The Battle of Vimy Ridge
The Battle of Vimy Ridge
It was, according to a diary kept in the early months of 1917, February 24, and twilight was coming across the old Somme battlefield. I was leading four limbers on high ground above Auchonvillers, when I saw, away in the east, a number of small red speckles of fire, well behind the distant German lines.
What could it mean? Was Jerry celebrating some annual festival? When the slow-moving ‘donks’ reached Engelbelmer, more fires were visible under the night.
On returning to the transport lines I found a signal from the officer commanding the Machine Gun Company saying that transport must be ready to move at four hours’ notice.
Exciting news! Open warfare at last? During the hard frosts now past, we had dreaded the prospect of German shells bursting on impact instead of burying themselves in the mud, and splinters flying horizontally; instead, only a few five-nines and whizz-bangs had come over the road up the Ancre valley.
Some Canadian engineers had told me as we drank rum in their hut at night, that the Germans were pulling out their heavy stuff to go north and meet the spring offensive from Arras. There had been rumours of a great new fortress line being built east of the dreadful quagmire of the old Somme battlefield.
That was the killing ground where during the summer and autumn of 1916 the war of attrition, fought between two equally resolute and equipped armies, had bestrewn nearly 100 square miles of downland farming-land with a million French, British, and German casualties. And now the German retreat to their new positions was beginning. What the London daily papers, coming up the line three days late, called GERMAN LANDSLIDE IN THE WEST, and the German High Command called the Alberich scheme, was on.
Jerry was shortening his line on the Western Front by more than 30 miles, retiring to positions of tremendous strength – deep underground passages and rooms – all connecting and panelled with wood and extending for miles and miles, with massive concrete forts, tank traps, and deep obstacles of thick barbed-wire and steel stakes.
This Siegfried Stellung had been built, well beyond artillery range, by nearly 100,000 civilian and Russian prisoners of war, 20 miles or so behind the German front-line trenches on the Somme of July 1916.
Now we were moving out of the Ancre valley, with its charred poplar stumps in the marshes, the night-long cries of the wildfowl.
Out of the grey glutinous mud of the crater zones, lying on 60 to 70 thousand acres of shell-holes lip to lip, and filled with water – not a road or wood or village left – where tens of thousands of expired mules and horses among 200,000 dead men in horizon bleu, khaki, and feld grau lay in dissolution under the rain; shallow mounds tunnelled beneath by rats . . . until the snow had come in December to spread a compassionate shroud on these relics of dream and hope lost in the wilderness.
By mid-March the Alberich scheme was in full movement. There was humour in the German High Command’s choice of name for this operation.
Alberich was the malicious dwarf in Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung. Alberich finally destroyed Siegfried, the hero in Götterdämmerung – at least, he stabbed Siegfried, who anyway was his own enemy through conceit that he was invincible, what the Greeks long before Wagner called hubris.
All trees lining roads had been cut down; villages blown up; cross and forked roads left with craters 20ft deep. Booby traps everywhere.
Pianos in deep dugouts were mined; you began to play ‘In a Monastery Garden’ by candlelight and found yourself in Kingdom Come, together with your audience.
Telegraph and telephone lines all down, posts sawn off, wires entangled. I saw one poor fellow trip a wire, it was connected with a detonator in a porcelain insulator.
Small chips right into his leg bones; a Blighty one, that, he was told by his envious pals.
Everywhere in the abandoned country between the old Somme lines, now behind us, and the untried Siegfried Stellung were to be seen German cemeteries, set with wooden crosses and carefully tended flowers. Some of our shells had chanced to fall among the crosses at Ablaizanville cemetery, disclosing long leather boots and grey tunics.
British wounded prisoners who had died in German field hospitals were among the enemy dead. The sight caused much wonder and respect in the khaki-clad passers-by. Equal care and thought had been given to friend and foe alike in death. ‘Here rests in God an unknown English soldier.’ – the inscription was frequent.
