By MPP Toby Barrett
Beyond Vimy, the Great War saw a number of other significant battles 100 years ago.
Vimy Ridge, fought in April 1917, is held up as the first battle when the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together for the first time. It was a defining moment in Canadian history where our young nation became its own country.
There were other key battles in 1917 – battles, as did Vimy, that took a heavy toll on so many from Haldimand and Norfolk and across the Dominion.
The Battle of Hill 70 commenced on July 31, 1917. When Sir Arthur Currie was given the objective of assaulting Lens, he devised the plan of capturing Hill 70, north of the city. It was known this would result in a German counterattack.
Hill 70 resulted in death for more than 9,000 Canadian soldiers. The Germans paid a higher price, with 25,000 killed or wounded. After Hill 70, 29 families in Norfolk County alone received the dreaded telegram informing them of the demise of a loved one. The attack on Hill 70 ended with Norfolk’s highest death toll of any during the First World War.
Passchendale was the next major objective for the Canadian Corps, a 100,000-strong fighting force. Despite months of bloody fighting, the ridge was still held by the Germans. Buoyed by the success at Vimy, British commander Haig tipped his hat to the Canadians for a victory. Canadian commander Sir Arthur Currie objected, predicting it could cost 16,000 casualties. Currie had time to prepare, and planned the assault, knowing artillery and the engineers were key to victory.
The Canadians arrived in Belgium in mid-October 1917 to relieve Australian and New Zealand troops. What they found was the most horrible, muddiest conditions of the entire war. By Nov. 6, with 15,654 casualties, including 4,000 dead, the Canadians captured the village of Passchendaele. The remaining Germans on the ridge were cleared on Nov. 10 to end the battle as another brutal and costly Canadian victory.
During the fight, nine Canadians earned the Victoria Cross. Passchendale boosted our Canadian reputation as the best offensive fighters on the Western Front.
Cambrai, a surprise attack launched on Nov. 28, was a turning point in the First World War, as it marked the first time tanks were used in any number. First used in the Somme in 1916, tanks hadn’t won a stellar reputation as effective artillery machines. In fact, the Germans looked on them with disdain, assuming they could halt them with concentrated artillery fire.
The British stuck by the tank concept, positive that the muddy conditions in which the new machinery debuted in September 2016 was related to the dismal performance. The plan was to use tanks to push back the German lines, accompanied by infantry, calvary, another 1,000 guns and aerial support. The surprise attack was launched on Nov. 20 and was successful. The Germans were pushed back four miles, but later regained much of the ground in a counterattack. The slaughterhouse of Cambrai resulted in close to 100,000 casualties on all sides.
Hill 70, Passchendale, Cambrai, plus Vimy, were the major conflicts of 1917, but there were others, including Scarpe, Arras, Arleux, Ypres, Pilckem, Langemarck, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and Poelcappelle.
To the glorious memory of those who died and to the undying honour of those who served.