April 9th marks the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Greatest Victory. This article explores the ground-breaking Teamwork and Training approach that led to success at Vimy Ridge.
Canada’s monumental victory at Vimy Ridge was driven by a revolutionary approach to teamwork and training that was unique in the military world of 1917.
The inventive leaders of the Canadian Army at Vimy, Lieutenant General Julian Byng and Major General Arthur Currie, took unprecedented steps in preparing the troops for battle.
Innovative Strategy & Painstaking Tactics
They created an amazingly innovative battle strategy and a painstaking tactical plan that was directed by Currie’s philosophy: Thorough preparation must lead to success – neglect nothing. (Read more about the Leadership Lessons of Vimy in Part 1 of this series)
For the first time ever, every soldier was briefed on his section’s specific battlefield objectives and every soldier was given a map. The Canadian troops were fully engaged and fully informed.
Smaller Battlefield Units
Byng and Currie revolutionized the infantry’s organizational structure by breaking it down into much smaller groups. In the British model the smallest battlefield unit was the platoon. Byng and Currie divided the platoon into sections that were a quarter of the size. Each section was comprised of roughly 10 men each.
It was much easier to manage and communicate with a small section in the heat of battle. Sections were more nimble and responsive, and allowed battle plans to be more precise and detailed.
Each section had specific objectives, but was given some latitude as to how to achieve them. They could adapt their tactics based on the conditions they encountered. They operated as self-directed teams rather than rule-bound soldiers in a large organization.
Cross Functional Teams
In carving platoons into smaller sections, Byng and Currie also did away with specialist units for machine gunners and hand grenade and explosives specialists, known as bombers. They placed a machine gunner and a bomber in every section so that these skills could be immediately deployed as they were needed. This enabled the infantry to use fire and move tactics to great effect.
The Model of Modern Warfare
Reducing the size of battlefield units and creating cross-functional teams may seem somewhat elementary today. But in 1917 it was a radical change. These smaller sections are the model of modern warfare today, 100 years later. It is an enduring innovation from Vimy Ridge.
New Tactical Position
Byng and Currie also created a new battlefield assignment to solve a problem that had plagued the British.
In earlier battles British infantry charges would often stall immediately after taking a German trench line. Once the British soldiers passed the line, undetected enemy soldiers would emerge from their dugouts and shoot them in the back.
Moppers up would solve this issue. As troops advanced past a trench line, the moppers up would remain stationed at the trench to make sure no enemy snipers popped up. The advancing infantry could focus on what was ahead, knowing that the moppers up had their backs.
History’s Most Rehearsed Battle
Before any Canadian soldiers crossed enemy lines on April 9, 1917 they had practiced their attack countless times before. Miles from the front, Byng and Currie constructed a full scale replica of the battlefield. Flags and tape marked the exact locations of German bunkers, trenches, gun batteries and barbed wire.
Canadian troops spent weeks on the training site walking through their assignments over and over again. They weren’t just told what enemy position to attack, they physically marched to those locations on the training grounds so that they could visualize how far they would have to travel and know the obstacles in the way.
The soldiers became crystal clear on their assignments. Vimy was the most rehearsed battle of all time.
Don’t Walk or Run, but Glide
At the replica site the soldiers were painstakingly trained in how they were to advance across the battlefield. There was to be no running or moving in fits and starts. Instead, every soldier was to maintain a measured steady march at the precise pace of 100 yards every three minutes. No faster and no slower. It would be essential to their safety and success.
Soldiers practiced again and again until the speed of 100 yards every three minutes was grilled into their muscle memory. This slow and steady march became known as the Vimy Glide.
A Daring Battlefield Tactic
The Vimy Glide was a key component of the creeping barrage, a daring tactic that British forces introduced at the Battle of the Somme, but had realized only limited success. Thanks to extremely thorough training, the Canadians perfected it at Vimy.
Standard battlefield practice of the day was to shell enemy positions immediately before an infantry assault. During the artillery barrage enemy forces hunkered down in their trenches for safety. As soon as the shelling stopped, the infantry charge began. Enemy soldiers immediately resurfaced and started firing on the advancing infantry.
In the typical Great War battle, huge numbers of foot soldiers were killed or wounded during this phase of the assault.
The Creeping Barrage
Byng and Currie wanted to eliminate the gap between the end of the shelling and the arrival of the infantry. They turned to the creeping barrage.
In a creeping barrage, artillery fire and the infantry advance are tightly choreographed, occurring in unison. The artillery fire lands slightly in front of the infantry. In the Vimy battle, the artillery would fire for three minutes. Then the guns would be retargeted to 100 yards farther down the battlefield. By gliding 100 yards every three minutes, the soldiers were under the continuous protection of artillery cover.
Dictate the Pace of Battle?
In the actual battle the creeping barrage eliminated one of the inherent defensive advantages of trench warfare. It allowed the Canadian troops to advance across the battlefield in relative safety. It dramatically reduced the casualty rate and allowed the Canadians to do the unthinkable, to dictate the pace of the battle.
This notion was scoffed at by the British and French High Command when they reviewed the Vimy battle plan. They had serious doubts about the ambitious timeline for when each of the four lines of German defenses would be conquered. The Canadian troops were scheduled to control the first line a little more than a hour after the assault began. They were to take the fourth and final line in just under eight hours.
On the day of the battle the attack proceeded like clockwork. The infantry glided across the battlefield under the cover of the creeping barrage. Eight hours after the assault began three of Canada’s four divisions had reached their final assigned positions. The advance of the fourth division stalled, but reinforcements drove the Germans from their last remaining Vimy foothold on April 12th.
All of the planning, teamwork and training led to a colossal victory.
The final article in the Vimy series will look at the vital role that technology played in Canada’s Greatest Victory.
Teamwork & Training Questions
Here are some Vimy-inspired questions to help you refine your company’s teamwork and training.
Are your teams the right size? Are they large enough to be effective and still small enough to be responsive?
Do your teams have quick access to all the skill sets they need to be successful?
Do your people have all the training they need? Do they know exactly what the battleground looks like before they have to step onto it? Are the skills that they need engrained into their thinking and experience?
How well do your people understand what they need to accomplish? Are their goals vague and fuzzy or crystal clear and tangible?
What can you do to foster greater goal clarity?
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.