I remember a grave standing alone in this country of gentle rolling downland: a grave set with the blade of a laminated wooden propeller for headstone, with pansies and violets for coverlet, railed off from cattle which had grazed around the resting place of the ‘brave unknown English flier, who fell in Battle, July 14th, 1916’.
I wrote a letter to the Royal Flying Corps HQ then at the Hotel Cecil, London, enclosing particulars, and some violets, asking the authorities to send my letter and envelope to the next of kin of the pilot, ‘in some corner of a foreign field, which is for ever England’.
Our donks were happy, their ears alert instead of depressed, with the sight and smell of green grass. We would hardly believe it possible. Larks singing in the sky! Partridges fleeing downwind!
The sun of early April was shining, the Expeditionary Force Canteen at Achiet-le-Grand, by the new railhead above the Ancre valley, was open.
I met an old friend there, we split a bottle of champagne, sitting at a real table.
He was a staff-captain with V Corps, I a humble transport officer; but I had my horse, the company was out of the line, there were strange and exciting things to be seen everywhere.
New great guns being drawn by caterpillar tractors; acres of shells piled under camouflage netting; artesian bores being sunk for drinking water; light railways advancing all over the green downs of Picardy.
Flight after flight of scout planes passed overhead; and seldom an enemy aircraft revealed by tiny white bursts of ‘Archie’ (anti-aircraft guns) high in the sky.
Remote as history were Ancre valley and Y-ravine at Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval and Ovillers – dread names of the past, but now of another war, receded into time lost.
From away to the north came the rumble of bombardment quivering the air, preparatory to a Big Push upon the northern bastion of the Siegfried Stellung.
Here stood the Vimy Ridge, rising to 500ft north of Arras, the view from its crest dominating hundreds of square miles of enemy territory – the Douai plain – lying north, east and south of its wooded heights.
Many times in the past had its long, slow-rising western slopes been attacked by the French, without success.
Now Vimy Ridge was to be the first objective of the Canadian Corps in the coming battle, which might, perhaps, end the war.
So we all hoped. I was happy. Who cared that one’s riding boots had charred toe-caps? A small cylindrical German stove, souvenired from a dugout on the Somme, had kept one warm in a sandbagged shelter during winter in the Ancre valley.
There one had slept, fully clothed, feet to red-hot iron. Never again to lie upon frozen ground, marching boots ice-hard in those December 1914 trenches in Flanders.
It was Easter Sunday, Y-Z day. The swallows were back from Africa, turning and hovering about the blown-up villages I had passed through on my way to Arras.
The birds seemed bewildered and dismayed. Where were the sheds and stables of ancestral memory, where the tribal nesting places which had been used during the centuries?
A swallow returns to the place of its birth after thousands of miles of hazardous flying over desert, sea, and through mountain pass.
The birds would adjust their minds; no soldiers would harm them, for were there not swallows at home, a mind-picture of all hope and longing?
At last – Y-Z Day. Final preparations for the battle. The assault was to be from north of the Vimy Ridge to the boundary of Third Army a little south of the Sensée River. Here was the left wing of Fifth Army, to which I belonged.
The assault was to be made with 14 divisions – the same number as on July 1, 1916, when the Somme battle broke out of the ground on a 15-mile front.
I went with my friend the staff captain to see maps in a Nissen hut at V Corps HQ. Marked on them, across the plain east of Vimy Ridge, lay what was called in English, the Drocourt–Quéant Switch; and in German the Wotan Stellung.
This reserve defensive system straddled the road from Arras to Cambrai. It was an off-shoot behind the massive Siegfried Stellung, to be occupied should that fortress of great strength be taken.
My friend said, portentously: ‘Who holds Cambrai, holds Northern France. Who loses the Wotan Stellung loses France – and the war.’
‘Thanks for letting me see. Cheer-ho!’ and I rode away north to see more preparations for the coming battle.
My truant self passed acres of piled shells, dumps greater than any I had seen before. Forward of the dumps were battery after battery of great howitzers pooping off; the air was drumbling as though invisible rocks were falling from the sky.
