, 9th April 1917 by Lady Elizabeth Southerden Butler, 1918 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 2883480)

The Battle of Vimy Ridge captured the imagination of another professional female artist—Lady Elizabeth Southerden Butler. Lady Butler (née Elizabeth Thompson) was an academically-trained English artist who specialized in realistically rendered paintings of battlefield warfare. In the late 19th century she gained popularity from her romanticized, heroic depictions of the Crimean and Napoleonic wars. Stylistically similar to her earlier works, Cede Nullis, the Bombers of the 8th Canadian Infantry on Vimy Ridge, 9th April 1917 depicts the 8th Canadian Infantry (part of the Canadian 3rd Division) on the day that the Canadians took the ridge. The watercolour was painted while she was living in Ireland, and was exhibited in May 1919 in London. The work was acquired at auction in 1989.

The victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the most important moments in Canadian history. Immortalized in art, the bravery of the soldiers and the sacrifices of the battle have become integral parts of our national mythology.

Biography

Katie Cholette has a BA (Hons.) in Art History, an MA in Canadian Art History and a PhD in Canadian Studies. She has previously worked as the Curator of Acquisitions and Research at the Portrait Gallery of Canada, held two Research Fellowships in Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, and taught courses in Art History, Canadian Studies and the Humanities for the past 14 years at Carleton University. She has also worked on a number of freelance curatorial and research projects and is on the editorial board of the Underhill Review.

This blog was developed under a collaborative agreement between Library and Archives Canada and The National Archives.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge – memorialization

A banner that changes from a black-and-white photograph of a battle scene on the left to a colour photograph of the Vimy Memorial on the right.By Andrew Horrall

In the days following the battle of Vimy Ridge, newspaper headlines throughout the allied countries proclaimed that Canada’s soldiers had captured an objective that had long-seemed impossible. Families of those in uniform greeted the news with excitement and worry; as one father wrote to his son who had fought at Vimy: “The press are giving the Canucks great praise. They certainly had the place of honour, but according to the casualties, they are paying a price for it.” Over 10,000 Canadians had been killed or wounded.

An immense sense of pride about this all-Canadian victory was felt by those who had fought at Vimy, their families, and civilians. The battle almost immediately became a symbol of Canada’s emerging nationhood. The battle’s first anniversary was marked with fundraising drives, and by the end of the war many Canadians believed that France was planning to give Vimy Ridge to Canada in grateful tribute to this military triumph. Over the following years, the battle’s anniversary was marked by banquets, concerts, and church services on what was known as “Vimy Ridge Sunday.” Towns, streets, parks, businesses, and lakes throughout the country, as well as a mountain and quite a few babies were named for the battle, becoming ever-present reminders of what Canadians had achieved in 1917.

A colour photograph of a group of people on horseback by a river with a mountain peak in the background. One is dressed in “cowboy” attire and appears to be leading a family on a trail.

Vimy Peak, Alberta, 1961. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4314396)

A map titled, “Canadian Battle Exploit, Memorial Site. Hill 145.”

Map of the proposed site of the Vimy memorial, undated. (The National Archives, WO 32-5861)

Amid this widespread commemoration, in October 1921, the federal government chose Toronto sculptor Walter Allward to design the Canadian National Vimy Memorial that now commands Vimy Ridge’s highest and most important feature, situated on land given to Canada by France. Over the next 15 years, the ground was cleared of unexploded shells, bombs and grenades and landscaped, a system of trenches was preserved and the memorial was erected.

A black-and-white photograph of a dramatic view of a larger-than-life sculpture from the Vimy Memorial, a man in mourning with his foot resting on a sword. In the background are side panels bearing the names of Canadian dead.

One of the statues on the Vimy Memorial. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3329415)

A typewritten letter reading: His Majesty’s Minister at Paris presents his compliments to His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and has the honour to report that the “Journal Officiel” for June 29th contains the text of a law promulgating the agreement concluded on December 5th, 1922 between the French Government and His Majesty’s Government in Canada concerning the cession to the Government of Canada of the use and free disposal of 100 hectares of land on the Vimy Plateau destined for the laying out of a park and the erection of a monument to the memory of Canadian soldiers fallen on the field of honour in France in the course of the war, 1914–1918.

