Many historians have pointed to the victory at Vimy Ridge during World War I as a moment of greatness for Canada, when it emerged from Britain’s shadow to attain its own measure of military achievement. As a result of the victory, earned despite the failure of the larger Allied offensive of which it was a part, Canadian forces earned a reputation for efficiency and strength on the battlefield.
The Allied offensive—masterminded by the French commander in chief, Robert Nivelle—began Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, as British and Canadian forces launched simultaneous attacks on German positions at Arras and Vimy Ridge, a heavily fortified, seven-kilometer-long raised stretch of land with a sweeping view of the Allied lines. The first day was overwhelmingly successful for the Allies, as the British punched through the Hindenburg Line—the defensive positions to which Germany had retreated in February 1917—and overran sections of two German trench lines within two hours, taking 5,600 prisoners. The Canadians, attacking over a stretch of land littered with the dead of previous French attacks on the same positions, also moved swiftly in the first hours of the offensive, as four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30 am on April 9, moving forward under cover of a punishing artillery barrage that forced the Germans to hunker down in their trenches and away from their machine guns.
More than 15,000 Canadian infantry troops attacked Vimy Ridge that day, overrunning the German positions and taking 4,000 prisoners. Three more days of heavy fighting resulted in victory on April 12, when control of Vimy was in Canadian hands.
Though the Nivelle Offensive as a whole failed miserably, the Canadian operation had proved a success, albeit a costly one: 3,598 Canadian soldiers were killed and another 7,000 were wounded. Vimy Ridge became a shining example of Canada’s effort in the Great War, and one that served as a symbol of the sacrifice the young British dominion had made for the Allied cause.
As Brigadier-General A.E. Ross famously declared after the war, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” In 1922, the French government ceded Vimy Ridge and the land surrounding it to Canada; the gleaming white marble Vimy Memorial was unveiled in 1936 as a testament to the more than 60,000 Canadians who died in service during World War I.