ILLUSTRATIONS: Sharif Tarabay
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, which historian George Nasmith called “probably the most brilliant success of the war” on the British front, was sandwiched between the actions of two other feats in the spring of 1917 for which Canadians earned the Victoria Cross.
Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey was decorated with the VC for “most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” for leading a cavalry charge on the village of Guyencourt, France, on March 27, 1917.
On May 3, about three weeks after the Vimy victory, Robert Grierson Combe was instrumental in heading up the capture of 250 yards of trench in which 80 Germans were taken prisoner. The action at Acheville, France, earned Combe the VC, but also cost him his life.
Born at Athboy, Ireland, Harvey was the son of a minister. He attended Portora Royal School and came to Canada in 1908. He settled in Fort Macleod, Alta., and when World War I started he joined the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, part of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which by 1915 was serving with the British 15th Army Corps in France.
In March 1917, the brigade received orders to form up on a 12-mile front with Nurin as its central focal point and advance beyond the British infantry positions. By March 27, units of the brigade had occupied the villages of Logavesnes and Lieramount.
The final objective of the Fort Garry Horse and Strathconas was the high ground around the village of Guyencourt and the Grebaussart Wood. The attack was delayed until 5:15 p.m. by a heavy snowstorm, but as soon as it let up, the Fort Garrys galloped up Hill 140 where they set up a pair of machine-gun posts. They then rode around the hill in the Grebaussart Wood, Jean Copse and Chauffeur Wood, overcoming all resistance, and setting up three more machine-guns. Then, as the cavalrymen charged into the outskirts of the town of Saulcourt, the Germans fled and in the process were caught in the Canadian machine-gun crossfire. The scene was now set for the Strathconas to deliver the coup de grâce.
With Guyencourt in full view, the horses charged onto the ridge on the left and in front of the town where an enemy trench protected it with three rows of barbed wire. The Germans ran forward and opened fire with rifles and machine-guns inflicting heavy casualties on the Strathconas, who were forced to seek shelter at the walls in the northwest corner of the village.
Harvey, who commanded the leading troop of the regiment, riding well ahead of his men became the prime target for a machine-gun firing from a trench protected by barbed wire which threatened to wipe out the company. Harvey dismounted, dashed forward and hurdled the triple-wire entanglement. Firing his revolver on the run he shot the German gunner dead. As a result of his action, the Strathconas were able to occupy the trench and capture the town.
After the war, Harvey returned to Canada and lived in Calgary. In 1938, he assumed command of Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Later he was promoted brigadier and commanded Military District 13 in Calgary. He retired from the military in 1946 and held the rank of honorary colonel of the Strathconas from 1950-66.
Harvey died in August 1980 and was buried at Fort Macleod. On Sept. 13, his regiment held a memorial service at St. Stephens Church in Calgary.
Combe was born on Aug. 5, 1880 in Aberdeen, Scotland, where he attended Aberdeen Grammar School and served his apprenticeship in pharmacy. He came to Canada around 1906 and joined the staff of a drugstore in Moosomin, Sask. He later opened his own pharmacy in Melville, Sask. He ran the store until 1915 when he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was granted a commission in the 53rd Battalion at Prince Albert.
Proceeding overseas, he was promoted to major and placed on the instructional staff. But this was not Combe’s idea of how to fight a war so at his own request he reverted to the rank of lieutenant and applied for combat duty. He was transferred to the 27th Bn. (City of Winnipeg).
On May 3, 1917, his battalion was ordered to occupy the German trenches at the town of Acheville, three miles from the village of Vimy. The assault began between three and four in the morning, a time known to some North American Indian tribes as the “hour of the wolf”—a period of the day, so they believe, when the zest in the warrior reaches its zenith. It certainly applied to Combe that morning.
The Germans had anticipated an attack and so they laid down a heavy artillery barrage from which the 27th Bn. sustained casualties even before the troops went over the top.
As they began their advance, fierce enemy shelling blew gaps in their formations. Men collapsed by the dozens, torn to pieces by shrapnel or crushed by the weight of the earth falling down on them from exploding shells. By the time they reached a point 500 yards from the German lines, Combe was the only officer in his company still alive. With his unit in tatters, Combe, even with only five men left, was determined to press on. He pushed ahead through a frightful shelling. As the men neared the German position, they faced a new danger, an ironic one—a barrage from their own artillery. The situation was made worse by the fact that they could not get word back to the Canadian gun batteries.
