One hundred years ago this week, Canada achieved one of the swiftest, most decisive and unexpected victories of the First World War.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force’s triumph at Vimy Ridge came from an amazing level of innovation. Earlier articles in this series presented the Canadians’ revolutionary approach to Leadership and Teamwork. This article explores the vital role that Technology played in Canada’s Greatest Victory.
A Colossal Challenge
The Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge had a colossal challenge. Their orders were to drive German forces from one of the most heavily defended positions on the western front.
Earlier assaults on the ridge by French and British forces failed to gain any territory and resulted in more than 160,000 casualties.
In order to achieve the enormous objective, Canadian Corps Commanders Julian Byng and Major General Arthur Currie knew they could not wage war as usual. They needed to take a new approach and leverage every possible advantage they could devise in tactics and technology.
Old & New Technology
On the technology side, the Canadian forces used a wide variety. Some were old, others emerging, and some were cutting edge inventions.
For communication they used carrier pigeons and laid miles of underground telephone wires. To gather aerial photographs they deployed both old fashioned kite balloons and new fangled airplanes. 1917 was still the early days of aviation. The Wright brothers had only proven powered flight was possible just 14 years earlier.
An Advance in Weaponry
A new artillery enhancement gave the Canadian infantry a much needed improvement. The Number 106 Fuse was the most important weaponry advance at Vimy.
Developed by the British in late 1916, this instantaneous fuse detonated shells upon the slightest contact with the ground. Other fuses were well suited to blasting through enemy fortifications. The Number 106 Fuse, because it unleashed a shell’s full explosive power right at the surface, made it effective at cutting through barbed wire and clearing a path for foot soldiers.
Where Help Was Most Needed
The arena where the Canadian troops most needed a technological breakthrough was in locating and destroying German gun positions. So Byng and Currie pursued a multi faceted program.
It began with reconnaissance and mapping. The Canadian forces gathered every piece of information they could about German fortifications and artillery locations. Any detail gleaned from field observations, trench raids or aerial surveys was added to maps and 3D models of the battlefield.
The technology of 1917 was rudimentary compared with the GPS and laser targeting systems of today. To determine the precise location of enemy guns, the Canadian troops had to be inventive and resourceful. They relied on visual and auditory cues.
The visual cues were provided by the light of German gunfire. Canadian flash spotters were stationed at various points behind the front lines. They kept their eyes peeled on enemy positions. Whenever the German guns fired they recorded the direction of where the flashes appeared. By cross referencing readings from several spotters, officers were able to calculate the position of the gun that generated the flash and plot it on the map.
Breakthrough Technology - Sound Ranging
The greatest technological breakthrough at Vimy was auditory. It came from Colonel Andrew McNaughton, a McGill University Engineering Professor. Perhaps due to his eccentricity – McNaughton kept a lion cub as a personal mascot – the British General Staff dismissed his idea to use sound waves to determine the location of German guns.
Byng and Currie however embraced McNaughton’s novel “sound ranging” theory. McNaughton set up a series of listening posts from front line trenches to positions further back on Canadian-held territory.
Microphones captured the strength and direction of sound waves created by German artillery fire. By comparing the measurements from different listening posts, McNaughton’s team was able to determine the type of gun being fired and its location within a 25 yard radius. Perhaps most impressive of all was how fast they could get the job done. Without the help of computers or even calculators, they delivered the location coordinates in just three and a half minutes.
A Long List of Targets
The extensive reconnaissance effort gave the Canadian troops a long list of targets – 213 German artillery positions. The success of the battle would hinge on the Canadians’ ability to eliminate them.
In 1917, artillery targeting was a hit and miss enterprise, with misses being the norm. Even today wind and weather conditions can interfere with shell trajectory. Adjustments need to be made to hit targets.
For the big guns at Vimy to be effective, they needed real time feedback. They looked up for help.
Help from the Sky
Canadian aircraft patrolled the skies over Vimy and watched as shells rained down on German positions. They reported results back to the artillery units on the ground so they could refine their aim.
The standard air-to-ground communication method of the day was for pilots or airborne scouts to drop messages which had to be retrieved by runners. It was a time-consuming and inefficient process. There was a significant delay before the artillery crew received the aerial feedback. It also required planes to constantly cycle back over the drop zone.
To solve these issues, the Canadian planes were equipped with wireless transmitters for reporting artillery target observations in real time. Results were received on the ground instantaneously, allowing for faster artillery retargeting. It was one of the first airborne uses of wireless technology.
Voice communication over two-way radio was not available, so all reports were made using the dots and dashes of Morse code. The planes had only enough horsepower to accommodate the weight of a telegraph transmitter, but not a receiver. So communication was limited to one way.
The Difference Between Victory & Defeat
The painstaking effort to locate and eliminate German artillery and machine gun positions was a great success. 176 of the 213 targets were destroyed. The success rate was 83%.
This result saved thousands of lives and made the Canadian triumph at Vimy possible.
Some Technology Didn’t Work
Many of the new technologies deployed at Vimy were extremely successful. Others were not. The most blatant example was the tank.
The British introduced the tank as a secret weapon at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. At Vimy, the Canadian Corps was assigned a complement of six tanks.
The battle plan called for the tanks to drive up the Vimy hillside and take over German defensive positions on the far side of the ridge. But they got bogged down in the mud. They got no further than no man’s land and were easy sitting duck targets for German defenders.
Every Contribution Counts
Although the tanks didn’t achieve their battle plan objectives, they did draw fire away from advancing foot soldiers. This was just a small contribution. But in every major endeavour – whether in combat or in business – every little bit helps.
At Vimy, countless small contributions made monumental achievement possible.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was Canada’s Greatest Victory.
The technology environment of 2017 is very different from 1917. But the fundamental issues around technology are timeless. Here are some Vimy-inspired questions for you to ponder.
Are you open to new ways of doing standard tasks?
At Vimy, the Canadian Corps used old fashioned kite balloons and new fangled aircraft for aerial reconnaissance. Is there an area in your business where you can cover your bases with existing technology and see what’s possible by embracing something new?
The Number 106 Fuse was an important innovation for the Canadian troops at Vimy. It came from enhancing a single component of a common device. What shortcomings are you dealing with in the products, technologies or business processes that you rely on? Is there one thing you could improve to create a much better result?
The Canadian Corps took a “both and” rather than an “either or” approach to technology. To determine the location of enemy gun positions they employed both Flash Spotting and Sound Ranging. Do you have a “both and” of an “either or” attitude towards technology?
The Canadian Corps made a big breakthrough by uniting aerial surveillance with wireless telegraphy. What existing technologies can you combine to create your own breakthrough?
Thank you for giving attention to this article and the amazing story of Vimy Ridge. If you missed the earlier articles in this series on Canada’s Greatest Victory, here are links to Leadership Lessons and Teamwork & Training.
This series of articles is dedicated to the Canadian soldiers of WW1 and specifically to Lance Corporal Walter Mathews Oliver of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, my Grandfather, who fought for Canada at Vimy and was wounded in the battle of April 9, 1917.