A turning point of a war and a turning point of a nation

Canadians take Vimy Ridge April 9–12 1917

Writen By Tim Heller.

After the French suffered 150,000 casualties trying without success to secure the high ground of Vimy Ridge, the Canadians were given the task to take the long sloping escarpment.

Many soldiers from British Columbia regiments were there, including Vancouver’s 72nd Seaforth Highlanders. This would be the first time Canadian troops would fight as a nation, with all four Canadian divisions — 100,000 strong — working together.

Armed with a number of new techniques, technical and tactical innovations, meticulous planning and extensive training, the Canadians won the battle. Thereafter, the Germans labelled the Canadians storm troopers and feared them whenever encountering them throughout the war. The Canadian effort was a major achievement for a small country of fewer than eight million people. Somehow, this former British colony mustered 650,000 people for the war effort and more than 60,000 Canadians paid the ultimate sacrifice during the war. At Vimy Ridge, 3,598 did not come home and 7,000 were wounded.

April 9, 1917  — The 72nd Seaforth Highlanders waited through the night in Gobron tunnel on Vimy Ridge, safe from the war until zero hour which was at 5:30 a.m., when they would burst out of their protective tunnel and go over the top. The 72nd battalion was assigned an “honoured” spot between two high points of the ridge — Hill 145 (where a monument stands today) on the right and The Pimple on the left. 

It was a blustery morning of sleet and snow with a west wind that fortunately drove into the faces of the enemy and the 72nd Seaforths made good time taking the first line. But a heavy barrage and intense machine gunfire caught them in a crossfire, their “honoured” position turned out to be difficult. Nevertheless, they pushed forward losing many soldiers and officers as they fought trench-to-trench and hand-to-hand. The Germans fought like tigers but the Canadians were getting the upper hand by late afternoon had achieved their goal. By 4 p.m. most of the wounded were off the battlefield. The men of the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver who came out of the Gobron tunnel that Easter Monday morning suffered heavy casualties for their victory with only 62 escaping death or injury. With fresh reinforcements kept in reserve in the Gobron tunnel, the Seaforths took the rest of the The Pimple the next day. Other Canadian battalions took Hill 145 over the next two days putting the complete ridge in the hands of the Canadians by April 12.

On April 13, the 72nd Seaforth “Kilties” swept down the other side of the ridge and entered the village of Givenchy, treading on the heels of the now thoroughly routed enemy. Pushing rapidly through the streets, they entered the Vimy Angres trench system beyond the village. The enemy never took back the ridge during the war fearing taking on the Canadian storm troopers again.

News of the victory rang around the world. The New York Times said on April 11, 1917: “Canadians take ridge that no army could, the first big win on the western front. The Canadians attack yesterday was astoundingly successful and took over 3,000 prisoners!”

After the war, Canada was given a separate signing as a nation on the Versailles’ treaty; no longer just a colony of Britain. Since Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Army has always been led by a Canadian (It was Arthur Currie in the Second World War). Prior to Vimy the Canadian Army was led by the British. This was a significant step in the nation building of Canada.

The Vancouver regiment that served at Vimy still exists today and some of its soldiers recently served in Afghanistan. Its armory is at the south end of the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver.

Vimy Ridge is now an enclave of Canada in France, given to Canada after the war. The Canadian flag flies on the ridge every day, Parks Canada runs the site were the monument stands.

Learning about my grandfathers, inspired me to keep this important occasion alive for future generations. It has been my privilege to honour these soldiers by playing the role of a re-enactor, and teaching their story to young people whenever I can.

Tim Heller is the great grandson of Sgt. Major Marshall Standbridge of the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver and Charles Clement Chandler, who served the 3rd pioneer battalion. Heller is a film technician who trained in the boot camp for the 2007 CBC film The Great War, acted as a solder in the movie Passchendaele and marched in the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France as a WWI re-enactor soldier.

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