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.
British and French Contributions
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.
The War in the Air
The 20th century saw the introduction of a new theatre of war – the sky. Only invented a decade before the War, airplanes were initially slow and delicate and used only for reconnaissance work, including helping to direct artillery fire. Quickly, however, airplanes became involved in combat. Pilots began to arm themselves with pistols and hand grenades to bring down enemy planes. A French pilot was the first to strap a machine gun onto his airplane and as weapons technology improved, pilots engaged in dogfights and the skies became a part of the battlefield.
Canada did not have its own air force in the First World War. Instead, 22 000 Canadians joined England’s Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Navy Air Service as mechanics, observers, and pilots. Pilots were known as “knights of the air” and flying was seen as glamorous, especially in comparison to the trenches. The drawback was that the expected lifespan of a pilot, approximately two weeks, was considerably shorter than a soldier on land. In addition, British pilots, many of whom had as little as five hours of training, did not carry parachutes because it was seen as cowardly to do so.
Canadians in the Skies
A pilot who had shot down at least five aircraft was known as an “ace.” Dozens of Canadian pilots were aces and among the most decorated of the Entente forces. In fact, three of the top ten First World War airmen were Canadian. Read more about Canadian airmen using the links on the right.
Other Interesting Facts:
- In mid 1915 Fokker created a timed machine gun to allow bullets to be fired between the prop blades.
- Germans also employed hydrogen filled airships called Zeppelins.
- Flight technology gradually became more reliable, but communicating with the ground remained difficult.
- By the end of the war, aircraft were very maneuverable and were used in air-to-air combat, bombing runs, ground machine gunning, reconnaissance, and were an important cog in a fighting force.
- Canadian pilots were among the most decorated of the Entente forces.
3 of the top 10 First World War airmen were Canadian! (Ranked # 1 was the Red Baron of Germany)
Background photo: Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop V.C. with his Nieuport 17 Scout in France.
Top Canadian Aces
Click on name for info.