The Edge Of Hell

March 1, 2007 by Tim Cook

[INSET PHOTO: FRANK ROYAL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA170783; ILLUSTRATION: STEPHEN SNIDER]

INSET PHOTO: FRANK ROYAL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA170783; ILLUSTRATION: STEPHEN SNIDER

Gregory Clark (inset) also served as a war correspondent in WW II.

Dear old Governor,
This is Good Friday, and I am spending the day girding myself for action. For our Easter Sunday, with peace on earth and good will towards men, I take part in the greatest battle in Canada’s history and perhaps in the history of the world. So this is to say farewell in case I go down.

This ‘last letter’ was posted on April 7, 1917, by Lieutenant Gregory Clark to his father, only a few days before he was about to go into his first battle. It was at Vimy Ridge, a name that he could not mention to his kin at home for security reasons, but also one that they would not have recognized either. That would change in the months and years ahead as Vimy took an epic place in Canada’s pantheon of national signposts and historical events.

In April 1917, however, Clark and his companions in the Canadian Corps only saw the ridge as a hulking obstacle, heavily fortified and nearly impregnable. Previous offensives against the seven-kilometre ridge by French and British troops had failed. The attempt by the French occurred in the early summer of 1915 while the Canadians were at Festubert and Givenchy. The French threw many divisions at the ridge and were repulsed in a bloody slaughter that saw the loss of more than 100,000 French and approximately 80,000 German soldiers.

Clark well understood the magnitude of the task facing the Canadians, and that there was a good chance they would be defeated and that he might not come home.

He was 24 when Canada went to war in August 1914. At the time, he was at his cottage with his girlfriend, Helen. They had been courting for about a year and cared deeply for one another. Gregory and Helen returned to Toronto on Aug. 15, and were more than a little surprised to find that the Dominion had been at war for almost two weeks. But they were nonplussed by the event and Clark, an inveterate writer and outdoorsman, returned to his post at the Toronto Star newspaper. He penned in his private diary: “The war is still raging. It does not stir us at all deeply…. It seems so far away.”

Clark worked on the newspaper’s crime beat throughout 1914, but increasingly he was interested in the families of soldiers. Toronto was rocked by terrible casualty figures after the titanic battle of Ypres in April 1915, where the Germans unleashed chlorine gas for the first time in the history of warfare and more than 6,000 Canadians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Clark interviewed family members and publicized their stories through his articles. The war was coming home. His father and brother were deeply patriotic; brother Joe soon enlisted, while his father urged able-bodied men to do their duty in widely published newspaper editorials. Clark increasingly felt pressure to serve his country, but his love for Helen was strong, and he could not bear to leave her.

The strain of knowing that others were fighting on his behalf eventually drove Clark to make the gut-wrenching decision; he enlisted as a private in the 170th Battalion on March 27, 1916. Standing a mere five feet, two and a half inches, and weighing 110 pounds, he nonetheless had the education and bearing to be an officer. He was quickly promoted, then commissioned, and spent much of 1916 in officer training schools in Canada. He also married his beloved Helen. For a couple that had barely been apart longer than a day, he would ship out to England four days after the wedding, and not see her again for another 1,039 days.

***

By the end of 1916, Clark was transferred to the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, a former light cavalry unit that had been converted to gravel-crunches, as the Western Front proved that horsemen had little chance against high explosives, shrapnel and deadly small arms fire. Clark arrived in France at the end of 1916, immediately joining his unit in the strange, desolate, troglodyte world of the trenches.

Like most soldiers, Clark found the fighting on the Western Front alien and threatening. Throughout the winter of 1916-17, his trench experience consisted largely of dullness and drudgery, but he suffered through some of the terrible artillery bombardments that left men quaking and hugging the mud. “I had seen something of the terror,” he wrote in his diary, “the vast, paralyzing, terrific tumult of battle: a thing so beyond humanity, as if all the gods and all the devils had gone mad and were battling, forgetful of poor, frail mortals that they tramped upon.” But word came down that an offensive would be planned against Vimy, and all knew that the fighting there would be even more intense and lethal.

The 4th CMRs spent months preparing, planning and training for their role as one of the lead attacking infantry battalions in the forthcoming Vimy show. Clark would command 15 Platoon–about 45 men–in the battle. On the night of April 7, the Canadians began to form up in the rear trenches. For the last five days, shells had shrieked overhead, day and night, from the guns that pounded the enemy positions.

On Easter Sunday, April 8, 1917, the lead elements of the 4th CMRs set off for the front at midnight, moving through one of the engineering marvels of thebattle, Goodman Tunnel. During the long preparatory phase, the Canadians had built more than a dozen underground tunnels to bring troops close to the front for zero hour. Most were several hundred metres long, but Goodman was over a kilometre in length. It was tall enough for men to stand upright in, although it was not for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic.

