The Royal Montreal Regiment Museum proudly presents

“Regiments on the Ridge: Vimy 100 Years On”

Display of WW1 artefacts, diaries, weapons, maps and more from the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  Documentary film viewings twice daily.

03, 04 and 06 April 2017

Open to public: 09h00­ – ­21h00

Victoria Hall,  4626 Sherbrooke Street W., Westmount, QC, H3Z 1G1

THE BATTLE OF VIMY RIDGE, 9-12 APRIL 1917

The battle of Vimy Ridge was a defining moment for Canada. In April 1917, the Canadian Corps, fighting for the first time as a Canadian entity, attacked the ridge which spanned seven kilometers and was heavily fortified by the Germans. The French and British had previously attempted to take the ridge but failed with massive casualties. However, the Canadians were successful and forced a major German retreat. Their victory came at great cost: 3,598 Canadians were killed and more than 7,000 wounded. Amongst these men were 98 RMR soldiers dead and 176 wounded – close to a 50% casualty rate for the Regiment. Despite the cost, Canada demonstrated superior military skill and success on a world stage, and Vimy was the first of a series of victories to follow (Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, Drocourt-Quéant line, etc.) during the rest of the war.  The success of the Canadians that began in force at Vimy earned the young Dominion a place at the table for the subsequent treaty of Versailles ending the war.

To commemorate the brave Canadian soldiers who fought so successfully 100 years ago to take Vimy Ridge, the RMR Museum will be hosting a free bilingual educational event at Victoria Hall in Westmount on April 3rd, 4th and 6th 2017.

For three days we will be presenting the National Film Board of Canada’s documentary film “The Battle of Vimy Ridge”, narrated by Paul Gross. School visits will receive a guided tour of the exhibit and take-home materials for each student.

The RMR Museum will be on site displaying World War I and Vimy artifacts including equipment, letters, photos, weapons, medals and pictures from its collection. Showtimes for the documentary film:

  • 10h00-11h30
  • 13h00-14h30
  • 16h00-17h30
  • 19h30-21h00

To book a showtime, or for any other inquires such as a tour of the RMR Museum’s collection, please contact info@royalmontrealregiment.com

What to expect when visiting Regiments on the Ridge: Vimy 100 Years On exhibit:

1. Timeline Corridor: The Regiments on the Ridge Vimy exhibition is presented by the RMR Museum, proud to be Westmount’s only museum.

As visitors tour the exhibit, they will pass through a “Timeline “Corridor” with panels chronologically detailing the preparations, conduct, and aftermath of the battle:

  • Visuals of Canada before World War One, showing various walks of life
  • Visuals of military training overseas
  • Visuals of the battle front, including trenches, prisoners, and victory scenes
  • Visuals of life returning to normal after the war
  • “Did You Know?” panel with a list of facts about Canada in World War One

2. Visiting the Ridge  This is the main feature and visitors will get a chance to view artefacts from the First World War and directly from the battle of Vimy Ridge itself – including the field message pad of a company commander (Major Holliday, the leader of approximately 150 men) who’s last entry was the day before battle, where he wrote out his final orders… Visitors will leave with sense of scale of the battle from immense proportions to minute personal details.

  • Uniforms worn at the time of the battle, including badges, helmets, load-bearing personal equipment, and relevant badges, markings, gas mask, etc.
  • Examples of trench art made during the First World War by Canadian soldiers using materials readily at hand
  • Infantry weapons used at the battle such as rifles, pistols, bayonets, and “home made” variants for hand-to-hand fighting. 

Vimy Paul Gross3. Documentary film: The National Film Board’s The Battle of Vimy Ridge utilizes tried-and-true, simple techniques; archival photos and film footage, black-and-white re-enactments, and readings of letters from participants in the battle, to great effect.

It is these authentic images and words from those who were there that convey the true horror of war, without staged scenes of blood and guts. It’s the narrative, delivered with simplicity and eloquence by Paul Gross, that draws the viewer into the events that occurred over eighty years ago, in a country across an ocean, under circumstances unimaginable to most of those viewing the video.

The film will be shown four times daily (twice in French and twice in English)

GROUPS WELCOME!  To book a private visit of the Regiments on the Ridge: Vimy 100 Years On exhibit and/or a tour of the RMR Museum, please contact us at: info@royalmontrealregiment.com

Why is Vimy signifcant for Canada?

A brief overview of the military tactics that helped Canadian infantry win the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Written by noted historian Tim Cook. Directly from the Canadian War Museum’s website.

“Many historians and writers consider the Canadian victory at Vimy a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness. Canadian troops also earned a reputation as formidable, effective troops because of the stunning success. But it was a victory at a terrible cost, with more than 10,000 killed and wounded.

