Let’s remember the Yukoners who fought at Vimy Ridge during the First World War

Last week, on April 9, members of the three parties in the Yukon legislature rose in turn to commemorate Canada's important role in the Battle for Vimy Ridge.

Last week, on April 9, members of the three parties in the Yukon legislature rose in turn to commemorate Canada’s important role in the Battle for Vimy Ridge on the Western Front during World War I.

They acknowledged the sacrifice of our brave men overseas, and the role that this battle played in defining Canada as a nation. But none of the members of the legislature mentioned the dedicated volunteers from the Yukon who served at Vimy.

While it is important to remember the sacrifices made by Canadians during this famous wartime offensive battle, it would have been appropriate for our legislative representatives to recognize the sacrifices of the brave Yukon men who fought and even died during this historic battle.

Following a skillfully planned attack and a precision creeping barrage, Canadians overran and captured the heavily fortified German position on April 9, 1917. Nearly 3,600 Canadians died taking the ridge, where the French and British had failed. Many Yukoners were there.

One of them, Howard Grestock, died at Vimy before the battle began. A veteran of the Boer war, and many years a miner in the Yukon, Grestock was the first Yukon man to enlist when war was declared nearly three years before. He had been head of the grenade section of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse unit until he was given a commission as a lieutenant with the 73rd Battalion.

We know more about Grestock than of many of the others because the letters that he sent to Dawson were frequently published in the newspaper. In September 1914, before shipping out for England, he prophesied that they were in for a “bad war… it will be extremely lucky if we come back.”

A few weeks later, in England with the Strathcona’s Horse, he complained about the constant rain on the Salisbury Plain. “I did not come out to do barrack room work,” he said. “If we don’t go to the front before Christmas I shall apply for a transfer to (a) British regular … regiment.”

In June 1915, Grestock was in France. “When I left Dawson,” he said, “we thought that the war soon would be over, but now I think it has just started and is good for years.” Grestock already had a taste of action on the front and considered himself lucky. He had been spared from artillery fire, shrapnel, sniper attacks and poison gas.

In April 1916, he was on the front, waiting for a big offensive to begin. Later in the year, he saw heavy action with the Seventy Third Highlanders, but came out of it unscathed. Several times he reported on his good luck at not being shot, blown up or gassed.

Since his arrival in France, he had seen action in all of the major battles – Hooge, Festubert, Givenchy, St. Eloi and the Somme. “On personal merit,” says an article in the Victoria Daily Colonist, “he was given his commission.” When transferred to Vimy Lieutenant Grestock was second in command in his unit.

Sometime in late 1916, in a most daring fashion, he played an important role in forcing back an enemy counterattack. The following night, he returned to no man’s land to recover the body of a dead German soldier so that they could determine the unit he served in.

On February fourth, 1917, his luck ran out. He led a small raiding party across no man’s land to attack the German trenches. His party went too far, and suffered heavy casualties. He did not return. The circumstances surrounding his fate became clear when it was learned that he had died some time later, as a prisoner of war, in a German-run hospital at Henin-Lietard.

There is only one group of Yukon soldiers who are easy to track during the battle of Vimy Ridge. These were the Boyle volunteers of the Yukon Motor Machine Gun Battery, First Motor Machine Gun Brigade.

Neil McCuish was one of them. “Our battery was there with flying colors,” he wrote in a letter published in the Dawson News. “The artillery opened out at 5:30 in the morning. Every gun opened out at the same time, and there must have been thousands of them, of all calibres, including machine guns. The tanks and cavalry took their part. It was a great victory for the Canadians. Half an hour after our artillery opened out, Fritzes guns ceased firing except the long range guns…. All went well with the Canadian boys that day and they still are keeping up the good work.

“Our battery got out of it pretty lucky … Felix Boutin was wounded and Bert Lawless was killed.” A few days later, still stationed near Vimy, McCuish was also wounded by shrapnel, but he survived the war.

Two days prior to the great offensive, Private Felix Boutin was wounded in the face by shell fire at a position that the unit held to the left of the Neuville St. Vaast – Thelus road. Fortunately for Boutin, the injury was minor. He recovered and survived the war by 30 years.

Bert Lawless was not so fortunate. When he enlisted in Vancouver in November 1914, he listed himself as a prospector. He had also served in the Royal North West Mounted police for five years. For a while, he was stationed in a detachment of one on Gold Run Creek.

Lawless had seen the brutality of war. Not long before his own death, two of the soldiers manning his machine gun were wounded and a private (not from the Yukon) was killed by enemy artillery fire. The very same day, while standing with Private Morris Anthony, he witnessed a bullet smash through Anthony’s face and exit through the back of his neck. Anthony survived, was shipped to hospital and was later transported back to Canada.

The Vimy attack was meticulously planned, and each unit, including the Yukon battery, had its own specific “table of moves.” At 3:15 p.m. on April 10 the final assault began on Hill 145, the highest point on Vimy Ridge. The Yukon battery was assigned targets nearby, in and around Givenchy. Sometime on the 11th of April, Private Herbert Lawless, who had already earned a Military Medal, ran out of luck. He was killed when an enemy shell exploded near his gun emplacement.

Let us not forget the sacrifices made by these brave Yukoners at Vimy Ridge in 1917.

* * *

On a different topic, sad news has just been received that Reverend Joshua Phillpotts, whose talk about his experiences in Watson Lake I reported in my column of Feb. 27, passed away recently.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net