In the cold, dark hours of April 9, Clark assembled his platoon in what were called the “jumping off trenches” outside of Goodman Tunnel. Every man was left alone with his thoughts. Would this be his last day on Earth? Prayers were said, lucky talismans fingered, last letters written for loved ones at home. Above them the shells hurtled over their heads towards the German lines, bursting in massive explosions. The minutes ticked down painfully slowly to zero hour.

Then, at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, the full might of the artillery hammer crashed down on the German lines with 983 guns, howitzers and mortars unloading a continuous stream of death and destruction. The Canadians, who had rehearsed for weeks before the battle, would follow a creeping artillery barrage into the enemy lines. This moving wall of shells and explosions rent the air, as it slowly crawled over the battlefield. But there was a big difference from the pre-battle practice assaults where officers had carried flags to signify the barrage, moving forward a hundred yards every three minutes, and the reality of following an ear-shattering barrage that was tearing up the earth.

At three minutes past zero hour, Clark rose from the trench, shouting, “Come on, boys,” even though most of his words were lost in the cacophony of explosions. His platoon followed his lead, along with dozens of others within sight, and hundreds of others along the ridge. The Canadians were off, and chasing their creeping barrage.

Gregory Clark recounted the sensation: “In one sense, it was a beautiful sight. It was still quite dark. Sleet was falling. There before us, frightfully close, was the edge of hell. It blazed, flashed and flickered, the bursting shells; white and coloured flares were fired frantically by a distracted enemy. And the flashing, flickering lights showed an infernal wall of twisting, boiling smoke and flame, against which stood out the distorted silhouettes of men advancing into it.”

Forward they went in a measured walk, behind their creeping barrage that was tearing up the enemy lines. They passed craters the size of houses; barbed wire had been torn apart; dead Germans lay splayed out in grisly poses of death. All were passed in the steady march up the ridge. The iron discipline of the troops took over. Every three minutes they halted, lying down–waiting for the barrage to jump another hundred yards. Forward they went through more than a dozen jumps, and each time they lay tense under the umbrella of fire. Occasionally, the sound of the heavy German MG-08 could be heard firing above the din, but on Clark’s front they encountered no Germans except those prisoners fleeing back, hands in the air.

But men were killed all around Clark, as bullets and shrapnel whirled over the battlefield. For 35 minutes they continued this advance until they hit the main enemy reserve trench. Here, the artillery barrage paused for 45 minutes, raking the enemy lines, but allowing straggler units to catch up. There was not much for the infantry to do, and so they dug in to the craters, smoked cigarettes, and relieved heavy bladders. The entire front continued to be obscured by the hurtling artillery shells.

During this wait, Clark and a small group of men were in a crater, studying the front, eyeing their watches for when to move off again. Without warning, an enemy shell landed in the bottom of the crater–putting paid to the superstition among soldiers that a shell never landed in the same hole twice. In Clark’s words, it “blew us all in the air, smashing the cigarette case Sergeant Windsor had in his hand, cutting Bertrand’s rifle in two at the breech and heaving us in all directions.” Stunned and shaken, Clark’s small group patted frantically at arms and legs to make sure everything was still attached. Almost miraculously, no one was hurt.

After checking on his platoon, Clark heard the change in the sound of the barrage, and off it went again, like some fiery rake tearing through the enemy lines. Clark scrambled forward, slithering over the muddy, cratered ground, following the barrage. By 7:05 a.m. they were on their final objectives, with neither Clark nor any of his men firing a single shot. That was not the case for other platoons in his company, nor with the other 22 attacking battalions along the line in the first wave. Yet it was far from over. Capturing the ridge was only half the battle; the Canadians had all been trained to prepare for the expected German counter-attack to recover the important terrain.

Clark and his men dug in on their lines, creating a series of strongpoints to hold off a German attack. On top of the ridge, they could look down on the Douai Plain below and see the Germans frantically pulling back their artillery units. The forward line was established on the eastern slope of the ridge, which gave them good fields of fire. But not all Germans had yet been cleared from the front, and the battle still raged on the far left where the 4th Division was in a desperate engagement to capture the highpoint of Vimy around Hill 145. Even on the 4th CMR’s front, German troops were dug in and hidden on the lower slope, where the Canadian guns had been unable to bombard.

