5.25 am. Monday, April 9, 1917. Massed artillery that for days has been pounding German defences entrenched on the heights of Vimy Ridge have fallen eerily silent. In the palpable pre-dawn darkness of France 100,000 infantrymen, most of them Canadians, waited for a signal that would send them, bayonets fixed, storming from the base of Vimy Ridge to its well defended peak.
The signal came at precisely 5:30 am in the glimmer of first light. As officers blew their whistles the silent guns stirred again in anger, calibrated now as a “creeping barrage” to march just ahead of the infantry up what war correspondent Philip Gibbs described as “that great, grim hill which dominates the plain of Douai and the coal fields of Lens and the German positions around Arras.”
It was the beginning of the Battle for Vimy Ridge, the battle military historians list as the great turning point in Canadian history; the battle that saw four Canadian division fighting together as a unified force for the first time and winning a victory that had been denied other armies. Vimy, they say, was the beginning of Canada’s evolution from dominion to independent nation.
War time reporter Gibbs was there to witness the event:
“The hour for attack was 5:30. Officers were looking at their wrist watches. The earth lightened….there was a strange and solemn hush. We waited, and pulses beat faster than the second hands. ‘They’re away,’ said a voice by my side…It was dawn now, but clouded and storm swept….On the higher ground our men were fighting forward….I saw two waves of infantry advancing against enemy trenches….They went in a slow, leisurely way, not hurried though the enemy’s shrapnel was searching for them….’Grand fellows’ said an officer lying next to me on the wet slope…”
“Grand fellows” indeed, although as a phrase it sounds archaic a hundred years later and far too Downton Abbey upper-class when describing a bloody battle scene that left 3,598 Canadian young men dead on that “great, grim hill” and sent another 10,000 or so home wounded in body or mind and sometimes both.
Reporters like Gibbs did their best to convey some of the horrors of otherwise “glorious” battle fields, but were forbidden to report or write anything that might lower the morale of fighting men or their families
The Defence of the Realm Act became law in England four days after WW1 started in 1914 thus giving credence to the well established proverb: The first casualty of war is truth.” Gibbs began reporting on WW1 within days of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arriving in France but after his first completely honest battle reporting he was ordered home, hauled before a disciplinary body and told to change his ways or face a firing squad
The threat was not idle. One section of the Defence of the Realm Act read: “No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population.” Gibbs, like other reporters, reluctantly agreed to the reporting rules but managed by skilful phrasing to convey the grim realities of the battlefields.
And he never failed to tweak the conscience of those who glorified war with the claim that God was on their side. Easter Sunday, the day before the great assault on Vimy Ridge, Gibbs went for a walk through nearby villages. He wrote that he was “filled with a tense, restless emotion, and some of us smiled with a kind of irony because it was Easter Sunday. In the little villages behind the battle lines the bells of the French churches were ringing gladly because the Lord had risen, and on the altar steps the priests were reciting the splendid old words of faith ‘I have a arisen and am with thee always. Alleluia’….as I walked up the road to the battle lines I passed a battalion of our men….standing in a hollow square with bowed heads while the chaplain conducted the Easter service.
“Easter Sunday, but no truce of God.”
While Gibbs was prevented by law from telling detailed truths which might upset people at home in England there were no restrictions on describing the great slaughter of German soldiers. The massed artillery found easy targets preceding and during the infantry attack. “Trains on the move…troops massing on the sloping ground were shattered, guns and limbers on the move…men and horses were killed….The enemy losses were frightful, and the scenes behind his lines must have been and still be hideous in slaughter and terror….He has lost already nearly 10,000 prisoners…and in dead and wounded his losses are great.”
And then he penned a message which must surely have been understood by every woman – and man – able to read an English newspaper: “It is a black day for the German armies – and for the German women who do not know yet what it means to them.” German casualties totaled in excess of 20,000. Gibb
The real horror of Vimy for Canadians, kept secret until after the war, was officially recorded by the 2nd Division’s 6th Brigade (the “Iron Sixth,” comprised of Western Canadians), as they made their way into the fight at about 9 am four hours after the first wave went in on the opening day: “Wounded men (were) sprawled everywhere in the slime, in the shell holes, in the mine craters, some screaming to the skies, some lying silently, some begging for help, some struggling to keep from drowning in (water-filled) craters, the field swarming with stretcher-bearers trying to keep up with the casualties.” It can be fairly added that the ultimate victory was a bad day for Canada – and for at least 3,598 Canadian wives and mothers when informed of the cost of victory.
One hundred years later we remember the men who stood in the pre-dawn dark of an Easter Monday and were part of one of Canada’s greatest military victories, a battlefield triumph that lead to nationhood.
It is an event worth remembering – but only if we also remember and learn.
Philip Gibbs was awarded a Knighthood for his wartime reporting, even though openly embarrassed about the restrictions he was forced to work under. About 20-years before the outbreak of WW2 he wrote a voluminous book – Now It Can Be Told – with this introduction:” In this book I have written about some aspects of the war which, I believe, the world must know and remember, not only as a memorial of men’s courage in the tragic years, but as a warning of what will happen again –surely – if a heritage of evil and of folly is not cut out of the hearts of the peoples. Here it is – the reality of modern warfare not only as it appears to British soldiers of whom I can tell, but to soldiers on all the fronts where conditions were the same.”
So, let Canadians remember Vimy Ridge with pride if we must. But let us also remember the cost of the sacrifices demanded in our “heritage of evil and folly” since the slaughters of two world wars and seemingly never ending small ones.
(Now It Can Be Told can still be found for purchase on-line or ordered from most good books stores – or downloaded free via Project Gutenberg -www.gutenbeg.org/files. Google –First World War.com – Primary Documents –Philip Gibbs on the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917)