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.


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.


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.

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)


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.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge—preparations

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 Arras offensive of 1917 was divided into ten distinct actions comprising sizable battles along with flanking and subsidiary attacks. The first two actions of the first phase, the simultaneous battles at Vimy Ridge to the north of Arras and astride the river Scarpe in the centre, took place between April 9 and 14. The former was to be the Canadian Corps’ contribution to the offensive—the first time all four Canadian divisions had fought together—and was directed towards the formidable defences on the high ground. The original purpose of the attack was to form a defensive flank for the operations of the Third Army to the south, but given the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line the month before, its operational importance grew in magnitude. Possession of the ridge allowed German forces a commanding view of British and Commonwealth positions below; its capture would not only alleviate this issue for attacking forces, but would put that same advantage into the hands of the British.

A colour map showing places, rivers, and the moving lines of defence.

Situation map showing the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. (The National Archives, WO 95/1049/9)

As previously outlined, these operations had been planned in principle since the end of the previous year and very careful preparations had been made in respect of the training of personnel and the accumulation of artillery and the materiel of war. Furthermore, the actual attack on April 9 was the culminating thrust of a phase of operations including a large number of raids and an incredibly destructive artillery bombardment. The steady wearing down of the enemy’s morale and defences, combined with the diligent training and preparation conducted by the Canadians, set the stage for a climactic and decisive battle.

As in any major offensive operation, objectives were set for the Canadian Corps but they were specific and limited in their scope. Some were common to the divisions while others were assigned to particular sections of the line. They consisted of two primary (a black and a red line) and two secondary (a blue and a brown line).

A map of the Vimy crest showing the four stages of military objectives in colour: 1st objective in black, 2nd objective in red, 3rd objective in blue and 4th objective in brown.

A map of the Canadian Corps military objectives from the General Staff war diary, April 1917. (The National Archives, WO 95/1049/9)

A mimeographed map using different lines to illustrate the German regiments that were located behind the trenches at these two different time periods.

Order of battle showing the lines on April 6th and 26th. The map also shows the German regiments behind the lines on both those dates. It is dated April 27th and was produced by the Canadian Corps Intelligence. (The National Archives, WO 95/1049/9)

The first of these meant passing through the German frontline to a depth of around 700 yards. Once the ground was taken, the 3rd and 4th divisions would reform German support trenches into their main line of defence. The red line stood between 400 and 1000 yards ahead of the first objectives and represented the farthest goal of 3rd and 4th divisions. The blue and brown lines ran between 1,200 and 4,000 yards in front of the red line and were exclusively the responsibility of the 1st and 2nd divisions. Collectively these objectives incorporated an extensive and intricate system of trenches, dugouts, tunnels and strong points, which the German army had spent two years constructing. Their taking was to be intimately bound to the artillery fire plan, which would lift from each objective just before the infantry arrived.

A mimeographed, typewritten page divided into three different sections: successive stages, distribution of troops, and headquarters and boundaries.

Proposed plan of attack showing the four different stages and timings of the advance. (The National Archives, WO 95/169/6)

A mimeographed, typewritten extract from a page explaining the strategy behind the artillery barrages supporting the assault: the “rolling” barrage, the “standing” barrage and field batteries in forward positions (known as silent forward batteries that were silent until it was time for them to be used on the more distant objectives).

Plan of bombardment in support of the assault. (The National Archives, WO 95/1049/10)

A black-and-white map showing the area around Vimy Ridge. The map is covered in wavy lines representing the rolling artillery barrage while the different objectives of the attack (black, red, blue, and brown) are represented by thicker lines.

Barrage map for the Vimy attack. (The National Archives, WO 153/1284)

Artillery preparation was understandably meticulous, beginning 20 days in advance and increasing in intensity as the day of the attack approached, all the while never giving away the full weight of firepower available. Both wire and strong points were kept under barrage, weakening German defences as well as the morale of those stationed at the front. Fire in support of the assault was similarly well planned, with a rolling shrapnel barrage due to fall in 100 yard lifts and standing barrages on defensive systems ahead of the advance. More than 200 machine guns were also to be brought to bear on the relatively narrow front, with 150 providing an indirect barrage and supporting fire; 130 due to be carried by the assaulting brigades for use in consolidation; and a further 78 held in reserve. The heavy artillery and companies of the Special Brigade Royal Engineers (gas companies armed with Livens Projectors) were to use high explosives and gas in counter-battery work to suppress German artillery.

Tanks, too, were allotted to the Canadian Corps in support of their operations. Having seen their debut at Flers-Courcelette on the Somme just seven months before, eight tanks were given the task of working around the defences of Thélus which sat between the 1st and 2nd Division—the two divisions with the furthest to travel. Despite their promise on the battlefield, all artillery and infantry planning was made without reliance on the contribution of the tanks given their limited number and reliability issues.

A black-and-white photograph of at least three teams of six horses pulling cannons into place.