But under Combe’s leadership, they persevered and reached the German trench, which they bombarded with hand-grenades. When their supply ran out they grabbed some of the enemy’s. A fierce bloody battle ensued. Combe was in the thick of it, leading his men around the trench corners and recesses. In the end, the tiny force took 80 Germans prisoner and captured 250 yards of trench. However, Combe did not live long to savour the victory. While rounding a corner of the trench, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.
The citation for his VC reads: “His conduct inspired all ranks, and it was entirely due to his magnificent courage that the position was carried, secured and held.”
A fellow officer wrote to his wife: “Would that we had more Bob Combes! He was a splendid comrade, a first-class officer of infinite charm, whose cheery outlook on life enriched every topic he touched. You would be a prouder woman still if you could have heard what officers and men alike said of him.”
Bob Combe has no known grave, but his name is inscribed on the Vimy Memorial.
Alpha and Omega
Valour at Vimy Ridge. The key to the successful attack and capture of the ridge lay in meticulous planning and preparation. The planned assault was laid out on a scale model, reproduced in great detail from aerial photographs. Troops were trained over a terrain that, with the use of coloured flags, simulated the ground over which they would advance. The attack itself would be preceded by about two weeks of very intense artillery fire.
On the evening of April 8, all Canadian units were in place. The following morning—in driving snow and sleet and under a barrage of artillery fire—four divisions of the Canadian Corps, acting in concert for the first time, began their assault on the ridge. By the time the battle was over, four days later, four Canadians had earned the VC: Thain Wendell MacDowell, Ellis Wellwood Sifton, William Johnstone Milne and John George Pattison.
MacDowell was born in Lachute, Que., on Sept. 16, 1890. Educated in Ontario at Maitland Public School and Brockville Collegiate Institute, he later attended the University of Toronto. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1914 and enlisted in the 41st Regiment (Brockville Rifles) and later transferred to the 38th Canadian Infantry Batallion in which he was given a commission and went overseas. During the Somme battles of 1916, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in attacking Desire Trench in which he subdued three enemy machine-guns and took 53 German prisoners. As a result of being wounded, he was invalided back to England, but returned to France by the beginning of 1917.
Sifton was born on Oct. 12, 1891, in Wallacetown, Ont. In October 1914 he enlisted in the St. Thomas Regt. then transferred to the 18th Bn. and went overseas the following year. After a stint of front-line duty, he served as a transport driver but applied for a transfer to get back into action. He returned to the trenches in 1917 as a lance-corporal.
Born Dec. 21, 1892 in Scotland, Milne attended Newmains Public School before moving to Canada in 1910. He worked as a farmhand near Moose Jaw, Sask., and in September 1915 enlisted in the army. By June the following year he was in France as a member of 16th Bn. of the Canadian Scottish.
Born in Woolwich, England, on Sept. 8, 1875, Pattison at 42 years of age, was one of the oldest soldiers to fight at Vimy. Educated at Clifton Road School in Deptford, he moved to Canada in 1906 with his wife and four children, first living in Rapid City, Man., before moving to Calgary where he worked for a public utility company. In May 1916, he enlisted in the 137th Inf. Bn. and later was sent on draft to the 50th Bn.
MacDowell earned his VC while serving as an officer with the 38th Bn. He had carefully studied the intelligence reports and aerial reconnaissance and knew exactly the ground he had to cover though he had no way of telling how many Germans they might encounter.
He reached the first enemy trench shortly after dawn. But most of his men had become separated from their leader and MacDowell was left with only two runners. From where he stood he could see the dugout in the shell-torn trench he had picked out as his headquarters but he had no idea of the extent of it. However, there was no time to collect a party to capture it because two machine-gun posts had to be overcome.
MacDowell silenced one of them with several well-aimed grenades. The gunner of the second post fled in terror into the dugout. MacDowell and his runners gave chase, but as they moved inside it was much more formidable than they had expected and seemed to stretch underground forever. There was little doubt that other Germans were lurking there. MacDowell shouted into the vastness for the Germans to come up and surrender.
When there was no reply MacDowell climbed down 50 steps through a narrow passageway. As he rounded a corner he came face to face with a group of helmeted Prussian Guards. He had to bluff it out. Looking back over his shoulder and staring back up the stairs he bellowed a fake order to give the impression he had a considerable force with him. The ruse worked. Up went the soldiers’ hands to cries of “Kamerad! Kamerad!” But there was still the risk that they might see through the hoax when he herded them out of the top of the dugout and discovered he was only accompanied by two runners.
To play it safe, MacDowell sent them up a dozen at a time. But the Germans soon realized they had been tricked and one of them seized a discarded rifle and took a shot at a runner. Fortunately he missed and that put an end to any further thoughts of insurrection. They were rounded up by other members of the company and escorted back from the front. This brought MacDowell’s tally of Germans captured, including those taken prisoner on the Somme, to 130.
