Vimy Ridge April 9, 1917 – Battle Nears the End

Soldiers had to fight their way up to the top of this ridge (personal photo)

April 9, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the battle for Vimy Ridge, a battle where thousands of Canadian soldiers distinguishing themselves by taking this important ridge from the Germans. Each of my three published novels – Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret – features this battle. To commemorate the anniversary, today’s post features an excerpt from Unravelled illustrating the later stages of that remarkable day.

~~~

Pushing through a knot of soldiers, Edward was breathing hard as he approached Lieutenant Burke.

“Jamieson. Why aren’t you at your post?” Burke lifted his head from the communications grid-map and shouted to be heard over the machine gun firing to his left.

“Vital communication from HQ, sir.” Unable to find a runner to take the message to Burke, Edward had abandoned his post to take it himself. He would experience serious consequences if Burke disagreed with that decision. “There was no one else to bring this to you.”

Burke scanned the message. “Bloody hell. How’ll we alert them in time?”

“I’ve tried wireless and airlines. Can’t reach them.”

“Someone will have to go on foot.” The Lieutenant gripped his forehead as if that would help him focus. “I’ll find Andrews. He’s back.”

Edward checked his watch. “There isn’t time, sir. You take over my post while I run the message forward.” Burke nodded; after all, a lance corporal was the more dispensable man.

The message announced a delay to Z-hour. The Eighty-Seventh Battalion, along with two other battalions, were to take the highest point of the ridge called Hill 145, which was critical to destroying Germany’s stranglehold in the northeast. By now, the Eighty-Fifth would also be in position and all would be waiting for Z-hour before commencing action. If the battalions advanced at the old Z-hour without artillery cover they would be destroyed by enemy fire. Edward had less than thirty minutes to reach them.

Wasting no time saluting, he put on a red armband, tucked the message in his tunic pocket and immediately headed east, his destination five hundred yards away but more than three times that distance using the trenches. Going above ground would be suicide.

Unlike their own trenches, which he could navigate in his sleep, Edward knew only the general layout of newly won German trenches; information gleaned from training diagrams and captured soldiers. He would have to work his way through fighting trenches, communication trenches and finally the resistance trenches. Once he got there, he could follow the resistance trench to find the Eighty-Seventh.

To avoid snipers, Edward moved in a crouched position as he scrambled over a ledge of fallen sandbags where a recent barrage had weakened the retaining wall and destroyed the fire step. He passed by a Maxim gun still on its sledge mount, an unused roll of ammunition hanging out one end. On his right, several stocks of stick grenades remained intact on a dirt shelf. A dead German soldier lay only a few feet away, his helmet off, the left side of his face missing.

Despite the cold, Edward sweated in his greatcoat. Mud oozed with each step, slowing his pace. His foot slipped. He grabbed at a section of chicken wire attached to the retaining wall to steady himself. A few yards ahead, a pool of water lay in front of a tunnel entrance. While slogging through the water, an explosion ripped the sky, spraying earth and shrapnel. Large clods of dirt struck his helmet.

Just inside the tunnel the ground wobbled beneath his feet. Struggling to keep his balance, he realized he was standing on two dead soldiers. He shuddered but kept going, barely able to see in the tunnel’s gloom. Panting, he slowed his pace to avoid falling; not one second could be wasted. Outside, the bursting curtain of steel continued its deadly assault.

He emerged from the tunnel and hurried along an empty trench as snow swirled in a sudden flurry, biting his face and limiting his sight. A low-flying aircraft swooped overhead looking for flag wavers reporting on objectives achieved. Edward heard the blaring of its klaxon. His legs pounded up and down, pleading for rest.

He lifted his eyes from the footpath, searching for a communication trench to take him forward. There it was. He could see the junction ahead. He turned left to follow its zigzag pattern. After a few minutes he found another fighting trench, then fifty feet later a second communication trench. Glancing up, he cursed, ducking quickly to avoid a roll of barbed wire. The second communication trench would be longer than the first as it bridged the gap between fighting trenches and resistance trenches. In the distance he heard the sound of howitzers launching another offensive.

Scrambling over piles of rubble and fallen support beams, Edward thought he could see another T-junction ahead. If that were the case, he would be at the first resistance trench. When he reached the junction, he cursed again and stopped, his path completely blocked. He retraced his steps to a scaling ladder and climbed out of the trench to proceed above ground beyond the blockage. The sudden buzz of a whizbang warned him of danger and he threw himself to the ground as a shell exploded no more than twenty feet away. He got to his feet and ran forward a short distance before jumping back into the communication trench beyond the blocked area. The sharp tang of cordite hung in the air.

Stark flashes of red lit the clouds as he rounded another corner and saw stretcher-bearers coming towards him followed by a stumbling line of German prisoners, one of them dressed in pyjamas. On the stretcher lay a grey-faced soldier bleeding from wounds in the arm and leg. Edward squeezed past the smells of blood and fear.

A few steps later he entered the first of three resistance trenches. He had to reach the third, most forward trench. Edward looked at his watch; unless he went above ground, he wouldn’t make it. Around the next bend he found another ladder, slung his rifle off his shoulder and scrambled out.

As he emerged from the trench, sunshine broke the gloom, flaming against a distant spire. Wreckage surrounded him: barbed wire, torn sandbags, abandoned artillery, stinking shell holes. Wounded men littered the field, begging for help. Dusk would soon close in; he stopped for no one.

Machine-gun fire crackled on his far right as German gunners emerged from a dugout desperate to inflict pain and damage on those who would soon force them out. Edward dodged to the left. He was almost there. Keeping low to the ground, he hurried on with only one purpose—reaching the Eighty-Seventh.

When the sniper’s bullet hit him, all thought of the message tucked in his pocket disappeared. He crumpled to the ground like a rag doll.

I read this scene and others posted this past week and feel once more the sorrow and anger that hit me when first researching WWI. How did they do it? How did my grandfather live through four years of hell? We’re too far removed to fully appreciate the sacrifice made by those who fought in both world wars, but I hope these scenes and my novels offer at least a little understanding.

You can read other posts commemorating the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge: Preparing for Vimy Ridge, The Beginning of Battle, Opening Hours, and Battle Unfolds

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Preparing for Vimy Ridge

Tunnel preserved from Vimy Ridge battle

What did it take to prepare for a major battle in World War One? The 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, a WWI battle where Canadian soldiers distinguished themselves by taking a German-held ridge after two earlier failed attempts, is on Sunday, April 9th. I’ve featured WWI with all its tragedy and horror in three novels – Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret. To honour this anniversary, I’m posting excerpts from each of them.

This excerpt is from Lies Told in Silence. Helene Noisette, the main character, has discovered that her brother Jean has been secretly watching Canadian soldiers prepare for battle.