Letter confirming the transfer of land in France to the Canadian Government, June 30, 1927. (The National Archives, FO 371/12638)

In the late 1920s, veterans groups began planning a pilgrimage of those who had fought at Vimy and their next of kin to ensure that a large Canadian contingent would attend the memorial’s dedication ceremony. In July 1936, over six thousand pilgrims boarded five specially chartered ocean liners in Montréal. Pilgrims were given distinctive berets and badges and told that they were Canada’s ambassadors to Europe. For many British-born pilgrims, the voyage was also an opportunity to visit their families, which had been one of the allures of joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force two decades earlier.

Among the pilgrims was Charlotte Wood, who had immigrated to Alberta from Chatham, Kent, England in 1904. Eleven of her sons and step-sons had served in uniform. Five of them had been killed, including Peter Percy Wood who had died near Vimy Ridge shortly after the battle. He has no known grave and is among more than 11,000 Canadians declared missing and presumed dead in France, and whose names are inscribed on the memorial. Mrs. Wood was the first Silver Cross Mother, a woman chosen annually to represent all Canadian mothers who have lost children in the service of the country. The Japanese-Canadian community also sent two representatives to commemorate the members of the community who had served during the war.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman saluting wearing a beret and coat with many medals pinned upon it.

Charlotte Wood at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, July 26, 1936. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3224323)

The pilgrims first disembarked in Antwerp, Belgium where they boarded buses that carried them past First World War battlefields and cemeteries to Vimy Ridge. The memorial was dedicated by King Edward VIII on July 26, 1936 before a huge crowd of pilgrims, veterans from many nations, military personnel and dignitaries. The King was very popular in Canada and even owned a ranch in Alberta. The pilgrims then sailed to London where they laid wreaths at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. These veterans were now in London as the representatives of a country that had gained significant autonomy since the war. The pilgrimage concluded in Paris where wreaths were laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

A black-and-white photograph of a large crowd lined on the sidewalk of street while a cenotaph ceremony is taking place in the centre with soldiers in formation in front of a large white cenotaph.

Vimy pilgrims at the Cenotaph, Whitehall, London, July 29, 1936. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4939444)

In 1940, the Vimy Memorial’s Canadian caretaker was captured by German forces as they overran northeastern France at the start of the Second World War. Rumours abounded throughout the war that the memorial had been damaged or destroyed. On September 11, 1944, Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar, who had fought in the battle of Vimy Ridge and now commanded the First Canadian Army, made a highly publicized visit to this symbol of national military strength. Photographs of his visit proved that the newly liberated memorial was in remarkably good condition, thanks in large part to Paul and Alice Piroson, a Belgian couple who had looked after it throughout the war.

A colour photograph of man standing in front of a large stone structure. Two people are on the left side of the photograph, one is in uniform and mostly cut off and the other is wearing a vest, sweater and beret.

Lieutenant-General H.D.G. Crerar and Paul Piroson at the Vimy Memorial, September 11, 1944. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4233251)

Paul Piroson continued working at Vimy after the war. When he retired in 1965, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson personally invited the Pirosons to make their first visit to Canada. They toured the country in 1967, being honoured at a series of events that marked the battle’s fiftieth anniversary.

A colour photograph of a bugler in Highland uniform in front of the Vimy Ridge memorial.

View of Vimy Memorial, undated. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4234839)

The men who fought at Vimy Ridge believed it was the moment when they became Canadian and in which the nation was born. The idea grew over the years, and today the battle symbolizes Canadian service and sacrifice in all wars. The name “Vimy” is invoked in many military commemorative projects, while thousands of people from Canada and elsewhere visit the memorial each year to learn what Canadians achieved there in 1917.

Biography

Andrew Horrall is an archivist in charge of military records and an historian of English music hall. He holds a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge.

This blog was developed under a collaborative agreement between Library and Archives Canada and The National Archives.

