Vimy Ridge Innovation & Leadership Lessons for Today

This article on the Leadership Lessons of Vimy Ridge falls outside of my usual branding sphere.  But I think you’ll find the story valuable and compelling.  It certainly is for me.

Because of my Grandfather’s influence I’ve had a vague awareness of Vimy since I was a boy.  I knew it was a famous First World War victory for Canada, but not much more.  As I’ve delved into the details I’ve discovered a story of bold innovation, meticulous planning, united effort and undaunted courage.

Where Canada Became Canada

Lance Corporal Walter Mathews Oliver Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry

Lance Corporal Walter Mathews Oliver
Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry

Historians and politicians tell us that Vimy was a coming of age event for Canada.  Canada became Canada at Vimy Ridge.  If that’s true, it’s a story all Canadians need to know.  If you agree, you may wish to forward this article or other Vimy content to friends, family and colleagues.

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.

I hope this article helps you understand the magnitude of the Canadian victory at Vimy, gives you a deeper appreciation for the officers and soldiers of the battle and provides useful insight for your career and business.


Canada's Greatest Victory

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest battles and the greatest events in Canadian history.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force's triumph at Vimy Ridge was one of the swiftest, most decisive and unexpected battle victories of the First World War.

Success in Hours after Years of Defeat

In a matter of hours Canadian troops achieved what the French and British armies were unable to in two and a half years of fighting.  They drove the Germans from one of the most heavily defended positions on the western front.

Fighting together for the first time as a single unit, the Canadian Forces captured the strategic high point of Vimy Ridge, a five mile long, 500 foot high escarpment that was vital to controlling the coal fields of northern France.

An Inspiring Example for Today

The Vimy victory was a monumental achievement in the face of overwhelming odds.  But it’s more than just a shining event of the past.  It’s also an inspiring example for today.

Your circumstances are undoubtedly very different from those of the Canadian army of 1917.  But the core principles of how to accomplish a colossal endeavour are timeless.

The Vimy story offers valuable insights into leadership, teamwork, training and innovation that are relevant for every business in 2017.

The Cost of Victory on the Ridge of Death

As with any military battle, victory was very costly.  3,600 Canadian soldiers lost their lives.  Another 7,000 were wounded.  Although tragic, these casualty figures are remarkable for being so few in number.

Vimy had seen intense fighting throughout the war.  In repeated attempts to take the ridge, the French only ever realized temporary gains and suffered 150,000 casualties.  On the German side, there were another 140,000 casualties.  These severe losses earned Vimy the French nickname la butte de la mort, the ridge of death.

What Made the Canadian Troops Successful?

Why was Vimy so different from the typical Great War battle that dragged on for months and resulted in catastrophic losses with only tiny territorial gains if any at all?

Why were the Canadians victorious on the same battlefield where the French had suffered defeat after defeat?

A Radical Battle Plan

Success at Vimy came from an amazing level of innovation.  Canadian army commanders refused to follow the familiar patterns of past battles.  They would not wage war as usual.

Instead they designed and executed a battle plan that was radically different from any previous offensive.

New Thinking, New Tactics, New Technology

They adopted a new combat philosophy, implemented daring field tactics, leveraged new technology and embraced a revolutionary command structure.  In the process they created the modern model of warfare, which is still in use today.

Visionary Leadership

The groundwork for the Vimy victory was laid by two visionary leaders, Canadian Corps Commander Julian Byng and Major General Arthur Currie.  They began their planning work in the late fall of 1916.

Currie was a rarity in military leadership.  He had worked his way up through the ranks from lowly militia gunner, and was Canadian-born.  Byng was not a Canadian, at least not yet.  Three years after the war he became the highest ranking of all Canadians, serving as the country’s 12th Governor General.

A lifelong military man of noble birth, Byng came from a long family line of army generals that dated back 150 years.  He began his army career at age 17 and graduated from a leading military college.  He had a distinguished service record from postings in Sudan, India, South Africa, Egypt and the Dardanelles.

