During our 100 Days of Vimy project, we shared the story of First Nations sniper, Francis Pegehmagabow. Read it here.
In March 2017, forty (40) members of the 2799 Queen’s York Rangers Cadets travelled to Europe on a world war commemoration tour. Prior to departing, the Cadets received a flag from Chief Tabobondung of the Wasauksing First Nation. Today, the Wasauksing First Nation represents the former Perry Island Reserve, to which Francis Pegehmagabow belonged. It was their desire to deliver the Wasauksing First Nation’s flag to an appropriate place overseas and to leave it there as a marker of the contributions of First Nations soldiers in both world wars.
Unfortunately, the Cadets learned that items left at memorials are eventually removed by groundskeepers. Rather than have it be discarded, the Cadets instead carried the flag onwards throughout the duration of their tour. Consequently, the flag was carried and displayed on the very land that members of all First Nation’s families and communities fought and gave their lives.
Having now returned home with the flag, it is still the desire of the Wasauksing First Nation to find an appropriate place overseas where it can be seen flying alongside the flags of Canada and France.
The first trench raid made by Canadian troops is believed to have taken place on 28 February 1915, by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 88). At the time, trench raids were still small but efficient strikes by groups numbering from a couple dozen to one hundred men. In a war faltered to a standstill, trench raids provided the opportunity for those willing, to get at the enemy in daring operations. Consequently, raiding parties were regarded with an air of both extreme danger and boldness.
The men who made up raiding parties came from all walks of life – many would have volunteered for the job, but undoubtedly others were coerced by their comrades to tag along. Simply put, trench raiders needed to be both brutally vicious and exceptionally restrained and self-reliant. Crawling through no man’s land, beneath and over barbed wire, ready to fight at a moment’s notice was not for the faint of heart. Brutal, dirty trickery was also a necessity in order to survive. While the Germans were known to booby-trap potential souvenirs and corpses with explosives, Lieutenant Louis Keene of a Canadian Machine Gun Company reveals the Canadians were just as nasty.
When his men learned the Germans actually liked the cans of bully beef fed to Commonwealth troops, they began to throw cans of it over into the German lines:
“Throw one over… sounds like shuffling and getting out of the way are heard in the enemy trench. Fritz thinks it’s going to go off [as a grenade]. Pause, and throw another. Fritz not so suspicious this time. Keep on throwing until happy voices from enemy trenches shout, ‘More! Give us more!’ Then lob over as many hand grenades as you can pile into that part of the trench and tell them to share those too.” (Cook, Shock Troops – Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-1918, p. 56).
In a series of posts, we will be discussing more of the diversionary raids undertaken by Canadians during May – June of 1917 south of the Souchez River. Therefore it is fitting to first provide a brief overview of the Canadians’ development of raiding techniques.
Trench raids initially began as an offshoot of aggressive patrolling. In groups of two or three, patrols would crawl out into no man’s land during the dark of night, gathering intelligence on the enemy wire, finding gaps and identifying strong points. These patrols would then pass their intelligence on to an officer who was forming up a raiding party. Numbering anywhere from a handful to a couple dozen men, the first raids were quick, brutal and efficient smash and grab operations. Meant to provide a simple means to attack the enemy, gather intelligence and hopefully a prisoner, raids allowed Canadians to experiment with tactics and gain fighting experience.
Last week we began discussing the impression that aerial combat had on those watching from below in the trenches. Although last week’s account ended in a chorus of cheers, these outcomes were sadly few and far in-between. Today we go back to the memoirs of Canadian Sniper Frank S. Iriam:
“It was cruel to see the way the red devils shoot them to pieces sending them down in flames every day. Our airmen were a game lot continuing to face the enemy with obsolete contraptions… The fuselage of these old buses stuck out some distance in front of the wings. I have seen our airman standing on the forward nose while the bus was plunging through space in flames. They climbed out on the nose to get as far as possible from the flames in a forlorn hope that they might chance to reach earth before the wings burned off or the tank exploded. Usually, they were driven to jumping into space to escape the fierce heat or were thrown off when the plane turned over in its death plunge… spinning end-over-end like a wheel in mid-air… It was a heart-rendering thing to see and not be able to render any assistance… our airmen face back and give battle again in these old coffins after seeing what had happened to their comrades a minute before, fully knowing they would meet a like fate… Could human courage go any further?” (Glenn R. Iriam, In The Trenches 1914-1918, p. 197).
For this Mother’s Day, we’re sharing a unique letter, written by a mother to her son in 1919, as he returns home to Canada for demobilization. William James Barker of Woodstock, Ontario, enlisted in September 1914, experiencing the early days of Valcartier Camp, before heading overseas with the 4th (Central Ontario) Battalion. Private Barker served through the entirety of the war without suffering a single wound. He was demobilized 25 May 1919.
