The Battle of Vimy Ridge

The Battle of Vimy Ridge video cover A review by Lillian Feden

Produced by Deanne Judson and Richard Nielsen

Written by Richard Nielsen and James Wallen

Narrated by Paul Gross

This video can be ordered from the National Film Board of Canada

"If the lessons of war have been thoroughly mastered; if the artillery preparation and support is good; if our intelligence is properly appreciated, there is no position that cannot be wrested from the enemy by disciplined, well-trained and well-led troops attacking on a sound plan." - General Arthur Currie

To me, no matter how "realistic" a film is, how graphic the filmmakers are in their depiction of battle, there's nothing more moving than a documentary.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge utilizes tried-and-true, simple techniques; archival photos and film footage, black-and-white re-enactments, and readings of letters from participants in the battle, to great effect. It is these authentic images and words from those who were there that convey the true horror of war, without staged scenes of blood and guts. It's the narrative, delivered with simplicity and eloquence by Paul Gross, that draws the viewer into the events that occurred over eighty years ago, in a country across an ocean, under circumstances unimaginable to most of those viewing the video.

When the Canadians arrived in 1916 the western slope of the Vimy Ridge had seen more killing than any other battlefield in France. Despite the over 160,000 British and French casualties, and estimated 100,000 German casualties in two years of fighting, the battle lines remained unchanged. The Germans had two years to fortify their position, digging an elaborate system of caverns and tunnels, allowing their troops to hold their ground under fire until reinforcements arrived. From the top of the ridge the Germans had an unobstructed view of Canadian troops and the ground between their lines and the German positions, making a surprise attack seemingly impossible.

This video vividly details the preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge, scheduled for Easter Sunday, but postponed until Easter Monday, April 9, 1917. The assault is described as the most rehearsed battle in military history. General Currie believed in thorough preparation, neglecting nothing. He felt that every Canadian soldier should be told everything about the coming battle except the date. A replica of the battlefield was constructed, with tapes, flags and signposts indicating German trenches, barbed wire and entanglements, machine gun posts and other strong points. The soldiers knew what their objective was and how long it would take to get there. Maps were distributed to the soldiers, giving them a feeling that they were trusted and that they had a share in the responsibility for the success of the assault.

Many of the strategies that contributed to the success of the assault on Vimy Ridge were new. Platoons were reorganized to include riflemen, machine gunners and bombers, breaking from the tradition of separating the men by function, mirroring a class system. Enemy gun positions were located using flash spotting and sound ranging. The methods used by the Canadians were extremely successful, eliminating 176 out of 212 German counter batteries.

The infantry used the "Vimy Glide," advancing at a steady pace of 100 yards every three minutes, matching an artillery barrage that was set before them. One solder described the barrage as resembling a lawnmower in front of them, churning the ground. Tunnels called "subways" were dug to the front lines and allowed the Canadians to advance without the Germans seeing them.

Vimy Ridge was the deepest advance the British forces had made in two and a half years of war. It was the first time German siege guns had been captured.

The video is an interesting and well-produced account of this historic battle, including backgrounds on some of the key figures.


As an aside, I was channel surfing and stopped briefly to watch the History Channel's The Century World War I special. There was a description of the Battle of the Somme and then it jumped right past the battle of Vimy Ridge. Granted, the full title of the series is The Century: America's Time, but it was narrated by Peter Jennings, a Canadian. I wonder if he was tempted to ad-lib a mention of the historic, unprecedented victory achieved by his countrymen?