The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize Vimy Ridge in April 1917. [Map] Situated in northern France, the heavily-fortified seven-kilometre ridge held a commanding view over the Allied lines. The Canadians would be assaulting over an open graveyard since previous French attacks had failed with over 100,000 casualties.

To capture this difficult position, the Canadians would carefully plan and rehearse their attack. To provide greater flexibility and firepower in battle, the infantry were given specialist roles as machine-gunners, rifle-men and grenade-throwers. These same soldiers underwent weeks of training behind the lines using models to represent the battlefield, and new maps crafted from aerial photographs to guide their way. To bring men forward safely for the assault, engineers dug deep tunnels from the rear to the front. Despite this training and preparation, the key to victory would be a devastating artillery barrage that would not only isolate enemy trenches, but provide a moving wall of high explosives and shrapnel to force the Germans to stay in their deep dugouts and away from their machine-guns. “Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated,” warned Canadian Corps commander Sir Julian Byng.

“In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
BGen A.E. Ross

In the week leading up to the battle, Canadian and British artillery pounded the enemy positions on the ridge, killing and tormenting defenders. New artillery tactics allowed the gunners to first target, then destroy enemy positions. A nearly limitless supply of artillery shells and the new 106 fuse, which allowed shells to explode on contact, as opposed to burying themselves in ground, facilitated the destruction of hardened defences and barbed wire. The Canadian infantry would be well supported when it went into battle with over 1,000 artillery pieces laying down withering, supportive fire.

Attacking together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on 9 April 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian infantry overran the Germans all along the front. Incredible bravery and discipline allowed the infantry to continue moving forward under heavy fire, even when their officers were killed. CWM19920085-479 Taking Vimy Ridge, advancing with tank over no mans land 01575 There were countless acts of sacrifice, as Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the Ridge, and where the Vimy monument now stands, was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions. Three more days of costly battle delivered final victory. The Canadian operation was an important success, even if the larger British and French offensive, of which it had been a part, had failed. But it was victory at a heavy cost: 3,598 Canadians were killed and another 7,000 wounded.

The capture of Vimy was more than just an important battlefield victory. For the first time all four Canadian divisions attacked together: men from all regions of Canada were present at the battle. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared after the war, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

Vimy became a symbol for the sacrifice of the young Dominion. In 1922, the French government ceded to Canada in perpetuity Vimy Ridge, and the land surrounding it. The gleaming white marble and haunting sculptures of the Vimy Memorial, unveiled in 1936, stand as a terrible and poignant reminder of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France who have no known graves.”[1]

[1] Tim Cook, Canadian War Museum: http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/vimy/index_e.shtml

The Royal Montrealers at Vimy

A brief overview of the RMR’s own experience at Vimy.

LIEUTENANT JOSEPH LABELLE, D.C.M., M.M. AND BAR

The RMR is fortunate to have several first-hand witnesses to the battle. One who epitomizes the Regimental spirit is Joseph “Joe” Labelle, a French-Canadian who was an “original RMR” (one of the first member of the unit, joining in August 1914) soldier who was commissioned from the ranks to become an officer.

Joseph Labelle was born in Menominee, Michigan on 27 December 1885. He enlisted at 28-years old very soon after war broke out, his attestation papers showing the date of 20 August 1914. At five feet five inches tall, he was roughly average height for his age (the minimum for the Infantry was five feet three inches).

His trade prior to enlistment was listed as ‘electrician’, which was a relatively modern new calling for the time, with the majority of Canadian homes not being electrified at the time. He served honorably in the ranks of the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment) Canadian Expeditionary Force, eventually rising to the rank of Sergeant before being granted a commission and reaching the rank of Lieutenant by war’s end. Here is his Vimy story:

“Celebration and demonstration were not part of Joe Labelle‘s victory at Vimy. He had enlisted with the 14th Battalion and immediately joined the rest of the Royal Montreal Regiment (RMR) in September 1914 training at Valcartier, Quebec.  At Vimy, final instructions from the acting adjutant, Lieutenant J.W. Maynard, emphasized “that troops would attack exactly at Zero and not wait for the barrage to lift from the German front trenches at Zero plus three minutes… to give the enemy little time to comeup from his dugouts and open fire”. Labelle absorbed the severity of the order. He was mindful that the French and British had lost more than 100,000 men when they attempted to take the ridge. Nevertheless, Labelle and his comrades stepped into the battlefeield directly behind the creeping barrage and watched it mow down the enemy “just like a lawnmower cutting grass”. From the jumping-off trench past the Black Line and on to the Red Line, the Royal Montrealers’ advance moved like clockwork. Labelle admitted some surprise at the ease of the operation. He said “The boys felt elated” but once the initial exhilaration of seeing Germans retreating has passed, Labelle recalled his comrades saying, “Well, boys, we’re here now. Let’s hang on.” Taking their piece of the ridge had cost the RMR 274 casualties.[1]

At Vimy Ridge, the 3rd Brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General George Tuxford, and the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment (RMR), was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Gault McCombe. Private Cyril Lowe whose name is on the Strathroy cenotaph, was part of the 14th Royal Montreal Regiment when he was killed in action on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1917.