Mrs. A Barker wrote the following letter to her son William as he was being demobilized in 1919. Note – The letter dated April 6th, 1919 is in three pages, noted by a 1, 2, or 3 at the top of each page. The following is a transcript of the letter:
“Dear Son just a few line [sic] in answer to your letter we received few days ago dated 19 o March and was good to hear from you and to [k]now [sic] you was well and engoying [sic] your self you sure have seen some sights you will have lots to tell us when you come home which we hope wont [sic] be long now they dont [sic] need to send you to any other base as we want you home. You said in Mary’s letter you thought John had gone to England well we hope you will be there by now. You said you had sent us some post card and news but we have not got them some one else as well we hope you will bring some books with you but be careful where you keep them as the boys seem to loose all they have coming home happy. McConnal is home he brought [Bettie ?] a fine string of beeds and he had a German belt but he lost it on the way from Tronto [sic] to Hamilton.”
“well he is a wiser boy then when he went away he looks fine his is as fat as can be well Bill we are having some fine weather and it is like spring the robbings [sic] are hear [sic] and you can hear the frogs squaking [sic] at night. Ted brought some roslets [sic] in to day it was raining hard this morning and thundering but that is a sine [sic] of spring to get some of our rose bushes tied up. We have got a pig pen and a chicken house we bought 3 ??? from the people that lived in our old house and him and Ted went over to homles to get their horse to go ???them home and when he went in to put the harness on her she came around and bit a peace [sic] out of the ear he came running over home and he says that D..d old horse got my ear but when I got it washed it seemed it was ony [sic] the top but we went to”
“the Doctors and he fixed it up well it is doing fine now it will be all right soon. Bill you said you had asked us lots of times about May well it is merry you always ask but we never see her or hear any thing of her but I know she as [sic] another little girl I seen her father a short time ago and he asked after you and I seen Dave Freth yesterday and he wanted to now [sic] when you were comming [sic] he said it was time for you to be hear [sic]. Well dear son I have not much to say to night if you could hear this [Glady] she is making so much noise learning. He …. on and [sinings]… in bettllen time …… We are all well hear [sic] hoping you are the same. With love from all.
I remain your ever loving mother, A Barker. Southend…”
As part of the Vimy Foundation’s educational programs, students are asked to research a Canadian soldier who served in the First World War. Once on the program, the students are provided with the opportunity to share their soldier’s story. Many students are able to visit their soldier’s grave or locate their name on the Vimy Memorial.
Early in 2017, the family of Private Lawrence Skelly contacted the Vimy Foundation, hoping to have his sacrifice remembered. We were able to put the family in touch with one of our students, Fiona Thiel, who needed to prepare a soldier’s story before she departed on the Vimy Pilgrimage program this past April. Having emigrated from Germany, Fiona’s opportunity to commemorate a Canadian soldier provided a unique moment. We will let Fiona tell the rest:
“At the Vimy Memorial, we had the chance to make a charcoal rubbing of the name of the soldier we had chosen. After that, we went to Canadian Cemetery No. 2, where we presented our tributes to the soldiers. I had written mine as though it were a letter addressed to Lawrence:
Dear Pte. Lawrence Russell Skelly,
We have never met and will unfortunately never be able to meet in person. However, the commemoration of your life and heroic sacrifice forms a very special bond between me and the young generation in the twenty-first century. I can assure you that this special bond of memory can not only be felt by the attendees here on site but is of particular importance for your descendants who have been thinking of you in your home country of Canada. I have had the privilege of speaking with them and writing to them and I can feel how they keep your memory eternally alive. I am very thankful to your family for entrusting me with keepsakes from your life and sacrifice as a soldier, thereby allowing me to stand here and read this letter to you.
100 years have gone by since the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Our generation cannot imagine the hardship and suffering you and your fellow soldiers went through fighting for your country. Today we are blessed to grow up in countries which are safe and peaceful, but even today, we cannot and should not take this for granted. It is the duty of my generation to make sure that this Canadian history, and all the tremendous sacrifices it involved, will never be forgotten. It is also imperative that we keep talking about the many individuals like yourself, thereby keeping you alive in our memories.
I, therefore, pledge to keep the memory of your legacy alive. You and your fellow soldiers will never be forgotten.
On this occasion, let me share a very special aspect of our mutual bond: You left your country to fight far away from home and tragically lost your life on European soil. Your suffering, hardship and ultimate sacrifice helped create the Canadian nation I know. My own life started on European soil, in Germany, but I have been enjoying life in your beautiful homeland since the age of four. I love your country, my new home, and will do all I can to honour the memory and sacrifices of your generation. You will be pleased to hear that our two countries are no longer enemies, but friends, partners and allies.
Words cannot express how very touched I am by the honour and privilege of standing here today and reading this to you.
While the marvel of flight was still relatively new and exciting at the turn of 1914, the technological advances of wartime now made it something to be feared and despised. For those at the front, enemy aeroplanes overhead often brought bombs, machine gun fire, and artillery bombardments. Ironically, aerial combat also served as a sort of entertainment and escape for the men watching the skies from the misery of the trenches.
