Although the ridge was theirs, 3,598 Canadian soldiers lost their lives over the next four days, as the Germans did everything they could to recover the high ground they had surrendered.
Labelle already knew that more than 100,000 English and French soldiers died during previous battles for the ridge, so both he and his men were aware what kind of hell they were in for when it would be their turn to take the hill.
Nevertheless, once the Canadians began to pour out of the tunnels that opened up only a few metres away from the German trenches, they began to walk — not run — up the hill as they kept their distance from a well-aimed artillery barrage that was “just like a lawnmower cutting grass.”
As Royal Montreal Regiment’s Lieutenant Colin Robinson explained, “Although their initial instinct was to run as fast as they could after they went over the top… all of these guys had to be trained to cover 10 feet per minute, otherwise they would get killed as they ran into their own artillery barrage.”
Before the Germans could get back behind their machine guns, the Canadians were upon them with pistols, grenades and a sharp shovel — the weapon of choice for a trench fight. Within seconds, a lot of men died as there was no time — or will — for prisoners. By 11:30 a.m., the Canadians began to make their way over the crest of the ridge. The rest is history.
“In those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation,” said Canada’s Brigadier General Alex Ross.
A century later, the sun was shining from the east as technicians were doing sound checks for the afternoon’s ceremony on April 9, 2017, near the battleground.
Although France granted Canada the perpetual use of the ridge’s 250 acres as a memorial site as well as a military cemetery in 1922, the ridge is still considered to be a “red zone” — physically and environmentally too damaged by the war for human habitation — because of all the unexploded and increasingly unstable ordnance that’s buried in the soil.
In order to stabilize what is still known to be one of the most dangerous battlefields in all of Europe’s history, German prisoners were put to work planting thousands of pine trees throughout the site, which is still marked with thousands of shell craters to this day.
“We let the farmers send their sheep into the park in order to keep the grass under control,” said one of the site’s guides.
According to Carleton University history professor Tim Cook, several factors define the morning’s battle as one of the more significant moments in Canadian history. It was the first intelligent battle plan of the war. It was also the time when Canadian forces came into their own because they were fed up with being used as little more than cannon fodder by incompetent British staff officers.
While there was no question of backing out of the fight, senior Canadian staff officers let the British know they were no longer willing to fight under them.
As the Canadians took over the command of their own divisions, they began to prepare their own plan, which included scale models of the site along, with over 10 kilometres of assorted tunnels that would eventually open up at the foot of Vimy Ridge.