Today marks the 73rd Anniversary of the Normandy landings, made during the Second World War in 1944. In the early minutes of June 6, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion jumped from their aircraft, the first Canadians to set foot in France that monumental day. The paratroopers succeeded in securing the Drop Zone, before heading off and destroying numerous bridges on approaches to the beachhead. By midday, the Canadian paratroopers had achieved all their objectives.
Meanwhile, at 07:49 in the morning, Canadian infantrymen stormed ashore at Juno Beach. Fighting through beach obstacles, machine gun and artillery fire, the Canadians routed the defenders and by noon Juno Beach was clear, with the fight carrying inland. By nightfall of 6 June 1944, the Canadians had advanced the furthest inland of all invading forces that day.
The Vimy Foundation commemorates the sacrifices made 73 years ago today. For more information on the Normandy landings, we suggest visiting the Juno Beach Centre, either in-person or online!
Starting in 1918, while occupying defensive lines around Vimy, the Canadian Corps carried out perhaps the most unaggressive, yet official, military order on the Western Front – farming.
Faced with ever increasing challenges of maintaining food supplies, the British Government ordered that the “English Armies undertake the growing of certain foodstuffs in the way of green vegetables and potatoes” using the land they currently occupied as a fighting force (NAC RG 9, Vol.4044, Radnor, “Statement of the policy to be adopted by Army, Corps, Area and Divisional Officers under the Directorate of Agricultural Production,” 7 February 1918).
Surprisingly, many of the Canadian Battalions took great interest in the project and its positive effects were two-fold; alleviating the strain on food supplies and providing an outlet for the burdened men. Farmers-turned-soldiers proved their worth providing expertise in planting and harvesting. As one unit rotated back into the frontline, those being relieved were expected to take over the farming plot. By the summer of 1918, the farming scheme was such a success that the addition of pig farms was considered, albeit briefly.
On 3 April 2017, as part of our 100 Days of Vimy project, we shared the post of Lt. Col. Samuel Sharpe, DSO (Read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/100daysofvimy-april-3rd-2017/). A Member of Parliament, Sharpe used his influence to raise and recruit the entire 116th (Ontario County) Battalion from his constituents in the Uxbridge area. Serving as its Lieutenant-Colonel, Sharpe ultimately returned to Canada devastated by the losses to his county, committing suicide while seeking treatment in Montreal on 25 May 1918.
In honour of Lt. Col. Samuel Sharpe’s impact on his county and his ultimate sacrifice, students of Uxbridge Secondary School have dedicated themselves to commemorating the First World War’s impact on their county. For Vimy 100, a large group travelled overseas after nearly a year and a half of preparatory work. The following videowas made for the Lt. Col. Sam Sharpe Gala that Uxbridge Secondary School’s Vimy 100 students hosted for the community, sharing the stories of those that went to serve King and Country from Uxbridge Secondary School.
The drive up the Belgian coast in June-July of 1917, for which the Canadians provided diversionary trench raids at the Souchez River, was undertaken for a number of reasons. One hope was to combat the threat posed by the Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers. British forces fighting up the coast would require the Germans to depart from airfields further from England, as well as to fly over more British-controlled territory. This would shorten the loiter time available to the German flights once over English skies, reducing their effectiveness, while also increasing the chances of British ground forces shooting down aircraft whilst flying overhead on the coast.
The threats from air attack had increased with the continuing development of Gotha bombers, used in addition to the Zeppelin airships. On May 25, 1917, a daylight raid of 21 Gotha bombers struck in the Folkestone-Shorncliffe region, creating approximately 300 casualties. Of these, 17 fatalities and 93 wounded were Canadian soldiers, training and awaiting transfer to the front. On 13 June 1917, London suffered its first daylight bombing raid, with 162 persons killed and 432 injured.
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.
The Victoria Cross is awarded for most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. The medal was instituted on February 5, 1856 with awards retroactive to 1854. The first award to a Canadian was in February 1857, to Lt. Alexander DUNN (Charge of the Light Brigade). There have been 1,351 Victoria Crosses and 3 Bars awarded worldwide, 94 to Canadians (Canadian-born or serving in the Canadian Army or with a close connection to Canada).
The following list (though not complete) is of Canadian soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War.