On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, Canadian troops waited in the cold dawn, preparing for the assault on Vimy Ridge. Among them was Mike Mountain Horse, a Blood Tribe member from southern Alberta. He was there to avenge the death of his brother Albert, who had been gassed at Ypres and died at the age of 22. “The spirit of revenge for my brother’s death manifested itself strongly in me as I gazed down on Albert lying in his coffin that cold winter day in November 1915,” Mountain Horse wrote. Both Mike and his brother Joe enlisted, looking for revenge.
Mike joined the 91st Battalion and was promoted to the rank of acting sergeant. On the night before the assault on Vimy, he surveyed the wasteland before him, the hectares of mud and barbed wire and ruined land, the stunning desolation, then tried to sleep. “As I listened to an enemy bomber droning like a huge bumble bee over the Allied lines,” he wrote, “the thought came to my mind, where is the God that the white man has taught the Indian to believe in? Why does He allow this terrible destruction? And I prayed that He might yet bring the nations to their senses.”
His prayers went unanswered, and in the morning, the Canadians advanced on Vimy into the relentless chatter of German machine guns. The casualties were high—3,598 Canadians dead and 7,004 wounded. Mountain Horse was one of the few survivors of his regiment. He marked captured German artillery with designs of the Blackfoot Confederacy. In the course of the war, he was wounded twice, and lay buried in a German trench for four days before being discovered.
After Mountain Horse was discharged in 1918, he painted his war experiences onto a cowhide robe that showed 12 different incidents. “The attitude of my people during World War One,” he wrote, “is sufficient proof of their right to be called British subjects…. When duty called, we were there…. Our people showed all the bravery of our warriors of old.”
Did you know?
Roughly one third of First Nations men in Canada between the ages of 18 and 45 enlisted. Initially, some were turned away, but as casualties in Europe mounted and the number of volunteers dwindled, Indian agents actively encouraged First Nations men to enlist. Two aboriginal battalions were finally formed—the 114th, known as Brock’s Rangers, and the 107th Timber Wolf Battalion.
Some of the new recruits came from remote areas and spoke neither English nor French. They had no connection to white culture, but possessed traditional skills that served them well in war—hunting, tracking, patience, navigating without instruments. Some served as snipers or reconnaissance scouts.
More than 50 medals for bravery and heroism were awarded to First Nations soldiers, but perhaps the most valuable contribution they made was in fostering understanding among white soldiers. Prior to the war, there was relatively little interaction between First Nations and whites. After fighting together for a common cause, they came to know one another better.