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.

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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.

 

Remembering Vimy Ridge – April 9, 1917

Vimy Ridge Memorial 1 I’ve been both mesmerized and horrified by what I’ve read about Vimy, which took place 97 years ago today. In Unravelled, Edward Jamieson, who fought at Vimy Ridge, remembers that battle in two vivid flashbacks. Lies Told in Silence – soon to be published – looks at the same battle from the viewpoint of Helene Noisette, a young woman living in a town not far away from the ridge.

Here’s an excerpt from Lies Told in Silence. For more than two months, Helene Noisette and her brother, Jean, have been watching soldiers prepare for battle. Later in this novel, Helene will meet Edward Jamieson.

They left the house without a sound and ran, fear pounding with every step, following familiar paths, leaping across melting streams, scrabbling through ferns and bushes. As they approached the hill, she heard the opening roar, a deafening sound that shook her body. In an instant, a second crash followed, splitting the sky directly overhead, penetrating her world like a never-ending drumroll.

Helene and Jean clawed their way up the hill. The guns grew even louder, and a sharp, acrid smell filled the air. Her legs had almost given out when they reached their perch and stood with no need to crouch down and hide, for no one could possibly notice them given the furor of action rippling across the battlefield. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined such a scene.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 8.59.56 AMInstead of orderly drills or the calm stacking of sandbags and trucks waiting to load or unload, below them was a sea of churning mud; grey dawn streaked the sky; there were sharp flashes of red, the rumble of airplanes overhead. In the far distance near the ridge, an orange glow hovered like a bulging midnight sun. Shells burst from all directions, illuminating soldiers advancing, bayonets flashing with deadly purpose.

Helene looked at Jean, a mix of fear and awe on his face. She said nothing, for what possible words could make sense of the destruction carried out below? In the preceding weeks, what they had heard and seen—the bright snap of flares and answering clouds of smoke, the stuttering back and forth of machine guns, the sharp whine as planes breached the horizon, the gentle drift of observation balloons—were only the barest hints of reality. Helene and Jean were silent, standing vigil over an unfolding battle, honouring those who fought for their freedom, men they would never know.

Wherever she looked, troops moved forward, less than thirty metres behind exploding bombs launched by their own artillery. This barrage was their shield, a curtain of steel protecting them from German counterattacks. Step by step they advanced, scrambling across uneven ground, thick clumps of earth flying through the air around them.

Gradually, the sky lightened, bringing the battle into sharper focus. A sudden flurry of snow obscured her view, and she wondered how the soldiers could possibly find their way. The snow left as quickly as it had appeared, and in the far, far distance, she saw white and black puffs of smoke; then a plane, trailing black streamers, emerged from the far left and flew low over the scene, its klaxon sounding like an ancient battle cry.

While they watched, Helene thought of [her brother] Guy. Had he grown accustomed to these mind-numbing sounds mixed with exploding bursts of earth and shrapnel? Was this what it had been like when he was wounded? Was he brave, or did he fear for his life? Did he lead his men with care? Did he shout at death as it whirled around him? How could he face battle again and again, her wonderful brother who laughed and teased, enjoyed the give and take of argument, took pride in his studies, loved his family? How could any of them?

Read Pierre Berton’s Vimy for an amazing account of preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge and the battle itself.

Vimy Ridge WWI Memorial

Vimy Memorial Dedication July 26, 1936The battle for Vimy Ridge is of central importance to Unravelled and to my upcoming novel, Lies Told in Silence. It’s a battle that defined Canada’s participation in WWI earning Canadian soldiers the reputation of being fierce and relentless. Almost everyone who has visited the memorial feels the deep emotion of loss and sacrifice. My grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge and the more I researched that battle, the more it affected me.

Unravelled opens when Edward Jamieson receives an invitation to the Vimy Memorial dedication ceremony. Imagine how that might feel. You were a soldier of what was referred to as The Great War, a war you had done your best to forget, a war you had rarely spoken of, a war of such horror and loss that nightmares claimed your sleep even eighteen years later. You remember it as a war that took the lives of friends and brothers, of comrades and commanders, of nurses and stretcher bearers and others behind the lines, of innocent villagers, of horses who laboured to pull the great guns forward and to bring wagonloads of supplies.

Paul Reginald Wilson attended the dedication ceremony to honour his father who died at Vimy. One item in Paul’s mementos of that event is a description of the monument and that day of remembering those who had fallen and those who had served. For the opening chapter of Unravelled, I extracted a few phrases from that description and used them as part of the invitation Edward receives from the Canadian government (a bit of fiction on my part).

Here’s some of that document:

“For all generations to come, this great monument will speak of the 60,000 Canadian dead who lie beneath French soil; of the 400,000 men who left cities, farms and fishing boats to give all they possessed, life itself, in aid of what they believed to be right; of the thousands who returned maimed, broken and blind.

They will proclaim to the world of the future, that Canada and her sons did their part gloriously when the need arose.

On July 26th, 1936, nearly eight thousand Canadian men and women stood in company with their King, the King of the Belgians and the President of France, and listened to the dedication of Canada’s Vimy Memorial. Most of these men were retracing their steps. Many of them were among those who, attacked and captured this very spot, April 9th, 1917, when 75,000 Canadians on the lower slope of that ridge opposed 140,000 of the enemy. When the series of battles ended on June 6th, the famous ridge that had withstood attempts of both French and English, was in the hands of the Canadians, and before them stretched the broad plains of Douai, but at a fearful cost. Canada had lost 912 officers and 20,461 other ranks, and so does Canada pay tribute to her hero dead with this handsome memorial.”

Brings tears to your eyes, doesn’t it?

Canadian Veterans Affairs offers a description of the memorial and several pictures of the dedication ceremony.

Paul Wilson’s scrapbook mementos can be seen here. A description of the efforts to organize and manage those who participated in the Vimy Pilgrimage is located on a site dedicated to Canadian military history.

The photo included above is from the Canadian government site for Veterans Affairs. As you can see, the crowd was enormous.