War Events – Spring 1917
The 5th Canadian Division never came into existence. The situation in France, in the spring of 1917 was producing such heavy fighting that reinforcements were needed in great numbers. Canadian and British troops in England were sent across the Channel as reinforcements, thereby reducing the numbers of the proposed 5th Division. Thus, the 5th Division was never formed. The men in the battalions making up its brigades were sent where they were needed to augment Divisions already on the battlefield.
Morale was given a lift with the assurance that the Americans were coming. The Londoners and troops were soon singing “the famous song,” Over There, by George M. Cohan which became popular at that time. However, as the spring of 1917 arrived, the Americans were still missing. (LWC)
Vimy Ridge-French and British Failures
October 1914 – Vimy Ridge fell to the Germans in October 1914 during their “Race to the Sea” offensive.
December 1914 – The France 10th Army tried to regain Vimy. They were successful in seizing Hill 145, where the Vimy Memorial now stands at the cost of 30,000 French lives. But the Germans still held Vimy Ridge.
May 1915 – When the Huron 161st Battalion was beginning training back in Canada, the French 10th Army tried to dislodge the Germans during the second Battle of Artois. They bombarded the hill and area for 4 days before launching an offensive. They had the British 1st Army to the north, supporting an attack on Aubers Ridge. They failed to surprise the occupying German Army and were beaten back. France suffered 103,000 casualties, while the German had 80,000 casualties.
September 1915 – France made a third attempt for Vimy in the third Battle of Artois. Their only success was the capture of Souchez, a town located at the base of Vimy. The French reported 50,000 casualties and the Germans reported 56,000 wounded and dead. They continued fighting through October and November, eventually gaining the Souchez fortress, while the British held the western summit of the ridge. The Germans still possessed the top and majority of the ridge.
At this point, the French military took a “live and let live” attitude about Vimy, despite its strategic position and turned their attention elsewhere.
February 1916 – The British 17th Corps under Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng relieved France’s 10th Army, who were bound for Verdun.
During January and February 1916, the Germans renewed the offensive to take back Souchez and the west summit. They attacked along the Vimy front lines by tunnelling underneath British and French trenches and blowing them up from below. The British responded by dropping mines into the German tunnels.
May 21, 1916 – The Germans attacked along the 2000 yard front line and pushed the British 47th Division back to the Zouave Valley at the west base of Vimy. They seized British tunnel openings and entrenched themselves in their former position.
October 2016 – The Canadian Corps relieved the British 4th Corp. on the western slope of Vimy, and came under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng. The Canadians became known as “Byng’s Boys.”
At that point, the battles over Vimy has claimed over 300,000 British, French and German casualties.
Canada’s Turn At Vimy
The offensive against the Germans at Vimy Ridge was the first all-Canadian forces offensive, planned by Canadian generals and executed by Canadian soldiers.
The Canadian Army moved into lunarscape of craters, shell holes and wreckage. The roads had disappeared under mud and had to be rebuilt. Rather than build aboveground, they dug underground troop assembly areas, and railway corridors out of range of the German shells. They used the underground network to move troops to the their position without harm and to evacuate the wounded.
Another Canadian innovation, night raids, relieved the boredom of the troops during the build-up to battle between the fall of 1916 and April 1917. Although General Currie didn’t like to lose men, he allowed small parties to raid.
On March 1, during the largest night raid, the 4th Canadian Division had 1700 men out on a night raid when they used a new gas, called phosgene, that blew back on them. Over 687 men failed to return after the raid, which weakened the 4th Division. This incidentally was the only Division not to capture their objective in the Vimy battle.
As April 1917 began, all Canadian troops on the battlefield and in training in England were getting ready for a big battle.