Sunday, April 9, 2017

Battle of Vimy Ridge and Sir Arthur William Currie (1875-1933)

Veterans Affairs Canada Remembrance Moment: 
The Battle of Vimy Ridge 100th Anniversary

Parks Canada

Battle of Vimy Ridge

The Battle of Vimy Ridge began at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9th, 1917. The first wave of 15,000-20,000 Canadian soldiers, many heavily laden with equipment, attacked through the wind-driven snow and sleet into the face of deadly machine gun fire.

The Canadians advanced behind a “creeping barrage”. This precise line of intense Allied artillery fire moved ahead at a set rate and was timed to the minute. The Canadian infantrymen followed the line of explosions closely. This allowed them to capture German positions in the critical moments after the barrage moved on to the next targets but before the enemy soldiers could emerge from the safety of their underground bunkers.

Canadian battalions in the first waves of the assault suffered great numbers of casualties, but the assault proceeded on schedule. Most of the heavily defended ridge was captured by noon. Hill 145, the main height on the ridge, was taken on the morning of April 10th. Two days later, the Canadians took “the Pimple”, as the other significant height on the ridge was nicknamed. The Germans were forced to withdraw three kilometres east and the Battle of Vimy Ridge was over. The Allies now commanded the heights overlooking the Douai Plain, which was still occupied by the enemy.

The Canadian Corps, together with the British Corps to the south, had captured more ground, prisoners and artillery pieces than any previous British offensive of the war. Canadians would act with courage throughout the battle.

Sir Arthur William Currie (1875-1933)

Sir Arthur Currie, the first and only Canadian to command the Canadian Corps during the First World War, was a pivotal figure in the nation’s war effort. Considered one of the finest generals of the war, Currie led the Canadian Corps to several important victories. Under Currie’s leadership, the Corps solidified its impressive reputation as a brave, battle-hardened formation that was able to achieve victory against even the most difficult odds. However, the high number of casualties suffered by the Canadians in the latter battles of the war led some to charge that Currie was a heartless general who sacrificed his soldiers’ lives for the sake of his own reputation. Later vindicated of these charges, Currie today is held in high esteem as an important figure in Canada’s military history.

Born in Ontario in 1875, in 1894 Currie moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where he worked as a teacher then entered private business as an insurance salesman and real estate broker. In 1897, Currie joined a local militia unit, the 5th (British Columbia) Regiment, Canadian Artillery, as a gunner. This regiment is closely associated with Fort Rodd Hill and the other sites of the Victoria-Esquimalt Fortifications. Currie quickly rose through the ranks and, by 1901, he received a commission as a lieutenant. By 1909, he was a lieutenant-colonel and had taken command of the entire regiment. Under his command, the 5th (BC) Regiment won the Governor-General’s Cup for Efficiency four times in competition with all other artillery units in Canada. He retired from his post in 1913 and became commander of the 50th Regiment of Foot, Gordon Highlanders of Canada, which was a newly-formed militia regiment.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Currie was first offered a position as Commanding Officer of the West Coast Military District, a desk job that would have kept him in Canada away from the action. When Sir Sam Hughes, Minister of the Militia, instead offered Currie the command of one of the four infantry brigades forming up for service overseas, Currie accepted readily. Once overseas, Currie led the 2nd Infantry Brigade at the Second Battle of Ypres (April 1915), Canada’s first major engagement of the war. In September 1915, upon the creation of the Canadian Corps, Currie was given command of the 1st Division, which he led at Vimy Ridge (April 1917). As one of the four divisional commanders at Vimy, Currie played an important role in this noted Canadian victory.

In June 1917, Currie was knighted and given command of the entire Canadian Corps. In August of that year, Currie and his soldiers succeeded in a difficult battle at Hill 70, and then in October, he led the Corps in a carefully planned attack at Passchendaele and achieved victory, though at great cost of life. During the Hundred Days Offensive (August-November 1918), Currie and the Canadian Corps played a vital and decisive role in a series of successful Allied attacks that forced an end to the war, but again at an enormous cost with over 45,000 Canadian casualties.

Following the war, Currie served as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, a position he held from 1920 until his death. While he remained a prominent Canadian figure in the 1920s, he continued to feel the sting of public accusations and private insinuations that charged that his actions led to unnecessary casualties. In 1927, when a newspaper repeated these accusations, he sued for libel, and won. Currie died in Montréal on November 30th, 1933 and shortly after his death, he was recognized as a national historic person by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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