I saw tanks under camouflage netting; enormous areas of bomb-boxes, small arms ammunition, rolls of barbed wire; thousands of picks and shovels . . .
I had seen the piled wharves below London Bridge in my extreme youth – three years previously, that is, but now distant as a lost world – and they might have been for dolls’ houses.
Going on foot nearer the line, I came to field-guns standing almost wheel-to-wheel, under netting, and guarded by sentries.
Their muzzles pointed to the eastern suburbs of Arras – Tilloy, Blangy, Athies, Fampoux – all of which were, I guessed, solid with concrete strong-points.
My friend had told me that under the town of Arras, with its broken cathedral and burned-out railway station, were many chalk caverns and connecting tunnels leading to sally ports.
Here within the cleaned-out sewer, wherein tram-lines for hand-pushed trolleys had been laid, were many caves and tunnels lit by electricity, with piped water. They sheltered nearly 20,000 men, all resting.
Telephone cables ran through the tunnels. In one cave was a hospital. Radio sets were also in use, for the first time in the war.
The tunnels were extended last to jumping-off trenches, where along the whole Third Army Front the first skirmishing waves of infantry of 10 British divisions would move forward at zero hour; to be followed by later waves destined to advance to their various objectives – Red Line, Blue Line, Brown Line – more than 100,000 men, each one trained exactly to his job.
North of these ten British divisions were the four divisions of the Canadian Corps. I saw not one soldier of these troops that Easter Sunday day; all were concealed in the woods well behind their battle-assembly positions.
I saw many a ‘lane’ of numbered white posts, and smelt luminous paint on them. They led to positions which would be manned, I guessed, during darkness that night.
Our RFC scout planes – now called fighter aircraft – were in the air, thick as midges on a summer evening, keeping away enemy reconnaissance aircraft, and guarding the row of Randy Ruperts, as the RFC observation balloons were called, two or three miles behind our lines.
There, in wicker baskets, observers with telescopes and telephones were spotting all movements, especially trains, far away to the east.
It was time to return to my unit, then located at Mory, south of the junction of Third and Fifth Armies. Had my absence been noticed?
It hadn’t – or so I thought at the time. I sat in the company mess, an affair of posts and cross-pieces covered by tarpaulin.
Our furniture was two forms to sit on, and a rough table made by the company carpenter, whereon stood eight whisky bottles, each with its officer-owner’s initials in indelible pencil, and a ‘Sparkler’ syphon in which we made our own soda-water.
The whisky came from the EF Canteen and cost 3s. 6d. a bottle. Not such a bad war, I thought that night on my camp bed. It was growing colder.
My soldier-servant was to call me at 4 a.m., well in time to ride north to watch the battle. It seemed strange that it would also be Bank Holiday in England.
I knew, of course, that such a vast and intricate operation, involving the planning of a battle on a scale that would make the largest commercial company in the world seem, by comparison, to be a one-man stall in the market place, had its hazards.
What if the Old Hun, looking down upon the entire British front, had withheld his artillery fire until the last hour before the British assault – to smash the foregathered troops packed in assembly trench and gunpit?
Nothing is so vulnerable in war as an attacking force waiting to go forward.
I awoke at 4 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, drank ‘gunfire’ tea, and dressed by the simple act of getting out of bed. Icy rain was flung in my face.
I wiped it off. Sleet. To the transport lines, where the duty picket-man was sitting over his coke brazier.
With my groom I rode away north, cursing the wind which blew snow in our faces. The night was a grievous grey.
I thought of Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow, Victorian engraving of a picture at home. Mud, then snow, then frost defeated him. Would the mud hamper the advance today?
We were in Third Army country now, following a track beside the disused railway line. My horse foundered, I lurched in the saddle, we were in a sea of white light and crashing noise that was almost beyond sound.
The entire sky was a vast shimmering butterfly with a thousand wings turning the night into total brilliance.
We were between the howitzers and the field-guns. Tremendously exhilarating.
It was like the ending of The Ring of the Niebelung, when the Rhine rises in flood to drown the world, while Valhalla, home of the gods, is on fire.