~~~

“You don’t need to look at me like that; I said I would tell you.” Jean sat on the footstool with his back to the fire. “I’ve been watching the Canadians for weeks,” he said. “You won’t believe what I’ve seen.”

His eyes were so intense. Helene leaned forward to listen.

Jean said he’d been climbing the hills in December, following the same path Helene often took to her thinking stone. When he had reached the summit, he sat on that very same stone, sheltered from the wind and warmed somewhat by the sun. Instead of green fields, a blanket of white had stretched across the plain, ribbons of smoke marking farmhouses in the distance, and a river cutting across one corner of his view. Idly, he had made a snowball and tossed it down the hill, watching it disappear. After he had bent over to scoop up more snow and was preparing to throw again, something odd had appeared.

“That’s when I saw them,” he said.

Jean told her of watching the long line of soldiers emerge from behind a stand of trees and progress slowly along the road far below. At first, they moved like one connected body, but as the line drew nearer, he could distinguish steel-helmeted men, packhorses and black wagons winding through the white winter landscape, moving in a silent, almost colourless world. He tried to estimate how many soldiers marched across the plain, but the line seemed endless, and he soon lost track.

“There could have been a hundred thousand, Helene. It was incredible.”

“Where did they go?”

“I couldn’t tell where they went that day; they just kept moving.”

“And . . .”