Canadian Field Artillery bringing up the guns, Vimy Ridge, April, 1917. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3521867)

Reconnaissance by the Royal Flying Corps 16 Squadron and No. 1 Kite Balloon Company informed the plan of attack, while elaborate communications plans using buried cable, wireless and visual receiving stations for Forward Observation Officers of the artillery mitigated against complications on the day. Mining was used not only offensively with the intention of demolishing German strong points, but also to produce nearly four miles of tunnels and subways for the infantry coming forward for the attack and to evacuate the wounded.

Everything was in place for the hour of the assault, 5:30 am on April 9, 1917. The preceding hours of darkness aided by cloud cover had permitted the infantry to file forward unobserved into their jumping off positions, many of which were clearly observable to the enemy in daylight. Had this movement been witnessed, an enemy barrage may have broken up the assault wave with serious casualties; as it was, the positions were gained without notice. In the half-light of zero-hour under a cold overcast sky, when manoeuvring was still largely obscured from the enemy, the intense bombardment opened with sudden fury and the advance of the infantry began.


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.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge – the Canadian Corps and its preparations

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 Marcelle Cinq-Mars

Following Britain’s ultimatum to Germany and the resulting declaration of war, the Dominion of Canada found itself de facto swept up in the turmoil. Such were the ties of Empire between Great Britain and Canada in August 1914. In Canada, few opposed Canadian participation in a “European war,” as it was referred to at the time.

A black-and-white photo showing a field of white tents as far as the eye can see, and a long line of soldiers conducting military exercises in the foreground.

The First Canadian Army – a scene at Valcartier, 1914 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 3642184)

The King accepted the Government of Canada’s offer of an expeditionary force. With a great deal of enthusiasm—and disorganization—the first Canadian volunteers were quickly sent to Valcartier Military Camp, hastily built about 30 kilometres north of Québec. In just over a month, the first Canadian contingent of about 36,000 soldiers and officers was ready to sail for England.

Canadian volunteers

Who were the first Canadian volunteers who agreed to serve “for the duration” under the British Army Act?

Almost all of the roughly 1,500 officers in the first Canadian contingent had received military training in the Canadian militia. More than two thirds had been born in Canada, while the others came from other parts of the Empire. The proportion was reversed for the soldiers: over 65% had been born in other parts of the Empire, just under 30% were born in Canada, and the rest came from the United States and other allied countries.

By March 1917, when it was preparing to take Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Corps had changed considerably. Since arriving on Salisbury Plain 30 months earlier, the Canadians had been through a trial by fire, facing the first poison gas attacks at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 and fighting in the battles of Festubert (May 1915), St. Éloi (June 1916) and the Somme (July 1916). In 1916, Lieutenant-General Alderson had been replaced as Commander of the Canadian Corps by a new officer, Lieutenant-General Julian Byng.

A black-and-white photo of a uniformed man with a moustache, wearing an officer’s cap and a Sam Browne belt. His tunic is festooned with medals and military decorations, and he is staring directly and impassively into the camera.

Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng in May 1917. Photo taken by William Ivor Castle (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 3213526)

Byng was thus leading the Canadian Corps, which now consisted of four divisions. It should be noted that the 2nd Canadian Division included the only francophone battalion in the whole British Empire engaged at the front: the 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion (now the Royal 22e Régiment). Created in October 1914, this battalion was commanded entirely by francophone officers; French Canadians were able to serve their country in their own language.

Attack preparations

Once Byng’s plan had been submitted, modified and approved by the military command, preparations began for the attack on Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps, which had been assigned this task, prepared for the assault with great determination and meticulous care. Byng had a scale model of the German defences made, and he used it behind the lines as he personally supervised the Canadians’ training. Every day, officers and soldiers practiced, as realistically as possible, the tactics that they would employ during the attack. They worked on timing their advances to follow, and benefit from, the artillery’s creeping barrage.

During this time, Canadian and British engineers had to prepare ammunition stores, water tanks and pumps. Twenty-five feet below the trenches, the tunnel system was expanded, to ensure that the troops could move toward the front-line trenches and that the communications network was secure.

A map showing a close-up of part of the Canadian and German military positions. The inset shows the front line, from the North Sea to Reims in the south.

Map of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, before the battle started (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 178969

Royal Flying Corps pilots were tasked with observing German positions and bombarding key targets, such as railways and German airfields. The invaluable information that they gathered was relayed behind the lines and led to over 80% of the German artillery batteries’ locations being identified.

In the lead-up to the attack, the artillery began pounding the German trenches on March 20. This bombardment continued until April 2, when it reached its maximum intensity. It is estimated that more than 1 million artillery shells were fired during this preparatory period, with over 50,000 tons of explosives hitting the German positions. The damage to the German lines of communication from the artillery fire slowed the supply line to defenders in the front lines considerably.

A black-and-white photo of soldiers advancing across a field, with shells exploding just in front of the advancing column.

Canadians advancing through German barbed wire, April 1917 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 3404765)

On the day of the attack, the 15,000 Canadians who took part in the assault on Vimy Ridge were confident of achieving their objectives. It was a momentous day for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which expected to clearly show its determination and effectiveness. Although the soldiers in the assault did not know it yet, it would also be a momentous day for Canada.

Related resources


Marcelle Cinq-Mars is a senior military archivist in the Government Records Branch at Library and Archives Canada. She has authored many books focusing mainly on the First World War.

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