A town that gave too much, a battalion that fought too hard, and a nation that lost too many sons
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the National Post tells some of the incredible stories from the legendary battle, in collaboration with the Vimy Foundation and drawing on the resources of Ancestry, which has extensive military and historical records.
Death by ranks
More than 3,500 Canadian soldiers died at the battle of Vimy Ridge and most of them were brave, but ordinary men: 2,641 privates were killed, compared with 150 Sergeants and 143 Lance Corporals.
Although a soldier’s rank was definitive, many in the Great War often performed the duties expected of those of higher rank, because of the casualties of officers. And while the heaviest battalion losses were of privates and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), there were also a number of King-appointed officers, such as Lieutenants and Majors, who died at Vimy.
The military strategy employed during the battle consisted of the use of heavy machine guns and a slow progression by troops on foot. It was a strategy that lent itself to mass casualties.
In addition to high death rates, Vimy was also an intensely laborious war, with soldiers traversing many kilometres on foot, digging trenches and carrying shovels and supplies—when enough rations were available. — Daniel Melfi
A four-day battle won, but a generation lost
The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) officially required that men be between 19 and 45 years to serve in the First World War, and the average age of enlistees was 26.7. But according to historical records, 2o was the most common age of those killed at the battle of Vimy Ridge.
Every Canadian man signing up with the CEF to serve in the War had to first sign an Attestation Paper. This document asked for a range of details from the enlistee, such as place of birth, age, physical description and next of kin. Many of these documents survive today and provide a glimpse of the youthful men who served — and died — at Vimy. Of the nearly 2,500 Canadian soldiers killed at Vimy who listed a next of kin, the vast majority (958) listed their father or mother (790) as their immediate contact. Only 396 listed a wife.
Many of these young men were interested in the $1.10-a-day wage and journey to foreign lands. Canada saw 20,000 soldiers lie about their age. Desperate for soldiers for the frontline, officials turned a blind eye to young boys trying to enlist. By the end of the war, it is estimated more than 2,000 underage soldiers died, many buried under the false names they used to enlist. — Daniel Melfi
Pacifists be damned— or jailed
Men across Canada were ridiculed for not enlisting in the First World War. Posters read, “Your chums are fighting, why aren’t you?”
Although many took up arms for Canada voluntarily, the issue of conscription was hotly debated. With the number of casualties, troop numbers eventually dropped, even with widened medical parameters like allowing people less than five-feet tall to enlist. As a result, Prime Minister Robert Borden enacted conscription through the Military Service Act in 1917 until the end of the war.
The War Museum of Canada says that while the MSA allowed objection on the grounds of religion, many practicing men sought refuge from the war as farmers instead; that was easier to explain, and all farmers were exempted of service without question.
The societal tendency of the time was to suggest men were “lazy,” “unpatriotic” or even “pro-German” if they declared themselves opposed to violence. Some were even jailed for their open pacifism; by the time the armistice was signed, 34 men were imprisoned in Canada for being conscientious objectors.
“I think they should be sent to the Front,” read letters from some prison wardens, such as J.H. Rivers, to Canada’s Deputy Minister of Justice. “Please stop any more of this Kind from coming to a respectable jail,” he said of the objectors. Eventually, the government outlined a specific group of religious objectors — Mennonites, Quakers and other peace-oriented churches — to be granted conscientious objector status. — Daniel Melfi
Gung-ho Americans ready to rumble
Although the United States didn’t officially join the war until April 6, 1917, Canada was accepting the help of Americans long before then. The most notable and often overlooked contribution of the Americans was through the 97th Battalion, also known as the American Legion.
They wore a unique crest fitted with the Canadian Maple Leaf and the Washington family coat of arms.
The American Legion was formed on Dec. 22, 1915, through the authorization of King George V. But issues with the U.S. neutrality policy meant the battalion of American troops was initially halted when they arrived in Halifax to embark for the overseas journey. Resolving the problem by eliminating the “American” aspect of the legion’s name, more than 800 soldiers arrived in England on Sept. 25, 1916, and were absorbed by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Infantry Light Depot, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the 4th Pioneer Battalion.
