The Canadian Corps was created in September 1915, following the arrival of the 2nd Canadian Division in France. By April 1917 the Corps comprised four Infantry Divisions and a compliment of other arms and services (Engineers, Artillery, Medical…)
As a unit, the Canadian Corps formed part of a British Army and during the final two years of the Great War this was often enough the First Army commanded by General Sir Henry Horne. In April 1917 the Canadian Corps was commanded by an Englishman, Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng.
Each of the Canadian Divisions was sub-divided into three Infantry Brigades of four Battalions each. A Battalion, in practice, consisted of about 800 men but battle casualties could very quickly deplete that number.
At the moment of its creation the decision had been taken (for the most part) to simply number the infantry battalions within the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) as opposed to giving them names.
Despite this, each Battalion was considered as forming part of a Provincial Regiment such as the “Central Ontario Regiment” or “Régiment de Québec”.
Furthermore, a number of Battalions had been sponsored by units of the Canadian Militia and adopted the name and insignia of their patrons.
Thus, the “48th Highlanders of Canada” sponsored/recruited the 15th Battalion Canadian Infantry which explains why the 15th’s badge incorporates a 48 !
After the war the prominent 48 on their cap badge caused a number of unidentified 15th Battalion soldiers to be buried as 48th Battalion men. In fact the 48th Battalion never reached France as such, having already been reassigned and re-designated as a pioneer battalion.
To understand Vimy it is necessary to understand Lorette and the two years of fighting that had reached, what would become, the Canadians’ front line.
On 2nd October 1914 the 1st Bavarian Reserve Corps advanced towards Arras from the area of Douai. It was met by the French 70e Division d’Infanterie who held their ground for a few days but were eventually pushed back by the superior number of Bavarians.
The German cavalry advanced on Aix Noulette and although it failed to break the French Cavalry Corps (The Corps Conneau — so named after their commander) the threat to the French flank was all too clear.
On 6th October 1914 at 0600 hours a battalion of Bavarian infantry accompanied by cavalry occupied the Lorette ridge as far as the chapel, encountering no resistance from the French.
It was too late for the French. Realising that they were being outflanked they fell back to a line to the west of Neuville Saint Vaast and Carency. Vimy in effect had been gifted to the Bavarians.
Throughout that first winter of the war the French infantry struggled to gain the Lorette plateau and the town of Neuville Saint Vaast. The fighting was intense and the deaths could be counted by the tens of thousands ; on both sides.
Général Ferdinand Foch, in overall command of the area, understood that the problem was the lack of artillery.
A fresh assault was made on Vimy Ridge (amongst other objectives) on 9th May 1915 and for a few hours the Division marocaine (Moroccan Division — made up of French colonial troops and the French Foreign Legion) held Hill 140 but the German reserves were more immediately to hand and the French had to abandon the site that would eventually become the Canadian memorial.
Here is a series of maps explaining all of this in a little more detail.
The commencement of the battle of Verdun in February 1916 resulted in the French handing the Arras sector over to the British who would eventually assign the Canadian Corps to the area.
The battles of Verdun and the Somme, that summer, would provide much to reflect upon. As much for the defenders as the attackers.
The ridge protected the German occupied positions controlling the mining area around Lens which was supplying Germany with much needed coal. It also formed an important stronghold at the northern end of the newly created German defensive system: The Hindenburg Line.
In April 1917 the French planned an assault in the area of the Chemin des Dames (near Soissons, to the south) and and as part of Général Robert Nivelle’s overall plan he required Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (Commanding the British Expeditionary Force) to launch his Third Army against the Germans to the east of Arras.
Nivelle was utterly convinced that he had a winning formula and had managed to convince both governments to go along with his ideas — despite some misgivings.
Politics had thus intervened and Haig was forced by the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George to accept the arrangement. Haig however insisted that Vimy Ridge be included in his battle plan, bringing his First Army into the offensive.
In the aftermath of 1916 the Germans realised that defending their front line no matter the cost was a complete waste of soldiers. From now on they would organise their defence, in depth. The actual front line would be held by fewer men but with numerous machine-gun positions and strongholds. If necessary they would give ground and then counter-attack with Divisions placed behind the lines for that specific purpose.
And here lay the problem for the Germans on Vimy Ridge. The ridge isn’t deep enough to truly accommodate a defence in depth. If they were forced back, even half a kilometre, the ridge would be lost : forever.