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of April 2017

As of today, 427,651 of 640,000 files are available online in our Personnel Records of the First World War database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. So far, we have digitized the following files:

  • Latest box digitized: Box 7260 and last name Nelles.

Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge—the assault

A banner that changes from a black-and-white photograph of a battle scene on the left to a colour photograph of the Vimy Memorial on the right.By Dr. George Hay

The actual fight for the high ground of Vimy began in the half-light of the morning of Monday April 9, 1917. The morning began bitterly cold and overcast, something which may have helped the assaulting waves to make their positions without being noticed. Once there, they waited until precisely 5:30 am when the bombardment began and the mines dug and laid by the engineers were blown.

Rising from their jumping off points, the infantry pursued the barrage forwards towards the German lines. Protracted mining activity by both sides in the months before the operation had torn apart the ground into a chain of mine craters, which combined with the maze of shattered trenches and scattered wire entanglements, and made early progress difficult for the Canadians. The inclement weather of the preceding days had also reduced the surface to a slippery quagmire, something made worse by deteriorating conditions on the ground. By 6 am, a northwesterly wind began blowing up snow and sleet which continued on and off for the rest of the day.

In spite of the conditions, at 7:10 am the 3rd Canadian Division reported to Corps HQ that the whole of their Black Line—or primary—objective had been secured, and the same was confirmed by the 4th and 5th Brigades of 2nd Division at 7:20 am, and by 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division at 8:25 am. Events continued to develop rapidly—too rapidly for Corps HQ to keep up—and by 9:25 am, the 1st Division was reporting that it had secured all of its Red Line—or secondary—objectives and the 2nd Division reported the same soon after. The push on to their final objectives—the Blue and Brown lines—was met with remarkably little opposition, with the advance going according to programme; the battalions in the vanguard of both divisions marched on to the eastern slopes of the ridge and were the first Allied soldiers to look down on the Douai Plain since the German reoccupation in 1915. By early afternoon the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions were able to communicate the complete success of their operations.

Similarly favourable reports were initially received from 4th Division, but as the morning wore on it became clear that elements of the German line were continuing to resist in its sector, potentially the result of a bypassed pocket of resistance. Elsewhere it was clear that the enemy had emerged from caves and tunnels once the attacking force had passed, re-occupying the line now behind them.

One area left in the enemy’s hands was Hill 145—the highest and thus most significant portion of the ridge where the Canadian Expeditionary Force monument now stands—from which heavy fire was poured down onto the troops of the 4th Division to the right and left. The situation was made worse by a supporting position further north which was also still in German hands—“the Pimple”—from which enfilading fire was also being drawn. These significant points were held with great sacrifice and determination due to their significance to the German defence.

Despite energetic and courageous endeavours, these positions remained in the enemy’s hands into the afternoon when it was decided to pause operations on these fronts. Despite these gaps in the advance, the ridge to a width of 7,000 yards and a maximum depth of 4,000 yards had been successfully captured, along with more than 3,000 prisoners and large quantities of artillery and military hardware. Though losses had been serious, this first day had undoubtedly been a success for the Canadians.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of soldiers working on an earthen trench, digging and consolidating their position.

Canadians consolidating their positions on Vimy Ridge, April 1917. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3521877)

The counter-attacks expected during the night fortunately failed to materialise, providing some welcome respite to soldiers in the frontline. For the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions, the work of consolidation progressed favourably; for the 4th Division, however, part of their main task remained unfinished. Early in the morning of Tuesday April 10, the 10th Canadian Brigade received orders for the capture and consolidation of Hill 145, while during the day, the 11th Canadian Brigade were to push forward and establish themselves on the crest of the hill.

In the continuing snowstorms that swept the ridge, the 44th (Manitoba) and 50th (Calgary) Battalions moved into position by 2:30 pm, attacking with the barrage at 3:15 pm and storming the ridge. As the light faded, the only objective still not in Canadian hands was the Pimple. The attack had been costly, with the two battalions suffering more than 300 casualties, but they in turn had captured four machine guns, a trench mortar and 200 prisoners. The 4th Division had now completely captured all of its original primary objectives. All along the rest of the line the Canadian divisions had pushed out patrols to probe the enemy’s defences and had continued its work consolidating its own.