Although he had suffered a hand wound while overcoming the machine-gun posts he stayed on at the line for five days until reinforcements arrived.
Early during the assault on the ridge, Milne—with a bag of hand grenades slung over his shoulder—was in the vanguard of the 16th Bn. advance through a sea of mud and shell holes filled with water. The soldiers were heading toward its two objectives, the Zwolfer-Graben and Zwischen-Stellung dugouts. As the Canadians neared the first objective, they were met with ferocious machine-gun fire that forced them to take shelter in the muddy shell holes. Milne spotted the gun, sprang from his shell hole and then crawled forward under fire. When he came within range, he leapt to his feet and lobbed several grenades into the midst of the gun crew, killing some, wounding others and putting the gun out of action. He then seized the gun, and this enabled the battalion to overcome the Zwolfer-Graben, take prisoners from the dugout, and kill anyone resisting.
The battalion charged the second objective, the Zwischen-Stellung dugout. Once again they were held up by fierce machine-gun fire, but this time it came from a concrete emplacement hidden by a haystack. Milne repeated his previous performance, crawling forward until he drew within range. He then rose to his feet and threw grenades that killed the crew and silenced the gun. This time when he went to seize the weapon the entire garrison surrendered to him. However, Milne did not live long enough to enjoy the accomplishment. During the advance, he was last seen falling behind a small knoll after being struck by enemy fire. He was never seen again and his body was never found. His VC was awarded posthumously.
The 18th Bn., in which Sifton was serving, overran the first line of German defences quickly and easily. But against the second line of defence, C Company was held up by vicious fire from a machine-gun nest that mowed down the attackers by the dozens. Sifton spotted the barrel of the weapon atop an enemy parapet. Without hesitation he raced ahead and then lobbed grenades in the direction of the enemy. The explosions blew a hole in the barbed wire. Sifton charged through it and attacked the German gun crew, killing them all and then taking charge of the gun.
With the gun silenced, C Co. was able to continue its advance. However, a party of Germans rushed down the trench toward Sifton, who fought them off with his bayonet and the butt of his rifle. One of his victims, who lay dying, summoned up enough strength to lift his rifle and take aim at his protagonist. His shot killed Sifton instantly. As in the case of Milne, Sifton’s VC was awarded posthumously.
On the second day of the battle, April 10, A Co. of the 50th Bn. was another Canadian unit that ran into stiff machine-gun resistance. At a point just beyond Hill 145, every company attempt at assault was brought to a halt by a machine-gun nest. George Pattison decided to take matters into his own hands.
Charging into the enemy fire, he moved steadily in short dashes, using shell holes as cover until he reached a point 30 yards from the next. Standing up in full view of the gunners, who fired at him at point-blank range, he threw three grenades into the next with such accuracy that the explosions immobilized the gun and killed or wounded the crew.
As the last grenade landed, Pattison rushed forward full tilt and held off all the resisting Germans until his company caught up with him. Twenty minutes later all of the company’s objectives had been reached and consolidated.
Wounded and invalided back to England, MacDowell received his VC from the king. He returned to Canada on sick leave then came back to England and served at the headquarters of the Overseas Military Force Canada and at the Canadian Training School.
On Armistice Day, 1918, the University of Toronto conferred upon him an honorary Master of Arts degree and on May 1, 1920 he was appointed brevet major of the Ottawa Regt. In 1927, he was transferred to the reserve and six years later appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Frontenac Regt.
As a civilian, MacDowell served as private secretary to the minister of National Defence from 1922-28. He pursued a career in engineering and became director of several mining companies as well as president of the Chemical Research Foundation. He died in March 1960 in Nassau, the Bahamas, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery, Brockville, Ont.
On Sept. 26, 1970, a memorial plaque in his honour was unveiled at the intersection of Highway 2 and Maitland Road in Maitland, just east of Brockville.
Milne has no known grave, but his name is on the Vimy Memorial.
Sifton was buried in the Lichfield Crater Cemetery east of Neuville-Saint-Vaast in France, close to where he fell. A provincial memorial plaque was erected in his honour in St. Peter’s Cemetery at Tyrconnel, southwest of Wallaceburg, Ont.
Pattison was killed in an attack on a generating station at Lieven near Lens on June 3, 1917. He was buried in La Chaudière Military Cemetery at Vimy. In his honour and memory, the Geographical Society of the Province of Alberta named a mountain after him in Jasper National Park.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge marked the birth of Canada’s nationality; there was no longer a question of secondary “colonial” status.
Email the writer at: email@example.com
Email a letter to the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org