How the weather helped (and hindered) at Vimy Ridge

It was the battle that made Canada a nation.

You can’t fight a war without checking the forecast.

The weather doesn’t play ball with carefully laid war plans. You can’t defeat it like you can defeat an enemy. All you can do is factor it into your calculations, and prepare as best you can for the way it will affect your maneuvers.

And when you think about war and the weather, there’s no better example than the First World War, when the rain and snow in the skies, and hideous mud below, were enemies in themselves.

This year marks 104 years since the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which you may see commemorated in your community on April 9 each year, which marks the start of the assault. The worst of the battle was over by April 12, 1917.

If you’re Canadian, you know the story. This major battle of the war was a crucial episode in our development as a nation, but a costly one, in lives and materiel, with 10,602 soldiers killed or wounded.

RELATED: Read about six Canadian battles shaped by the weather.

By that point in 1917, Canadians, like their British and French allies, had already seen much of the worst the weather could dish out, from their vantage points within the trenches that have made the conflict a byword for futility and waste of life.

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The rains in Belgium and northern France turned the landscape into muck. Even as they were surrounded by death and disease, soldiers faced the war knee-deep in cold, liquid mud, in addition to the rains and snows as the seasons changed. When advancing in this mire, an army greatcoat caked in mud could feel like it weighed dozens of pounds.

So it must have been with some trepidation that Canadian troops looked forward to April 9, 1917, D-day, as it were, for their assault on German positions atop Vimy Ridge, a commanding, well-protected height that the Allied command had marked as a crucial target.

Luckily, the Canadians were also thoroughly prepared, and a great deal of innovative military research, surveillance and intelligence went into finding out exactly where all the Germans’ guns were. And in fields behind the front, commanders made mock-ups of German positions and drilled the troops, over and over, in their plans to take them.

Naval gun firing over Vimy ridge Library Archives Canada

Image: 6-inch Naval gun on "Percy Scott" carriage, firing over Vimy Ridge behind Canadian lines at night. Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons

And then, to make sure the Germans were sufficiently harassed, a long artillery barrage started, ramping up on April 2, not letting up until April 9 – seven days of almost 1,000 artillery pieces firing 50,000 tonnes of explosives housed in a million shells at the lines of the Germans, who would thereafter call it “the week of suffering.”

But the weather was already causing trouble even before the April 9 advance. It forced a one-day delay in the bombardment, and played havoc with aerial operations supporting it.

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And when the attack finally began, at dawn on April 9, it was in the midst of sleet and snow and driving wind, across a frosty landscape, although it helped that the wind was at the Canadians’ backs, pushing the precipitation into the faces of the defenders.

By the end of the day, the attackers had seized the ridge, and taken all other key objectives by April 12, the “official” end of the battle.

Though casualties were high, Vimy Ridge is remembered as Canada’s military “coming of age,” woven into our cultural fabric as well as commemorated by the Vimy Memorial in France itself.

Canadian machine gunners vimy ridge Canada department of defence wikimedia

Canadian machine gunners dig themselves in, in shell holes on Vimy Ridge. Image: Department of National Defence/Wikimedia Commons.

But as far as hostile war weather went, the worst was still to come for the Canadians.

Later that same year, Canada faced the test at Passchendaele, part of the weeks-long Third Battle of Ypres. This time, the worst rains in 30 years turned the bombed-out landscape into a muddy swamp, with craters too flooded to serve as effective shelter as the Canadians advanced. The mud clogged rifles and bogged down tanks, while the rains made for waist-deep floodwater.

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The final toll was 15,000 men killed or wounded, and while the courage and endurance of the Canadian troops in such hellish conditions has never been questioned, the debate still rages whether that particular offensive was worth it in the end.

Even the Vimy Memorial itself was almost a victim of the elements. Flaws in the original design led to cracks in the facade, allowing water to seep in. Rains and wind weathered the names of the dead carved on the outside. The problem reached such an extent that a massive multi-million-dollar restoration effort was required, and the monument was rededicated on the 90th anniversary of the battle.

As we look back and remember, we should keep in mind that the war effort was both helped, and hindered, by the nightmarish weather conditions.