BEING SOME REMINISCENCES OF A CANADIAN PARTICIPANT.
While the actual battle of Vimy Ridge took place during the second week of April, 1917, there was naturally a noticeable atmosphere of preparation for some three months previous to the actual main attack which of course took place on April 9th, 1917, Easter Monday. There were also other smaller actions that took place during the period of preparation for the main attack.
A big raid into the German lines by two battalions on a Brigade front was planned. The "raid" was to be combined with a gas attack in which Chlorine Gas was to be used. Preparations went along the front line trench of the front held by the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade of which our own battalion, the 102nd North British Columbians were a part. Cylinders of Chlorine Gas were placed in groups of three along the firing steps of the front line trench. The gas was to be fed over the parapet into no man's land through short lengths of hose that were attached to each cylinder. A steady, gentle wind blowing directly into enemy lines was necessary to ensure that the gas would reach it's target effectively. Too strong a wind would disintegrate it and blow it away.
Our own Battalion was not one of those chosen to make the attack. That was once that we were more than lucky, so we and the 87th Infantry Battalion of Montreal were at rest billets just behind the line. The Battalions chosen were the 54th Kootenay and the 75th Toronto Battalions. It was known as the March 1st Gas Raid. When the time planned for the raid arrived, wind conditions were unfavourable so it was postponed for three days. At the end of the time the weather was still unfavourable, so a further delay of two days was made. When the third time set arrived, the weather was terrible. The wind was blowing very strongly right into our own lines! The Army Brass ruled however that the attack must go as planned irrespective of what happened.
The Colonels of the attacking Battalions were reported as protesting the ruling most vehemently but the Army Brass was adamant in their stand.
Col. Kimball of the 54th Infantry Battalion in deliberate defiance of orders to the contrary, went "over the top" with his men and shared their fate! His body was later found in the "barbed-wire".
The German staff knew all about the impending attack and were sitting waiting for it. The gas was turned on prior to the start of the artillary barrage and the men stood in it in their gas masks. Most of them were cut down as soon as they started out. The enemy had his artillary and Machine guns concentrated on that piece of frontage. Our own lines got all the gas, the front trenches were saturated with it. Col. Kimballs conduct was the essence of Valor but unfortunately that is not the type that wins Official Citations,
Come my sons aye come,
The Battle dawn in nigh
And the screaming crump and thundering drum
Are calling thee to die!
Fight as thy Fathers fought
Fall as thy Fathers fell,
Thy task is taught, thy shroud is wrought
So Forward! and Farewell.
One could almost think the writer of those lines had been there.
Needless to say, our men were wiped out. What had happened was tragic indeed. The whole front area was in such a state that a 36 hour cease fire had to be arranged to get it cleaned up. Our own Battalion received a "hurry-up" call and we moved right up to clean up the mess. We worked night and day on burial parties and even traded dead with the German burial parties too. Such is War!
After the attack it was claimed that the tragic results were not due to faulty staff work but were caused by the front lines being too far apart? Steps were taken to have a new front line trench dug along the Ridge. The new trench ran right up close to the German front line. The Army Engineers sent an officer up to supervise the putting in of the new trench. This officer was a huge man of about 6 ft. 5 or 6 ins. in height and correspondingly broad of build. We called him the "Mad Major". The position of the new trench was marked out on the ground at night with "Brand new white tape about two inches wide" which was pinned to the ground with wire staples. The rough outline of the fire-bays were shown in the diagram. That white tape stretched as far as we could see and at night it seemed to glistenas it wove in and out of the German barbed wire. There was no immediate move made to dig the trench. That white diagram was left there for forty-eight hours for Fritz to sit and look at and draw his own conclusions, to say nothing of preparing to deal with whatever was the sequel to its being there. Needless to say he made the most of his time and very thoroughly as we soon found out.
When the seeming lethargy of our staff had run its course, men of the various units were given picks and shovels, lined up at top of the Ridge and told to dig. All Hell broke loose! The Germans promptly put a Box Barrage of high explosives all round us to keep us in and reinforcements out while they went to work to clean up on those of us who were inside the Barrage or Curtain of Fire. Luckily for me, I was detailed to work with the scouts. We lay out ahead of the diggers in shell holes or the remnants of trenches of other days. We had bags o f hand grenades and were supposed to protect the diggers from direct attack. Fritz had no need to attack, all he had to do was mow the boys down with machine-gun fire which he surely did as fat as they stood up and when others replaced their comrades he did it again.
The huge Engineer Officer was running up and down the front shouting and cursing and urging on the digging operations. One minute he would be at his full height, hand open, arms outstretched pleading with the Boys to Dig—Dig! The next he would be crouched, arms bent, fists closed shouting and cursing at the Boys to Dig - Dig - Dig! He looked as big as a house and I have no doubt felt even bigger. How anyone could continuously run up and down the front yelling, cursing and waving his arms and live while scores were being mown down all round him is one of the miracles of War! At dawn they had the trench down a scant waist deep in places. No men had ever worked harder but everywhere was littered with dead and wounded. It had been a terrible night!