An Approachable Aristocrat

Byng was a high ranking British aristocrat with close ties to the Royal Family, but he was not a cold or distant commander.  He was refreshingly approachable and demonstrated a genuine concern for soldiers under his command.  He won the heartfelt admiration of Canadian troops who proudly identified themselves as “Byng’s Boys.”

Open to New Ideas

Despite his military bloodline, academic training and decades of combat experience, Byng was remarkably open to new ideas, even if it meant going against the prevailing wisdom of the day.

Byng and Currie rejected the war of attrition doctrine that saw combat as a pure numbers game where victory came to the side that threw the most men into battle.

They refused to perpetuate the senseless slaughter of previous battles where soldiers were ordered to march in tight formations right into the firing line of 500-round-per-minute machine gun batteries.  At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, this approach resulted in 57,000 British casualties in the first half hour of fighting.

Victory through Artillery

Byng and Currie were committed to make Vimy a very different type of battle.  They wanted to accomplish something that had never been done before, to pay the price of victory with artillery shells rather than men’s lives.

It was certainly a noble goal.  But given the results of earlier battles and the technology of the day it was a highly ambitious and perhaps unrealistic aim.  It would require significant improvements in identifying and hitting enemy targets and a new level of orchestration between artillery fire and infantry advance.

New technology was needed and new techniques would have to be perfected.  Learning would be vital.  So in the fall of 1916 Currie went on a fact-finding mission to interview British and French officers to learn what had worked and what hadn’t at the battles of the Somme and Verdun.

Thorough Preparation - Neglect Nothing

While on that trip Currie jotted in his notebook what proved to be the guiding philosophy for the Vimy battle plan.  He wrote: Thorough preparation must lead to success – neglect nothing.

A New Command Model

Byng and Currie scrapped the traditional command and control leadership model that treated soldiers as little more than human tools.  British Army training manuals of the day instructed soldiers to “instinctively obey orders without thinking.”  Their only job was to do as they were told.

In this top-down approach, battlefield objectives were only divulged to a select group of officers.  Rank and file soldiers were kept in the dark.  If anything happened to their unit leaders during combat, which was a common occurrence, the soldiers were left to drift aimlessly across the battlefield.

Making Soldiers Fully Informed & Fully Engaged

Byng and Currie refused to put their troops in this position.  They didn’t want an army of mindless pawns, but a fighting force that was fully informed and fully engaged.  So they took the extraordinary step of explaining the platoon mission to every soldier weeks in advance of the actual battle and walking them through the assignment on a full scale replica of the actual battlefield.

Every soldier knew which enemy bunker they had to capture, where it was located, how far it was from Canadian trenches, what route to travel and what obstacles they were likely to encounter along the way.  The soldiers learned every detail of the coming battle, except the date when it would take place.

Another Unprecedented Step

Byng and Currie took another unprecedented step.  In a war where maps were top secret documents only to be seen by high ranking officers, they printed 40,000 maps and gave one to every soldier.  At Vimy every soldier knew his mission and every soldier had a map.

Inspiring Leadership

The Canadian victory at Vimy started at the leadership level.  Byng and Currie were willing to break free from out-of-date thinking, embrace new ideas, learn from the successes and failures of others, and set up their people for success.

The next article in this series will explore the Teamwork & Training lessons of the Vimy victory.


Leadership Questions

Here are some Vimy-inspired questions to help you grow as a leader.

Are you open to new ideas?

What’s your best new idea of the past six months?

Is your company engrained in an old pattern of thought that could be undermining its future?

When was the last time you introduced a bold new strategy?

If you adopted Arthur Currie’s Neglect Nothing philosophy, what area of your business would you focus on first?

Think about the last six months.  What successful actions do you want to repeat?  What problem areas do you want to fix?

What do you need to do, to set your team up for success?

Does every team member have a clear view of the objective?  Does every team member have a map to get there?