The map above indicates how the four Canadian Divisions were aligned, with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed from south to north. The 1st Division was commanded by Major-General Arthur Currie from Strathroy. The 3rd Brigade, 14th Battalion was farthest north within the 1st Division, with the 14th Battalion in the middle between the 15th and 16th Battalions.

The operation plan was as follows. “On the right flank of the divisional frontage was Brigadier-General Frederick Loomis’s 2nd Infantry Brigade, with the 5th, 7th and 10th battalions in the first wave and 8th battalion in reserve.  To the left was the 3rd Brigade, under Brigadier-General George Tuxford, with 15th, 14th and 16th battalions in line and 13th in reserve.  These two brigades were responsible for capturing the Black and Red lines.  The 1st Brigade, under Brigadier-General William Griesbach, would then follow through and advance as far as the Blue and Brown lines.” [Source:  “Vimy Ridge A Canadian Reassessment, pages 157-8]

Looking at the map you can see that the Canadian 1st Division had the farthest to push forward to achieve its goals, about 3,560 metres.  However, the terrain was gradual, relatively level and open.  Farther north, the terrain was much steeper.

Among Currie’s three infantry Brigades, their battle experiences varied. “On 3rd Brigade’s front Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bent’s 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada) launched its assault on time at 0530 hours and immediately captured the enemy’s front line and support trenches.  The battalion reached its first major objective, Wolfer Weg (Black Line) in 40 minutes.  Within several hours, the troops overran Zwischen Steeling (Red Line) and proceeded to consolidate the gains. Casualties that morning amounted to three officers killed and six wounded, while at least sixty other ranks were killed and more than 100 wounded, about twenty-five percent of the battalion’s combat strength.

These losses were by no means light, but Lieutenant-Colonel Gault McCombe’s 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment) met greater difficulty as it advanced up the centre of the 3rd Brigade front. The Bavarian riflemen and machine gunners reportedly “fought to the last, showing no inclination to surrender.” They were overcome largely by small groups of men armed with hand grenades.  Indirect fire from Lewis gun crews also helped, but accurate artillery fire eased the battalion’s difficult advance by destroying most of the enemy wire and damaging a good portion of the entrenchments. . . . of McCombe’s 701 officers and men, 287 became casualties on 9 April, almost double the number suffered by the 15th Battalion on adjacent frontage.” (Cyril Lowe was one of those killed.) [Source:  “Vimy Ridge A Canadian Reassessment, pages 158-9]

The assault on Vimy Ridge had been carefully planned and rehearsed for weeks prior to the attack.  Each Battalion had received maps of the terrain ahead of them so as to know what to expect regarding hills, mortar holes, wet areas, enemy trenches, barbed wire lines, etc.  They had been taken, in rotation turns, from the front lines and had practised their forward movements, carefully timed so that they stayed behind the rolling barrage of artillery fire that they would be dropping on the German trenches and wire lines. Timing was essential.  If they moved too quickly they would be hit by their own artillery fire.  If they moved too slowly the enemy ahead of them would have time to regroup before their lines of infantry got to the enemy trenches.

At Vimy new technology and innovative tactics (compared to earlier months) were implemented, but the infantry soldiers still depended upon mortars, machine guns and rifle grenades.  However, when face-to-face with the enemy they relied on the rifle and bayonet. No amount of planning and careful placement of armaments could save men and horses from stray shells, an untouched enemy machine gun nest, or even the mud and miserable weather they slogged through. A wounded casualty was likely to become a fatality because he drowned before help could arrive.[2]

[1] Victory at Vimy, Ted Barris, First Edition Paperbacks 2008, ISBN 978-0-88762-253-3, pages 216-17.
[2] http://strathroycaradoclions.ca/index.php/14th-canadian-infantry-battalion/

EDUCATORS!  To book a private visit of the “Regiments on the Ridge: Vimy 100 Years On” exhibit during the school day, please contact us at: info@royalmontrealregiment.com

Lest We Forget