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The Soldiers’ Story

Members of the 17th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, load a captured German gun to fire at retreating enemy troops on Vimy Ridge; Canadians construct a light railway at Vimy. [PHOTOS: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA1083; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA001208]

Members of the 17th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, load a captured German gun to fire at retreating enemy troops on Vimy Ridge; Canadians construct a light railway at Vimy.
PHOTOS: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA1083; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA001208

The first people to realize the victory at Vimy were the ones who saw it in blood-soaked bandages.

It was mid-morning on April 9, before medic Will Antliff paused to catch his breath during the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Serving with the 9th Field Ambulance of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, Private Antliff stayed focused on his job throughout the early hours of the battle–keeping track of the nature of wounds, and the unit, name and number of each wounded soldier the medical staff processed.

Stationed several kilometres behind the front lines at Villers-au-Bois medical dressing station, Antliff noted in a letter: “A most encouraging feature was the large number of Fritzys who passed through.” Because he and his medical corps comrades were processing more German than Canadian troops, Antliff quickly recognized that his fellow Canadian infantrymen must be winning on the battlefield.

Hours earlier, on the eve of the massive spring offensive against the Germans in the Arras region of north-central France, members of the medical corps–Antliff included–had been warned by Allied generals to expect 25,000 casualties during the course of this battle. What even the generals hesitated to predict, however, was the lightning speed and efficiency with which the four Canadian infantry divisions, fighting for the first time as a unified force, would achieve their objectives. Within eight hours of zero hour–5:30 a.m. on April 9, 1917–the 100,000-man Canadian Corps had permanently wrested much of the strategic heights of Vimy Ridge from an entrenched German army; (the Canadians would seize the remainder over the next three days). That was something no Allied troops had managed to accomplish in 31 months of warfare along the Western Front. The French press called it “Canada’s Easter gift” to France.

The Canadian assault had cost the corps 10,602 casualties, including 3,598 dead. But the 19-year-old Antliff had deduced correctly on that Easter Monday morning that the Canadians were winning the day. A fighting force made up principally of ordinary young volunteers, including farmers, fishermen, ranchers, miners, lumberjacks, bank clerks and university students, was unseating a seasoned German regular army on a pivotal battlefield in Europe. And as a former McGill University commerce student, Antliff reported in his April 13 letter home to his mother, “the Canadians distinguished themselves (at Vimy) as they have done before at Ypres and the Somme.” So soon after the historic battle, Antliff was expressing what another Vimy veteran described as a “first full sense of nationhood.” Some would say the victory by citizen soldiers gave birth to Canada as a nation.

Pride in his country wasn’t exactly the provocation for Saskatchewan farmer Gavin McDonald serving at Vimy. Indeed, for the first year of the Great War, the 25-year-old prairie homesteader virtually ignored it. Building a house and barn, tending livestock and busting sod for cultivation on the family’s home quarter at Craik–near Regina–were his first priorities. In fact, McDonald refers to enlisting in his memoirs as if it were just another item on his list of chores: “We had a good crop that year…. Good prices–over a dollar a bushel–a good time to drill a well closer to the buildings…. After I had got most of the drilling done, I enlisted and joined the army on Dec. 3, 1915.”

Six months later, fully trained on rifles, bayonets and grenades, McDonald landed in France as a reinforcement with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, but was shipped to the Ypres salient where they mistook him for a lumberjack and assigned him to building trenches and corduroy roads. Nevertheless, he still got a strong introduction to war. A shell casing grazed his chin at Ypres. Near Albert, France, his company sergeant-major had both legs blown off. At the Somme his best friend was paralyzed by shrapnel and died. Then, in the winter of 1916-17 the PPCLI moved to Vimy and McDonald returned to hard labour, assisting in the secret excavation of tunnels.

By March, Canadian Army engineers had spearheaded the construction of 11,000 yards of subways–nearly six miles of tunnels connecting areas behind the Canadian lines to their front-line trenches–under the very noses of the enemy. In the final weeks before the April 9 offensive, Lance-Corporal McDonald joined the elaborate ruse to hide all this furious tunnelling. “Our job was to work at the face of the tunnel,” McDonald wrote. “As the miners picked the chalk loose, we put it in sandbags. During the day we piled bags in the tunnel and at night we would dump it in shell holes (in no man’s land). Then just before dawn we would cover (the tunnel dirt) with camouflage so it looked just the same as the rest of the country.”

