On April 9, thousands of Canadians, including a number of people from the Yukon, will converge at the site of the Canadian memorial atop Vimy Ridge in France. It will be exactly 100 years to the day since Canadians participated in a defining moment in our history.
By February 1917, the Allied forces were preparing for a major offensive along the Western Front. The task given to the Canadians: take Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps was to take control of the German-held high ground along the ridge at the northernmost end of the planned offensive. This would ensure that the Allied southern flank could advance without suffering German cross fire.
The British did not hold much hope that the Canadians would achieve the objective. After all, the ridge was impregnable: the French had tried to take it and lost 50,000 soldiers in the attempt. How could the Canadians do any better?
In the period leading up to the opening of the attack, the Canadians launched 55 raids against German positions surrounding Vimy Ridge. On Feb. 4, Yukoner Lieutenant Howard Grestock, serving in the 73rd Battalion, was in charge of a raiding party on the Vimy front. He was wounded and captured by the Germans and died a short time later while a prisoner of war in a Bavarian field hospital. Grestock was the first Yukoner to enlist in 1914.
Four days later, Private William Hayhurst, an Englishman who had been mining in the Dawson vicinity before the war, and serving in the 47th Battalion (British Columbia), was wounded and died at the Number 11 Canadian Field Ambulance. Today he lies buried in a cemetery five kilometres west of Souchez.
The Yukon Motor Machine Gun Battery, a unit originally financed by wealthy Yukon miner Joe Boyle, laid down supporting fire for a raid that took place on March 1 without casualties. Activity increased and preparations presaged the coming major offensive on Vimy Ridge, which would involve all four Canadian divisions — nearly 100,000 men. On April 7, the Yukon Battery was moved into position to the left of the Neuville Saint Vaast–Thelus road. Men and supplies were carefully and systematically placed in position for the surprise attack on Vimy Ridge.
The plan was not to take the ridge in weeks or days, but in hours. The French allies who would advance on their right flank must have scoffed at the idea of capturing their primary targets in such a short time, but the attack had been carefully planned, coordinated and rehearsed. The two divisions to the left of the assault were to be dug in on the far side of the ridge in less than two hours.
At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, the Canadians unleashed the greatest military bombardment of the war to that date. As the carefully planned and timed barrage moved forward, infantry moved closely behind, giving the Germans, who hunkered down in concrete bunkers during the bombardment, no time to repel the coming attack.
The use of 150 machine guns during the initial assault was unprecedented. The Yukon Battery did its part when it began its machine gun barrage 79 minutes after zero hour. By 10 a.m., hostile counter fire was minimal. The men had shown exemplary performance as the tanks moved by them at close quarters. The positions were taken according to plan, and the bulk of the targets were captured within hours.
In the afternoon, the Yukon Battery moved into a new position to provide barrage support through the night on roads leading into Givenchy. The following day, the Yukoners provided heavy fire into areas where the enemy was expected to mass troops for a counterattack. Then, at 3:15 p.m., they provided support fire for the successful capture of Hill 145.
Following night fire on predetermined targets, they focused upon places in the vicinity of Givenchy. On April 11, under heavy enemy counter fire, Felix Boutin was wounded, and Private Herbert Lawless, who later received the Military Medal, was killed by shrapnel from a high-explosive shell.
On April 12, the Yukon Battery turned their attention to their final target, a low hilltop known as “the Pimple.” Zero hour was 5 a.m., and the Pimple was taken without any more casualties to the Yukon men. The Yukon Battery then provided night covering fire on the evening of April 12. A ceasefire was called at 10 a.m. on April 13, as the enemy had retreated out of range of Canadian fire.
The battle for Vimy Ridge was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force went into battle together, and the victory has become a national symbol of Canadian identity.
But it came at a price. The four days of this battle were the costliest of the war for the country. There were more than 10,500 casualties, nearly 8,000 of these falling on the first day of the assault, April 9. The Yukoners engaged in this battle survived relatively unscathed, with Herbert Lawless being the only death.
The highly mobile Yukon Battery continued follow-up actions as ordered for the next two weeks, until they were withdrawn from combat and replaced by the Eaton Battery on April 26. The contribution of the Yukon Battery during this highly successful campaign was to provide supporting barrage fire; the few casualties were the result of enemy artillery fire rather than combat. The Yukoners were part of the integrated support fire that pinned down the enemy and made success easier for their fellow Canadians at the sharp end.
The Yukon Battery was called into action again during the successful assault on the village of Fresnoy on May 3. The Yukon battery laid down a curtain of heavy protective fire ahead of the advancing infantry. Yukoner Private Reginald Gilbert was killed early in the battle, when a piece of shrapnel struck him in the back of the neck.
Lieutenant William Black witnessed the injury: “He died a hero’s death,” reported Black, “actually firing when hit.”
In an operation on May 8, nine members, including Private Russell McCollom, were wounded.
McCollom survived the war, only to die, while still in service, of pneumonia in early January 1919.
We must not forget the important part that Yukoners played in this pivotal moment in Canadian history.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book about the Yukon in World War I, titled From the Klondike to Berlin, will be launched from 6-8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 4 at the Old Fire Hall.