Letter From Vimy
By Gordon MacKinnon
The envelope of my grandfather’s last letter to my uncle, Private Ronald MacKinnon of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, dated April 5, 1917, is marked “Return to Sender: Deceased: Killed in Action 9.4.17.” He was one of 3,598 Canadians killed in the epic battle that marked Canada’s most important WW I victory and achieved a new recognition for the nation.
The Canadians, four divisions strong, did the impossible that snowy Easter Monday morning. They broke the fearsome German Hindenburg Line at Vimy Ridge in northeastern France, something neither British nor French troops had been able to do in repeated attacks over the previous three years. After months of meticulous preparation the worst of it was over by nightfall, and more than 7,000 men were wounded.
Ronald MacKinnon was born in west Toronto in 1893 to Scottish and Irish parents. He spent most of his childhood in Proton Township, Grey County. He had joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Toronto in September 1915. After training at Niagara-on-the-Lake he was sent to England in April 1916, where he stayed for only a month before crossing the Channel to France. “There was not room to lie down. I had to sleep on the open deck in the rain sitting up, with about half the troops throwing up their ‘bully beef’ but we did not mind it much, as we get used to everything over here.”
Supporting a wife and two young children on a private’s pay of $1 a day, plus 10 cents field allowance, Ronald’s introduction to front line food was met with characteristic resignation and acceptance. “The food up the line and at the base is rotten bully beef and hard tack, but in the line it is very good: bread, butter, cheese, mulligan [bully beef stew] and a preparation called Maconocies. There is everything in ‘Macs’–onions, spuds, cabbage, carrots, axle grease, jollop and a dozen other things, but it goes down good if you are hungry enough. However, nobody kicks about the grub.”
On June 26, Ronald later wrote, “I was wounded in Sanctuary Wood, the other side of Ypres, the city of the dead.” He was taken out of the line after dark and evacuated to a military hospital in England. “When I came out of the trenches, I only had a tunic, a pair of boots and socks, and half a pair of pants. They had to cut my pants away from the wound.” Because his army pay book was also lost, he received no money for some time but relied on gifts from his family “for tobacco, stamps, and other little things till I get my pay book again.” The wounds were not serious but kept him in England until December. A visit to Scotland allowed him to meet his grandfather and many other relatives.
Christmas 1916 was spent in the trenches. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud. We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Christmas was tray-bon which means very good.”
January 1917 was extremely cold. “Everything was frozen, water froze in our bottles, stew and tea was cold by the time it reached us in the front line, but then this is war and I always try to smile when things are a little rough.”
The routine was 20 days in the trenches, followed by a period billeted with a French family. “I am staying at present in a pretty jake billet. If I could only ‘parley-vous’ it would be ‘jaker’ still. However, we manage to get along.”
Even the conditions in the trenches were a matter of routine indifference. “When the mud was at its worst, the trenches were falling in and we had to work nearly all the time to keep them open. We had pumps to get the water out, then we would throw the mud out at nighttime. We cannot throw it out in the daylight because the Germans would see you throwing mud over the top and would soon send over some Minenwerfers and chase us to another part of the trench. A winter campaign in the trenches is no picnic. Trenches are not what a lot of people imagine at home. They are not merely a long drain but are dug crooked and all built up with wood, wire and sheet iron, with a floor in them.”
The indifference to hardship and horror in the letters was perhaps an attempt to spare readers the anguish that would follow from a description of reality, but he wrote in one letter “I’ll go ‘over the top’ with the set purpose of doing my little bit. I often wonder if I’ll come through, and worry about my children, but I can only trust in God to bring me through. If I don’t you can rest assured that I did my duty as a Scotch (sic) Canadian.”
Ronald’s last letter home is dated April 6: “Just a few lines to let you know I am OK. This is Good Friday so I had a feed of eggs, as I will not be in a place where I can get them on Sunday. We are having very good weather here now, beautiful spring days, with lots of sunshine which is gradually drying up most of the mud. It will never all dry up, as there will always be mud in this country…. Well, by the time you get this you will have read all about it, so will know more about it than me, as I will only know what goes on in my own little sector. I am a rifle grenadier and am in the first wave. We have got a good bunch of boys to go over with, and good artillery support so we are bound to get our objective alright.
“I understand we are going up against the Prussian Guards–the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The Canadians have met them before, and they remember it.”
Pte. Ronald MacKinnon, killed at age 23, lies buried in the Bois-Carré British Cemetery, Thélus, on the lower slopes of Vimy Ridge.