Jean grinned. “I found them eventually. Near Mont-Saint-Éloi. You won’t believe what they’re doing.”

“What?”

Helene leaned forward again. By now, the fire merely pulsed a dull red, giving off little heat, and her candle flickered as wax trickled down the candlestick.

“They’re building. Railway tracks, roads, tunnels, an ammunition dump. I can’t figure out everything, but the scale is enormous. Supply trains arrive every day, and the goods are sent on by large trucks or small trams; sometimes mules are loaded with heavy packs on both sides. There are pipes and wood planks and large spools of wire. I’ve seen them lift huge artillery shells off the trains. There are horses and cattle and tents set up. And they’re digging, using the rails to haul away carts full of dirt. It’s amazing, Helene.”

A few days later, Helene accompanies Jean on one of his midnight outings.

Her eyes had become accustomed to the dark, and when she looked down on the plain below, where the occasional oil lamp reflected against the snow augmenting the light of the moon, she sucked in her breath with a loud hiss. Beyond the sloping hillside marked by stout stone fences and leafless trees, hundreds—possibly even thousands—of men swarmed like ants around a yawning opening in the earth, hauling carts, stacking sandbags, unravelling wire. Some men shouldered pickaxes and disappeared into the entrance. Nearby, a long line of packhorses waited, frozen breath snorting as they tossed their heads. A few soldiers walked up and down to keep them calm with a smoothing pat or whispered word.

In the other direction, she saw a group of men manoeuvring an artillery piece into one of several wooden structures dug into the hillside and camouflaged with earth and branches. Dark shapes working in precision, a ballet of ominous proportions.

Jean and Helene exchanged glances. “Mon Dieu,” she whispered.

~~~

example of tramways built in preparation

Miscellaneous facts about the preparation for Vimy Ridge. Sources: Library and Archives Canada, Veterans Affairs Canada.

  • By December 1916, four Canadian Divisions totalling 100,000 men were in the area of Vimy Ridge. While the Canadian military is meticulously planning the coming attack, the front lines continue to probe German lines, raiding their trenches to gain intelligence.
  • soldiers dug 12 deep subways, totalling more than five kilometres (3.2 miles) in length, through which assault troops could move to their jumping-off points; subways protected them from shelling and permitted the wounded to be brought back from the battlefield. Some subways were quite short, while one, the Goodman Subway, opposite La Folie Farm, was 1.2 kilometres (.75 miles) long. All had piped water and most were lit by electricity provided by generators. They also housed telephone lines.
  • the main subways were 7.6 metres (25 feet) deep
  • The largest of several deep caverns, the Zivy Cave, could hold a whole battalion.
  • Smaller tunnels called saps lead off the main subways to the front line. These were sealed until Zero Hour and then blown out.
  • Canadian signallers buried 34 kilometres (21 miles) of cable two metres below ground to withstand enemy shelling.
  • Engineers repaired 40 kilometres of road in the Corps’ forward area and added 4.8 kilometres (3 miles) of new plank road. They also reconditioned 32 kilometres (20 miles) of tramways, over which light trains, hauled by gasoline engines or mules, carried stores and ammunition.
  • A massive artillery barrage began on March 20 involving 245 heavy guns and howitzers, and more than 600 pieces of field artillery. Supporting British artillery added 132 more heavy guns and 102 field pieces. All this firepower amounted to one heavy gun for every 20 metres of frontage and one field gun for every 10 metres.
  • Over 72 kilometres of new pipeline carried the Corps’ daily requirement of 2.3 million litres of water for the men and 50,000 horses, as well as for cooling overheated artillery.
  • On Easter Sunday a sharp north-westerly wind blew flurries of snow across no-man’s land. The troops received a hot meal and a tot of rum.
  • the plan was to attack along a 6.4 kilometre (4 mile) front
  • Anticipating hundreds if not thousands of casualties, graves were dug in advance of battle.
  • Zero hour was 5:30 am Easter Sunday morning, April 9, 2017
  • That morning the first attacking wave of 20,000 soldiers followed behind a creeping barrage that gave protection to these soldiers while continuing to attack the enemy.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.