9 April 2018


Today is the 101st anniversary of the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge. My cousins and I have occasionally debated whether or not our Grandfather was there, and in what capacity. It's a little tricky to say.

Before I go on, here is a link to my older post detailing the battle in general.

He was in the area at that time. he had signed up in 1916, even though he could have sat out the war as he wass a skilled worker (he made fireworks) in what had been turned into a munitions industry. However, on a day in 1916 he and a group of friends headed down to the recruitment office and signed up. At the time he was thirty and his first son had been born a few weeks earlier. I don't know why he and his friends decided to sign up at that time. It may have been some patriotic fervour, it may have been a sense of adventure. It may have been a sense of shame that other men were fighting and dying and they were sitting safe at home. For all I know, listening to a cholicky baby for a couple of weeks made him feel like crossing an ocean and shooting someone. I know he couldn't have signed up earlier, at least not legally, as he fell below the minimum height requirement of five foot three. However, after the heavy losses at the Somme the British lowered their standards to allow men who were five foot one to join the military, and he could make that minimum with the help of a brick. (Incidentally, his father had signed up earlier, and had lied about both his height- he was shorter than his son- and his age)

My Grandfather was placed in the 120th City of Hamilton Battalion, which was a reserve unit. It was never intended to go into battle as a unit: it was a training unit for recruits who would then be transferred into other units to bring them up to strength. He had been called up to strength from his reserve battalion and placed in the 19th Battalian of the Fourth Brigade of the Second Division of the Canadian Corps. The 19th was involved in the attack at the south end of the ridge. The second division as a whole made the farthest advance that day, of about three miles. The Corps as a whole adopted leapfrogging tactics. Rather than sending the battalions out to achieve the most distant objectives, the command set up three lines- red line, green line and blue line. Off the top of my head I cannot say which was which, but it was the short, distant and long line. Some units were to advance to the short line and hold, other units were to leapfrog over their position and advance to the middle and hold, and others were leapfrog over those units and advance to the long line and hold. There were many back up plans about using these units as reserves, or the lines as defensive positions should the subsequent phase of the attack run into trouble, but the Second Division's attack went like clockwork and there was no need for plan b, c, etc.

Records show that the 19th battalion advanced to the short line and held as planned. Well and good, but here's where the situation gets a little complicated as regards my grandfather. I have two letters he wrote home, and a copy of a third. In the copied letter he signs his name, and then says "A Company, 19th Battalion." Here's the thing, I have a book written by Deward Barnes, who served in A Company, 19th Battalion, entitled "It Made You Think of Home". In the book he notes that he did not go over the top that day, as A Company was left out of the battle. This was due to a policy adopted by British Command in the wake of the disastrous Somme offensive. where entire battalions and regiments were wiped out (including the 1st Newfoundland Regiment at Beamont-Hamel). In order not to have entire units destroyed, the command would now leave one company of each regiment out of battle in order to have a core around which to rebuild the unit.

So, he was left out of battle? Well, maybe. He only signs that one letter from A Company, the others he does not mention which company he is in, and the letter that he does mention it was written months after Vimy at Passchendaele. Also, he was a runner, which meant it was his job to deliver messages between command and the units, and between the units, and so on. As near as I can tell, runners were sort of connected to companies, and sort of not connected to companies, sort of connect to command, and were apparently moved around a lot.

So, was he there? Certainly. Did he take part in the battle? I am not certain. My position is that it is more likely than not that he took some part in the battle delivering messages, but there is still a strong chance he didn't.

Would have like to have spoken to the man, but I never met him, and, according to my father and uncles, he never spoke of the war to anyone but other veterans.

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