Throughout the day, Clark’s platoon and several others kept up a firefight with these Germans. Artillery fire had also begun to slam into the ridge, both from the enemy and from Canadian shells firing short. In the early afternoon, his friend and fellow officer, Lieut. W.G. Butson, was about 20 yards from Clark trying to organize his men into rifle pits, when he fell to the ground. Clark raced over to help him and saw to his horror that a bullet had passed through his head, ripping out both of his eyes. Clark nearly vomited. As one of the men wrapped Butson’s head in bandages, Clark held his friend’s hand as he cried out deliriously for his mother.

Now, all of his superior officers had been wounded or killed, and he was left to co-ordinate the defence. The rest of the day was spent digging in and dodging enemy shells. There were a few random enemy counter-attacks down the line, but Canadian gunners, directed by their forward observers on the ridge, rained down punishing fire. A few German planes flew low over the hill, sweeping it with machine-gun fire, but there was no attack.

After being subjected to artillery fire for much of the 10th, the CMRs were desperate for a relief on the 11th, with Clark and most of his men now having gone without sleep for three days. Snow fell heavily. Exhausted, hungry and with bloodshot eyes, Clark continued to visit the men in their shallow trenches and gun pits, reassuring them that relief was coming soon.

A fellow officer, Lieut. L.C. Johnston, invited him to come out of the muck and share lunch in the cellar of a ruined building on the hill called Cable House. Clark thought it too dangerous since the Germans had been shelling around it all day, so he went back to his muddy trench after failing to convince Johnston to join him. He was sitting there munching on cold canned meat with one of his trusted sergeants, too tired to speak, when they heard a shell strike the Cable House.

“Then Johnston’s leg, severed at the hip, landed in the trench, striking Mackie’s helmet and my feet,” wrote Clark. “I do not remember a more horrible moment. Then over our heads sailed the rest of Johnston, landing 40 yards from where he was first hit.” In shock, they tossed Johnston’s leg out of the trench, but when they got their nerves back, they retrieved it and laid it beside Johnston, who was “mutilated beyond recognition.”

This was the start of an inferno of enemy shelling, which fell all along the front. Clark and his men tensed for the counter-attack. Cries of pain and shouts for stretcher-bearers could be heard in between the shelling. No attack came, although the CMRs lost a considerable number of men as their bunched troops–ready to repel an attack–provided greater targets during the saturation bombing. The shelling ceased around dusk, and Clark remembered the eerie sight of a padre making his way along the front, stopping at mass graves full of bodies where he gave a communal set of last rites.

At sundown on the 11th, the 4th CMRs were finally relieved. Clark and his men stumbled to the rear. Although some men were cheering and singing about the victory, many more were silent with tears in their eyes. They had left behind too many friends on the ridge. Battlefield reports note that the 4th CMRs lost 43 men killed, 118 wounded and 18 missing. “I fell asleep that night hardly caring if I ever woke up, yet my spirit filled with a far, faint exultation. I was alive.”

***

Lieut. Gregory Clark was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery and inspirational leadership during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. His citation read: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He assumed command of and led his company with great ability, gained his objective, and consolidated the position. He set a fine example of courage and initiative.” Indeed he did, but the battle nearly used him up, and he admitted that his nerves were badly shaken and he was suffering from a hacking cough from breathing poison gas. A sympathetic commanding officer sent him to the rear to rest for a few weeks, but he returned to the front, serving until the beginning of August. He was again pulled back to a “bomb-proof” job at battalion headquarters, but returned to the front as a major and company commander for the devastating series of battles that were known as Canada’s Hundred Days, which lasted from August to November 1918. Several times he avoided death only by inches, and, during those grim hours, “I had my mind fully made ready to meet my maker and was feeling very sad for Helen and Mother and Dad.” But he survived and was sent back to Canada in September 1918, where he was to be a war journalist. The Armistice was struck before he had a chance to write in an official capacity, and so he was demobilized, beginning his life again with Helen.

But the war had changed him. Gregory Clark returned to his job at the Toronto Star, but then moved to the newspaper’s Star Weekly. He was no longer content with the crime beat, and instead turned towards humour. Clark and his lifelong cartoonist partner Jimmie Frise–another veteran of the war–began to tell stories about Canadians. They were good-humoured, gentle tales of human foibles, and they appealed to Canadians across the country. He also indulged in his passion for fishing and the outdoor life. Clark would become one of the best-loved writers of his generation before his death in 1977.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge had been the defining moment in his young life, as it was for Canada up to that point in its young history. Speaking years after the war, Clark reflected on his experience: “I got back greatly enlarged by the war in mind and in spirit and in personality. I was a bookworm, a quiet little bookworm when I went, and I came home a rather tough character.” The same might be said for Canada as a whole. The “tough” Dominion would never be the same after being forged in the fire of the First World War.

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