Working eight hours on and eight hours off for meals and sleep, McDonald and his camouflaging crew helped disguise tonnes of Vimy chalk. “At 10 o’clock on the night of the 8th, we had to stop digging. There wasn’t enough room” for the tunnelling and camouflage teams to continue digging and hauling while the assault force assembled in a vast underground area. McDonald’s final job was hauling the adjutant’s records away from the front-line position, just in case. His final Vimy note described, “our heavy guns all firing as it was the break of day and the attack was on…”

Until Vimy, battle tactics (on both sides) had followed a painfully predictable script: A sudden heavy bombardment of artillery fire to “soften up” enemy positions. Then a pause, followed by concerted infantry attack. Such predictability most often spelled disaster for foot soldiers. On the first day of the Allied offensive at the Somme in 1916, for example, 780 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment went over the top (confident that their artillery had silenced German guns) and were mowed down in swaths by not so silent German machine-gun fire. The regiment suffered 85 per cent casualties.

Not at Vimy. There, Canadian artillery crews converted the brute force of artillery bombardment to surgical precision. Corporal Elmore Philpott experienced the emergence of Canadian counter-battery operations first hand. Putting his Univer-sity of Toronto studies temporarily on hold in 1914, because he feared “the war would be over by Christmas,” Philpott trained as a signaller and joined the Canadian 25th Field Battery. He arrived at Vimy in time to learn the science of flash-spotting (sighting the flash from artillery gun barrels) and sound plotting (noting gun positions by microphone pickup) to locate German batteries exactly. Consequently, his job peering through field binoculars at enemy gun positions became critical. As a forward observer he literally served as the eyes and ears of his howitzer battery unit. “Up until then, it had been a hit and miss affair,” Philpott once said. “Now we were directing fire by very careful mathematical calculations.”

Philpott called it planning, not training. Then, using the cross-referenced data, Canadian gunners pinpointed German batteries within metres and systematically obliterated them during the seven days before April 9. The German defenders who endured the Canadian counter-battery offensive called it “the week of suffering.” Philpott said, “It was a magnificent part of the operation, one of the greatest operations of all the war.”

For the most part, the precision of Canadian counter-battery operations was lost on Rifleman Ellis Sifton. The 25-year-old farmer from Wallacetown, Ont., had other responsibilities at Vimy. His 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion had settled into the 2nd Division sector near the centre of the Vimy front at the end of 1916. And throughout the winter, Lance-Corporal Sifton had worked in what he described in letters home to his sisters as “bomb-proof jobs.” He hauled ammunition, assisted in horse transport and wash-wagon detail, and he ran rations forward to front-line Canadian positions.

Then, as severe winter weather gripped the sector, all leave was cancelled and Sifton learned his regiment would go over the top early in the Easter offensive. While he couldn’t specify that sensitive information in letters to his sisters, he did share his feelings about the coming assault. “I hope that the courage will be mine at the right moment, if I am called upon to stare death in the face,” he wrote. “Do not be anxious if you do not receive any news, as it is not always convenient to write…. Your loving brother, Ellis W. Sifton.” And he added, “P.S. They have promoted me to sergeant.”

At zero hour, 5:30 a.m., Sifton watched as his comrades in the 4th Brigade leapt from their trenches and advanced behind a Canadian creeping barrage, a curtain of exploding shells moving just ahead of the Canadian infantry, allowing attackers to reach defenders before they had a chance to react. En route to their objective–the village of Les Tilleuls–Sifton’s sister regiments encountered stiffening resistance. German machine-gunners had slowed the Canadians’ progress 90 minutes into the offensive. His 18th Bn. joined the attack, but lost several officers and men due to the well-sited German guns. Sifton felt compelled to act and between machine-gun bursts he dashed forward into an enemy nest.

War diaries report that Sifton “located the gun, charged it single-handed, killing all the crew. A small enemy party advanced down the trench, but he succeeded keeping these off until (Canadian troops) gained the position.”

In the final moments of taking the machine-gun nest, the Canadian attackers overlooked a dying German who picked up a discarded rifle, took aim and killed Sifton with a single shot. The Wallacetown farmer, who had feared he might falter at a crucial moment in his baptism of fire, had found the courage to face death. The citation on his posthumous Victoria Cross applauded his “conspicuous valour (that had) undoubtedly saved many lives and contributed largely to the success of the operation.” Within the hour, Canadian troops had reached and liberated Les Tilleuls, half way to the 2nd Div.’s first day’s objective.

