The View from Vimy
Vimy Ridge was an important location on the landscape. Because of its towering height and commanding view, whoever held the Ridge had the upper hand in battle and controlled a large portion of northern France.
The process of gearing up for the Battle of Vimy Ridge, conducted mostly in the bitterly cold and wet winter of 1916, was no easy task for the Canadian soldiers. Arriving at Vimy in the fall, after disastrous losses at the Battle of the Somme, the Canadians encountered a ravaged wasteland. The once beautiful, green countryside was a treeless mess of muddy craters and shell holes. In some places, Vimy was an open cemetery where uncollected human remains lay exposed and decaying. Over the following months, the Canadians prepared the ground and themselves for the battle to come, building on the foundations laid by the British and French in years past.
The Germans took Vimy Ridge early in the war during the Race to the Sea. They took advantage of tunnels in the chalky ground beneath the Ridge that had existed since medieval times, expanding them into a network of passageways and dugouts connected to the extensive above ground defensive trench system. These defenses provided excellent protection during Allied bombardment and shelling. Brutal battles in 1914 and 1915 between the Germans and French pushed the Germans back and contributed to the success of the later Canadian attack, but did not dislodge the Germans from the Ridge.
When the British arrived at Vimy in 1916, conditions were so poor that thousands of soldiers had to dig and repair the trenches continuously for weeks on end. The British expanded the French tunnels and began laying underground mines that resulted in heavy German losses and the enormous craters you can see today. Another major contribution to the future success of the Canadians was the extensive detailed mapping that the British carried out, using observation from the ground and the sky, around Vimy and all over the Western Front.