While fighting on the outskirts of Lens, just prior to moving to the Souchez River area in May 1917, Canadian Sniper/Scout/Observer Frank S. Iriam witnessed the following account of aerial combat:
“We one day saw an aeroplane fall nearly all the way to the earth from an elevation of over 20,000 feet. The plane was a Farnum Pusher type… some of the controls must have jammed with him starting to fall over, and over endwise, sidewise head first, tail first, and spinning as a wheel, down, down, down. Men [in the trenches] ran, climbing up on any convenient elevation, to watch breathlessly what we thought was going to be another fatal tragedy played out before our eyes. He fell so near to the earth that he was hidden by our view by some tall buildings.
At the last possible moment the pilot succeeded in righting the plane, straightened it out and flew away… an exhibition of cool-headed bravery along with a few other things… You should have heard the roar that went up from the thousands of fighting men..” (Glenn R. Iriam, In The Trenches 1914-1918, p. 187).
On 25 April, ANZAC Day is observed in Australia and New Zealand, commemorating the sacrifices made by those serving in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. An annual event, ANZAC Day marks the anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli by Australia and New Zealand’s troops on 25 April 1915.
In their first major action of the First World War, the ANZAC forces suffered considerably. Alongside fellow Commonwealth forces (which included the Royal Newfoundland Regiment), their numbers were decimated by inclement weather, insufficient shelter and supplies, a skilled opponent and rampant disease. Conditions at Gallipoli were prone to disease and misery with cramped trenches and extreme fluctuations in weather – 145,000 Commonwealth troops became sick, and nearly 7,000 were hospitalized for frostbite. The suffering experienced in the Gallipoli Campaign galvanized the ANZAC forces and produced an indomitable spirit that became known as “the Anzac Legend”.
In the words of Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian after 1918: “Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat.”
It is important to note, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment also served in Gallipoli, arriving in September 1915 and serving as the rearguard during the evacuation off the continent in January 1916.
ANZAC Day has since become a national observance for Australians and New Zealanders, similar to Remembrance Day in Canada. This past ANZAC Day in 2017, members of the New Zealand Defence Force performed a haka to the fallen during the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.
Over the course of the Vimy 100 anniversary ceremonies, many Canadians have sent us poems they have written in response to their feelings associated with Canada and Vimy Ridge. Today we want to share one such special poem, written by Inés Fiedler and winner of the Royal Canadian Legion’s 2015 literary contest. In her own words, Inés describes the story behind the poem:
“Originally, The Soil At Vimy Ridge was an assignment for my high school class. However when it was submitted to the Royal Canadian Legion’s literary contest, it won First Place at the National Level. Neither the assignment nor the literary contest had specified what the poem had to be about – just that it should relate to our national Remembrance Day services. I myself was inspired by the passion with which my tenth grade history teacher told my class about the importance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge to Canada’s national identity. Thanks to the Royal Canadian Legion, my poem and the message I hoped it would share has reached thousands of Canadians. Hopefully, with the help of the Vimy Foundation it can reach even further.”
The Soil at Vimy Ridge
by Inés Fiedler
I am the soil at Vimy Ridge,
Unchanging in my essence.
I’ve been here since the soldiers left;
Was here before their presence.
I have witnessed bloody battles,
And a peaceful time before:
A still and calm so beautiful
Before the raging war.
I’ve felt the boots of twenty thousand
March towards their slaughter,
Sacrificing everything for
Wives and sons and daughters.
I’ve heard the echoes of their cries,
Free of arrogance or pride.
Full of fear, yet they fought
And for your freedom died.
I was watching when the fighting stopped
And victory was declared.
The Canadians proved themselves as more
Than soldiers who were scared.
Now I hold twelve thousand markers,
Of men who fought and fell
My duty is to make sure that
They rest forever well.
I am the soil at Vimy Ridge,
A witness to the war,
Some may say they’ve seen it all
But I have seen much more.
Vimy Pilgrimage Award Student Rachel walks in the footsteps of her Grandfather a Second World War Veteran.
“Today we got to go back to the Vimy memorial and it meant way more than it did when we were there for the celebration. It was peaceful, calm, and breathtaking. When I originally knew I was going to Vimy Ridge I thought the memorial was a square white box with two pillars coming up from it. This was not at all what it was. There were stairs and statues that you could look at forever. It was very cool to find my soldier. As I looked along the wall his name jumped out at me. It very cool to know that his name was actually on the memorial. I had built such a connection with him, and this just deepened the connection. However, his name was at the very top and I could not really reach it. So, after, Jake helped me put the paper up he went down on his hands and knees and let me step on his back so I could do my soldiers rubbing. This was so nice of him!
I also got to reincarnate the photo of my Grandad who came here as a soldier during WW2. He is standing next grieving mother with two of his friends, one on either side. I tried to repeat this pose and I can’t wait to show him. After the memorial, we did soldier presentations and it was very interesting to hear how every kid connected a little bit differently with their soldier.