They were gradually managing to get some of the wounded out along the shallow depressions left by trenches of former days. As they got the trench down a bit the casualities eased off a little but Fritz did not ease of in what he was pouring into us. He brought up more trench mortars totry and knock us out. Some of the heavy motar-shells were called "Rum-jars". They came in varying lengths from 2 ft. to about 3 ft. 6 inches and were about 12 inches in diameter. They had a time fuse at one end and a very heavy explosive charge for moral effect. They were filled with all manner of scrap-iron. Just about everything. You could hear them coming through the air swish, swish, swish and you could see the time fuse sputtering as it went end over end with the mortar shell in flight. Any that appeared tob e close overhead, you naturally figured were going to land on you! We of the Scouts would cry out a warning to the diggers when we thought any of the Mortars were going to land near them. During one night my partner and I yelled out such a warning to the diggers behind us, "This is It Boys! And he and I attempted to drop back to flop around a jog int he new trench but the Rum-jar literally exploded in our faces. It seemed as if the earth must have exploded, the concussion was terrific and felt as if it was tearing us apart. All I could see was fire, nothing but fire and we were in the middle of it.
When we came to again, the boys had dug us out and were holding us against the side of the trench. We had taken the full force of the explosion and concussion but the boys each side of us had got all the shrapnel for it killed five and wounded seven more. We went back to our shell hole to carry on. Later on that night just as the first streaks of dawn were beginning to creep across the sky, the ground under and around us started to rock. You could see the tremors running in waves just like water when a stone is thrown into it. We had time for quite a look around between the initial tremors and the actual explosion though I know it must sound incredible. It seemed for all the world as if there must be scores of giant moles at work under the surface. I remember yelling to my partner "He's blowing the Ridge"! Then the ground opened under us and we went hurtling through the air. When we picked ourselves up, where our shell hole had been was now a huge crater 40 to 50 feet across it and in what seemed like no time at all there was machine guns on opposite lips of it, German and Canadian. They were so busy with what they were doing fortunately that they did not appear to notice us as we crept back to safety. We were both b adly shaken up having taken two lots in one night and I lost the use of my left arm for quite awhile, about two weeks, from heavy bruises of the shoulder and upper arm.
After several days of that stuff they finally sent us back for a day or two to rest up ready for the big attack. Those of us that had put in the new line did not go over in the attacking waves on Vimy. They figured we had done our show but we were right up front just the same. We moved back up to the font line the night before the big attack and stayed the night in the tunnels under the Ridge. We had to walk through water up to our hips to get past the support line which was "music-hall Trench". It was not usually that way but just happened to be so at that time unfortunately. That meant that attacking troops going in on that line had to wade through that water and then stand all through the cold night in the jumping-off trenches soaking wet, loaded like mules with full battle-kit, extra ammunition, hand grenades, etc. packed like sardines, packed tight one against another waiting and watching for dawn and"zero hour" then "over the top"and God knows what!
Twas Easter Monday morning the barrage-curtain fell
And turned the whole of Vimy Ridge into one exploding hell!
The Boys had stood the long night through with bombs and battle gear
Watching there for dawns first streak to tell them "Zero's here!"
Then on they charged for the "Red-line past Petit-Vimy's Wood
Bathed in the glare of exploding shells but some were bathed in Blood!
Wave after Wave of Canadian lads surged on down Vimy's slope
Back came the prisoners in hundreds dejected and lost of hope.
And stretcher-bearers were everywhere as all who were there will tell
All through the day, all through the night they toiled and worked like hell!
And from every slag-heap and every hill the snipers took thei toll
And Machine-guns chattered continuously from every Fosse and knoll.
Day on long day the Battle raged ‘mid biting wind and snow
Back and to the fighting swayed but the boys would not let go
Till at long last, the Victory won, the terrible price full paid
As mark the crosses row on row, where Vimy's Dead are laid.
With a thought for those we knew.
Artillery fire into the enemy lines had been continuous for three weeks prior to the attack. I do not believe there was any portion of that time when there were no shells streaming over our heads to their lines and back areas. Most of it must have been pretty big stuff as we did not hear the guns much, just the shells whistling overhead.
The first attacking waves went over about 5 a.m. on Monday, April 9th, 1917. The creeping-barrage of shell fire that moved ahead of them was terrific but so was the shell-fire coming our way. My partner and I went over with the next wave and started organizing working and stretcher parties of prisoners, getting the wounded down to the dressing stations in the tunnels under the Ridge, helping the walking wounded and marking the location of the more seriously wounded by sticking rigles into the ground by the bayonet. German Red Cross men worked with our own.
It is not an easy thing to go around among your friends of the day before lying there face up and in all manner of grotesque shapes. It is not a thing you soon forget. The only good thing I know to come out of War is learning how much better than you the other fellow is.
That Easter Monday and the succeeding days developed into cold bleak days with considerable snow. When we took out stretcher parties with wounded we would look around for sacks of rations and take them in and spread them among the boys holding the line. Food rations accumulate behind the line during an attack but they invariably get awful short in the forward positions. On one of our trips we stopped to watch Fritz blowing up the coal-mines in his back areas. My partner suddenly crumpled and fell at my feet, shot over the heart by a sniper. We got him to the dressing station, we did not think his chances were very good but later reports seemed to suggest that he had managed to pull through and make it back to Canada.
After five days of attacking, counter attacking and digging in, our battalion was relieved by a British regiment. We made our way back to rest-billets. We did not stop for eats or anything else, we just hit the blankets! but next morning about eleven a.m. we had dinner in our blankets. Y es Sir! we had dinner in bed and some of the boys cried a little they couldn't take that sort of thing and what a dinner it was. The cooks had sure got hold of all the rations for the meal and what was more, they had sure put in a lot of work to make the very best use of it all. "It was a Wonderful Meal". By God, we could have kissed the dirty old cooks that day! The cooks were always dirty. They couldn't be anything else, but they were a real bunch of white men all the way through.