During the night and through Wednesday, the consolidation and probing of the enemy line continued and orders for a general attack for the following day were issued to prevent the Germans from straightening their lines for defensive or counter-attacking purposes. Meanwhile, with observation posts now established along the whole of the ridge, the artillery was able to keep up vigorous harassing fire on the German forces moving behind their lines and dispersing concentrations of soldiers. In view of the success on the Ridge and to press and exploit the advantage of his dominant position, the Corps commander—Lieutenant-General Julian Byng—then issued orders to 10th Brigade, 4th Canadian Division to push on with the attack on the last vestige of the German defensive line, the Pimple.

The Pimple had been a secondary objective for the original assault, but the necessary troops had not been available on the day and the attack had been postponed and made contingent on the success of the wider operation. Though not critical to the seizure of the Ridge, in German hands it had the potential to disrupt operations going forward.

At 5 am on Thursday April 12, after an intense artillery bombardment and under the cover of another rolling barrage, the 44th and 50th Battalions—who had so gallantly carried the line beyond Hill 145 the previous day—advanced on the Pimple. This formidable position was a maze of trenches and dugouts, but perhaps the greatest challenge was the steep sides and muddy ground—reported by the 50th Battalion to be waist deep in places—and the blinding snowstorm that met their advance.

Though unpleasant, the snow allowed the advance to close on the position to within 30 yards before the force was spotted, and though vicious hand-to-hand combat with the German garrison ensued in places. By just after 8 am, the Corps HQ was informed that the attacking battalions were on their objectives.

A black-and-white graph showing First Army’s ammunition supply and expenditure in April 1917. There is a higher, peaked line for the expenditure and a lower, less dramatic line for supply. The expenditure line is annotated with the major attacks of the month, with a particularly large spike on April 8–9 for the attack on Vimy Ridge.

Graph showing First Army ammunition supply and expenditure in April 1917, with a substantial spike on April 8–9 annotated “Attack on Vimy Ridge.” (The National Archives, WO 153/1284)

Though further operations were planned for the following day, the German command had already committed to retire and abandon the ridge and supporting positions, along with sizable quantities of materiel. As the report on operations written up for the Canadian Corps stated, “if Monday the 9th had been a great day of victory in battle, Friday the 13th was the day when the fruits of victory were enjoyed, for on that day the enemy accepted his defeat.” The villages of Thélus, Farbus, Givenchy, Willerval, Vimy and La Chaudiere were in the possession of the Canadians, along with Vimy Ridge, Hill 145 and the Pimple, and more than 4,000 prisoners had been captured as well as in excess of 60 guns and large numbers of machine guns, trench mortars and other arms. As the commanding officer of First Army, General Henry Horne, noted:

“The Vimy Ridge has been regarded as a position of very great strength; the Germans have considered it to be impregnable. To have carried this position with so little loss testifies to the soundness of plan, thoroughness of preparation, dash and determination in execution, and devotion to duty on the part of all concerned. The 9th April 1917, will be an historic day in the annals of the British Empire.”

A typed and signed letter from General Horne, Commanding First Army to the Canadian Corps.

A message of congratulations from General Horne to the Canadian Corps for the capture of Vimy Ridge, April 12, 1917. (The National Archives, WO 95/169/7)

A typed and signed letter from General Horne, Commanding First Army to the Canadian Corps.

A message of congratulations from General Horne to the Canadian Corps, May 8 1917, in recognition of their continuous engagement since April 9. (The National Archives, WO 95/169/7)

A typed and signed letter from the Lieutenant-Colonel to the Royal Flying Corps.

A message of thanks to the Royal Flying Corps from Lieutenant-Colonel Grant, General Staff, Third Army, April 18 1917. (The National Archives, WO 95/169/7)

Biography

Dr. George Hay is a principal military record specialist at The National Archives of the United Kingdom and a historian of the British amateur military tradition. He holds a PhD in History.

This blog was developed under a collaborative agreement between Library and Archives Canada and The National Archives.