Heroism in the Battle at Vimy Ridge took various forms. Not always amid the combat on the front lines either. During the late afternoon on April 9, word of the Canadians’ extraordinary advance along the 14-kilometre-long front at Vimy reached the coast of France. Again, planning for the worst possible scenario, Allied headquarters alerted medical authorities at No. 1 General Hospital in Étaples to prepare 65 motor ambulances to receive Canadian wounded at the local railway sidings that night. When she received the alert, ambulance driver Grace MacPherson knew that her normal shift of 12 hours on and 12 off was unlikely. She prepared for perhaps 60 hours without sleep–picking up wounded at the Étaples station and delivering them to many of the 50,000 beds available in military hospitals at Étaples.

The impulsive, matter-of-fact and yet vivacious 19-year-old from Vancouver had known from the moment the war began that she would serve her country. So determined was MacPherson that, when neither Ottawa nor the British Red Cross appeared willing to assist her wishes to serve the Canadian Expeditionary Force, she paid her own way for transatlantic passage. She then defied the generals, including Canadian Expeditionary Force Commander Sam Hughes who forbade women from serving near the front, and landed a job driving motor ambulances at the French coast. Of course, the job required more than just driving the ambulance; MacPherson maintained its engine, changed flat tires and kept the four-stretcher compartment stocked and clean. The British Red Cross paid her about 14 shillings per week for her service.

Beginning on the afternoon of April 9, MacPherson worked around the clock. The trip from the Étaples railway siding to the hospital was less than a mile, but wintry conditions on the French coast that Easter Monday made the roadway slick and treacherous. Travelling at speeds of four and five miles per hour, she recalled making a dozen trips that shift. “It was the first time that any troops, the wounded, had been sent down direct from the trenches. There were so many that the casualty clearing stations were not equipped to handle them. So they came direct to Étaples. And they were a sorry looking bunch.”

Still, she never let the sight of horrific wounds or the sound of anguished cries drag her down. If a patient called out in pain from the back of the ambulance, MacPherson responded: “You cut that out! Nobody’s riding in my ambulance moaning like that.” Or if he complained about his bad luck, she would try to distract him by saying: “Look, I bashed my thumb.” She refused to risk emotional involvement with her passengers. And yet she promised: “You’re going to get the best ride you ever had in your life.”

By the time she had completed her first trip to No. 1 General Hospital that day, Canadian troops had a strong toehold on Vimy Ridge. By mid-afternoon on April 9, units of the 1st and 2nd infantry divisions had reached the summit overlooking the Douai Plain. For Canadian infantry veterans, watching an enemy in full retreat brought satisfaction “giving him in plentiful measures what he had given us from Ypres to Wytschaete and the Somme.”

Philpott, taking the place of a wounded forward battery observer, noted his thoughts just after 2 o’clock that afternoon. “I got to the crest of Vimy Ridge,” he wrote. “I don’t know what made me think of it, but ‘the children of Israel looking at the Promised Land (came to mind). Here, as far as I could see, miles after miles…here was this visibly beaten German army. You could see them going forwards and backwards. It was a scene of the most hopeless confusion.”

Another forward observer cursed that he’d waited years for this moment, but his crew couldn’t move guns to the top of the ridge quickly enough to take any form of revenge on the retreating Germans.

Nevertheless, the press noted the greater achievement by Canada’s citizen army. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs called the Canadians’ ascent of Vimy “the greatest victory we have yet gained in this war,” while Canadian reporter Stewart Lyon wrote, “it was a great occasion and greatly the Canadians rose to it.” The Americans, who had only entered the war three days before, said, “April 9, 1917, will be in Canada’s history one of the great days, a day of glory to furnish inspiration to her sons for generations.”

The flush of victory was tempered among troops of C Company in the 18th Bn. Comrades of Ellis Sifton carried his body back to the jumping-off point of the day and buried him in a makeshift graveyard at the Litchfield bomb crater.

Medical clerk Will Antliff did not rest until the last of the wounded in the 9th Field Ambulance sector received medical attention. Oddly, one impression stood out in his memory as he and a fellow stretcher-bearer made their way across newly liberated Canadian territory. “On the way up, we kept to the road instead of the trench,” Antliff wrote, “a thing which would have been the height of folly a week ago. All around, men were walking overland. It certainly looked funny…. We finally arrived at our destination–somewhere in Fritzy’s old front line. By the time we arrived, the star flares were going up, but beyond the rattle of a few machine-guns in the distance, the night was suddenly quiet.”

As he had deduced the victory by counting German casualties, the Canadian medic now enjoyed the first spoil of victory–the freedom to stand upright in no man’s land.

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