The battle of Vimy Ridge was fought from 9th April to the 14th April, 1917. Under its commander Sir Julian Byng the Canadian Corps captured a ridge that the British and French suffered 150,000 casualties trying to capture in the previous years. The Canadian Corps lost 3598 men killed out of total casualties of 10,602.
The local boys were there. Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton of the 18th Battalion won his Victoria Cross at this battle.
Lieutenant Stuart Cameron Kirkland joined the 91st Battalion in St. Thomas, Ontario, 16 April, 1916. The 91st Battalion was broken up in England, and its units were used to reinforce existing Battalions in France. A veteran (wounded ) of the Vimy battle he wrote to his brother in Dutton, Ontario(1).
“Now that I am laid up in dry dock for repairs. I will have time to write more. Just a week ago yesterday morning I got “mine”. I had better try and tell you about it as well as I can without violating any of the censorship rules.
Well, we knew of course for some time before that we were going to take part in a big offensive. We had been practicing and rehearsing the details for several days, but didn’t know the hour it was to start till the very night before. Then the officers were informed of the zero hour. (The zero hour is the hour which the attack begins) All watches were synchronized, that is compared and set the same, so that there could be no mistake. All the battalions taking part were to be in the front line trenches ready by the appointed hour. Well our battalion moved off from billets early on Sunday evening and marched to our part of the line where we were to go over. It was one o’clock in the morning before I had my platoon in position in their jumping off trench, and we stood there in mud to our waists all night waiting for the eventful hour. I can never describe my feelings as I stood there waiting for the moment to come. At a certain hour our artillery was to open up on Fritz’s front line and we were to jump out and advance as near as possible, ready to rush his front line when our artillery fire was raised. About fifteen minutes before the time set, I took two water-bottles of rum and gave each of the men a good swallow, for it was bitter cold standing in the mud all night. Then I stood with watch in hand, waiting, waiting.
Precisely on the moment the most wonderful artillery barrage ever known in the history of the world started. Hundreds, thousands of big guns, from 18-pounders to 15-inch guns, opened at the same second. Imagine 15-inch guns firing from miles behind the line and throwing each of them about 1,400 pounds of explosives. The very earth rocked, and the noise and thunder was awful and maddening. Then I jumped over the top and called to the boys to come on. I had gone about 15 yards when I felt a stinging sensation and looking down saw a trickle of blood on my left hand. A Heinie machine gun had got me. At the same time a sergeant just to my right crumpled up in a heap, riddled with machine gun bullets. How lucky I was! I can never thank God enough for my escape. It was miraculous. How I only got one instead of a dozen I can never tell, and through the left arm of all places, when it might just as well as not have been through my head.
I dived into a shell hole and got my arm tied up a bit. A wounded man come along and I helped to bandage him up in return for his helping me tie up my own. By that time our company was ahead of me, into Fritz’s front line and following our barrage on to the second line. Our men, you know were going ahead on a frontage of 12 miles long. Thousands and thousands of men, imagine the scene if you can.
I got up and started ahead again, but I found my arm was going to be a bother so I turned back to go to a dressing station. By this time the German artillery was throwing everything they had at our old front line and on No Man’s Land to harass our supports coming up. It took me a long while to get back the few yards to our front lines. Heinie shells were dropping all around me. I got into a mine-crater with a couple of other wounded men, but a big shell dropped right in the crater not far from us and we thought it time to leave those parts. We finally got into the front line but a long way from where I had gone out a while before. The first thing I saw when I got into the trench was an officer I knew lying badly wounded and his batman near him dead. Just then a Heinie cam along on his way to the rear. Hundreds of prisoners went that way without escort. Our boys, when they surrendered, gave them a kick and told them to keep moving forward our rear, where they gathered them in droves and put them in big enclosures. The Heinie who came along while I was examining the wounded officer happened to be a Red Cross fellow, so I got him to bandage the wounds. Then I continued on my way out.
In one place where the trench had been blown in and it was very narrow I came on a poor fellow lying lengthwise of the trench and everyone had been tramping right over him till he was almost buried in the mud. Of course he was dead so I suppose it didn’t inconvenience him any. But imagine the sensation of having to tramp on dead bodies. In another place I came on one of my own company lying with both legs blown off at the knees but still alive and conscious. I stopped and talked to him a few moments. Scenes like these are not uncommon in war.
After dodging shells for sometime and seeing more than one party of men blown to atoms I finally found a dressing station. The doctor sent me down the line after dressing my arm, and after passing through the field ambulance and then the C.C.S. I was put on a hospital train for Boulogne, where I stayed just one night and was then packed into a hospital ship and ultimately arrived in Dover, thence by rail to Reading, and here I am.
I will tell you more of my experiences in next letter. I may say just here that the Canadians “got there” anyway and showed they could fight as well as anyone and a little better than Heinie. We had beat him to a “farewell”.
Well, I must close. My arm is doing nicely and doesn’t pain much. It was a lucky scratch. The bullet went through clean as a dollar making a nice clean wound.”
Photo: Library and Archives Canada. The 29th Battalion in ‘No Man’s Land’ at Vimy Ridge
1. The Dutton Advance, 10 May, 1917.