A specific charter was created by the British monarchy stating the temporary nature of the service of the soldiers. Upon America’s official entrance in the war, many of the U.S. soldiers immediately joined their American counterparts. — Daniel Melfi
The high cost of becoming Canadian
By the time the First World War began, many new immigrants to Canada did not have the right to vote and were turned away when they tried to enlist.
This was especially true for the Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia. So, many headed east, over the Rockies, for a better chance of acceptance. A number joined the 50th Battalion in Alberta after being denied in B.C. Prior to conscription in 1917, some Japanese-Canadian soldiers even paid for their initial military training. By the end of the war, there were 222 Japanese-Canadian soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
Similar experiences were faced by soldiers from Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Greece and Assyria fighting alongside the Canadian forces at Vimy Ridge. They were considered a secondary option by the CEF at enlisting stations.
For some, the treatment only intensified after the conclusion of the First World War. After returning home from service, racial tensions resulted in the internment of Japanese, German and Ukrainian-Canadians — including veterans who had fought for Canada. Some soldiers were even repatriated to their birth nations during the 1940s, before incredibly returning to Canada to serve in the army once again. —Daniel Melfi
The brave and deadly 87th: Canadian Grenadier Guards
The 87th Battalion, or the Canadian Grenadier Guards, suffered one of the highest casualty rates at Vimy Ridge. Mobilized in Montreal, and recruiting in Canada’s eastern towns, the battalion landed in England with almost 1,100 soldiers.
Represented largely by Quebecois, the 87th Battalion also hosted soldiers from each province, even drawing on soldiers from as far as Australia and Russia.
Whilst the battalion arrived on the ground in France in August, 1916, it was the battle of Vimy Ridge that would be its defining moment, both in ground gained as well as human loss.
The 87th was a tactically well-versed battalion, and was part of the Canadian corps that pioneered the distribution of maps to all soldiers. The 87th fought alongside the 7th and 102nd battalions on the first day of battle at Vimy, as part of the 11th Canadian Brigade. As the first wave of Canadians tried to take control of “The Pimple,” the 87th battalion suffered heavy fire. The assaulting company was wiped out in six minutes with 60 per cent killed in action. Taking control of at least one trench, and a number of German prisoners, the soldiers were battling “wet and cold” weather conditions, according to the war diary of Major Harold LeRoy Shaw. — Daniel Melfi
The birthday boys
William James Wight was born on April 9, 1892. It is an unremarkable birthdate accept for a remarkably tragic coincidence of history: On April 9th, 1917, on what would have been his 25th birthday, Wight, a carpenter by trade, was killed at Vimy. His younger brother, Samuel, was killed the week before. Army recruiters initially turned Wight away at the enlistment office near his home in Renfrew, Ont. — for being too short. (He only stood 5-foot-2). Undeterred, he tried to enlist again, elsewhere, and got in and then died – about a year after being sent overseas.
Wight wasn’t the only Canadian at Vimy to die on his birthday. James Dell, 20; Ernest Hall, 21; George McMurray, 22; Thomas Rooney, 26; Harry Westra, 27 and Evaren Wright, 21, all likewise fell at Vimy on their birthdays. In another place, and another time, the dead men would have had a party. — Joe O’Connor
The New Brunswick town that gave too much
On Dec. 13, 1915, James H. Frink, the mayor of Saint John, N.B., replied to a letter from A.A. Andrew, Esq., of Campbellton. Mayor Fink praised Andrew — and the town of 3,817 where he was from — for a $2,404.58 donation, collected on behalf of the “Belgian Relief Fund.” He also noted that Campbellton, “according to population, has contributed more men for overseas service than any other city or town in New Brunswick…”
Many of those men fought with the 87th battalion in France, a unit that suffered massive casualties at Vimy. A stretch of enemy trench the 87thwas assigned to take wasn’t destroyed during the Canadian Corps massive, pre-assault bombardment. The Germans were ready. And, in the days after Vimy, the reckoning rolled in, as New Brunswick’s most patriotic town got word that 12 of its sons died in the battle. — Joe O’Connor
Originally published on The National Post