My wristlet watch said 5.30 a.m. Nothing came from the German lines except rocket lights, SOS calls for help from their shell-swamped artillery.
Having got through Arras, I was trotting along a road running north, through that town, looking for the Vimy Ridge, when I stopped to inquire its whereabouts at a small cross-roads marked ‘La Maison Blanche’.
It was, apparently, so called because a little estaminet had once stood there, in the hamlet of La Targette. There, deep into chalk, was a Canadian advanced headquarters belonging to the Second Canadian Division.
My inquiry was greeted with great laughter. Where was the Vimy Ridge? Why, in Canada! I heard tremendous news. At Zero plus 2½ hours the Division had reached the Red Line, half way up to Vimy Ridge. Prisoners were coming back; many prisoners.
The Third Canadian Division on their left had reached Vimy crest at 7.30 a.m., two hours after zero hour.
Their Vickers machine guns had gone forward with the assault, and the German reserves coming down had what the British had copped on July 1st – decimation.
My mind persisted, where is the Vimy Ridge? I didn’t like to reveal my ignorance, so kept quiet.
Zero plus four hours. The reserve brigades had now moved up to the Red Line, ready to advance on the Blue Line. Beyond that lay the Brown Line, I saw on an operations map.
Supposing the enemy line was broken? I would be a deserter! Apprehension gripped me, despite, or perhaps because of, the reaction to several festive glasses of whisky on an empty stomach. Nobody had questioned my presence there, I was a passing guest who happened to look in!
On the way back I saw hundreds of prisoners slouching, wet and muddy, to the cages, each group led by junior NCOs.
Guns were being hauled forward. Fresh troops going up, all cheerful after the change in the weather, now sunny.
Calling a little apprehensively at V Corps, I saw little flags stuck in the map on a table, denoting the advances.
Things were not so good on the southern flank, in the suburbs of Arras. It was not a break through. I felt relieved – and dejected. Still, we had never broken through; nor had the Germans.
We had to wait for the Corps Summary – ‘Comic Cuts’ – to learn details of the attack, the favourable details, of course.
These were, for both First and Third Armies, during the first four days of the battle, 11,000 prisoners taken, and several hundred guns.
After the war a friend, Colonel C. C. Foss, VC, DSO, told me that when Haig arrived at Arras, in April 1917, he said: ‘Where is the Vimy Ridge?’
You see, the ground sloped up so gradually to the wooded crest that the rise was not noticeable from the town. But when you walked up the two or three miles to the crest, and to Farbus Wood, there lay the Douai plain, map-like to the far horizon.
All that spring and summer of 1917, fighting in and against the Siegfried Stellung continued. Our division made its first attack on May 3, 1917, but failed against that fortress line of great depth and strength. Other attacks followed. The Australians came, and hardly advanced at all, at Bullecourt.
So the white giants of Europe bled heavily that year, all along the Siegfried Stellung; and again up north at Ypres during the four-month battle which ended on the Passchendaele Ridge which the Canadians took in November.
And in 1918 the greatest battles of all – destruction of the Fifth Army, in March 1918, by an attack, dwarfing that on the Vimy Ridge, on a 60-mile front. The main attack of one and a half million Germans, freed from the Eastern Front after the collapse of Russia, came against 12 tired British divisions. In six days Fifth Army was decimated.
And in September 1918, Haig attacked the Siegfried Stellung and broke through the Drocourt–Quéant Switch and the Germans lost the war, but there was little or no jubilation in what was left of the BEF.
The war had gone on too long.
Today the Canadian Memorial stands under the spring sky, overlooking acres of young corn in the fertile fields around Arras. Now the ghosts are gone, I with them.
'The Battle of Vimy Ridge' was first published in the Daily Express on Thursday/Friday, 6/7 April 1967. It was later collected in Days of Wonder (1987; e-book 2013, Henry Williamson Society). The illustration heading the article, used by the Express, is by Don Roberts, then Art Director at the newspaper.