The Birth of Our Nation: the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge

April 9 – 12, 1917

Across the summit of the ridge
The Maple Leaf battalions pour
They’ve carried it in glorious war –
How great has been the privilege.

(excerpt from The Canadian Machine Gunner, a World War I trench newspaper)

This year, in 2017, Canada will be celebrating its 150th birthday. But for quite some time after confederation, our country was still hiding in the shadow of Great Britain. The Great War, despite its atrocities, was the event that allowed Canada to emerge as a nation and gain the respect, and even awe, of the rest of the world. As Brigadier General Ross so famously said when speaking of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, “It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then… that in those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

In October of 1916, Canadian battalions began arriving in the Vimy sector in northern France, and by December, all four Canadian divisions (100,000 men) were gathered together in one place for the first time in the war. Months of reconnaissance, planning, and digging lay ahead of the men. Private George Wesley Bass, a South Peace man, spent those six months leading up to the battle working with the Canadian Engineers, laboring in the extensive maze of underground tunnels. These tunnels would be exploded at ‘zero hour,’ and men would pour out of them onto the battlefield. Subterranean subways were also built to transport supplies and wounded soldiers. When going over the top on April 13, 1917, Private Bass was wounded in his side and his arm.

The notorious Vimy Ridge is an escarpment approximately seven kilometers in length. It rises gradually on the western side, and drops more quickly on the eastern side. With an elevation of 145 meters above the Douai Plains, the ridge provides an unobstructed view for tens of kilometers in every direction – which explains why the British and French had tried (and failed) to capture it numerous times earlier in the war.

The attack on the ridge was originally planned for April 8, but because of poor weather it was postponed until April 9, 1917 (Easter Monday) at 5:30am. General Arthur Currie, in command of the 1st Canadian Division, had these words to say to the troops headed into battle: “… To those who fall I say: You will not die, but step into immortality. Your mothers will not lament your fate, but will be proud to have borne such sons. Your name will be revered forever and ever by your grateful country…”. General Currie was promoted to commander of the Canadian Corps shortly after the battle, a tribute to its great success.

By nightfall on April 10, the only objective not taken was ‘the Pimple.’ Many different roles must be played for a battle to be so decisively won. One such role was mopping up, the duty of the 49th Battalion, of which many men from the South Peace were a part. Mop-up parties were responsible for following assault parties in order to kill any remaining defenders. They also cared for wounded men on the battlefield and performed other more ‘lowly’ tasks. David Barr was a private in the 49th Battalion and was killed on the first day of the battle, April 9. Following the battle, his battalion received many telegrams and messages of thanks for their enormous and crucial contribution during the attack.

Of the 100,000 Canadians involved in the battle, 3,598 were killed and 7,004 were wounded by the time the last objective was reached on April 12. Some men, like Private Benjamin Gray of DeBolt, were wounded so severely that they were sent home for the duration of the war. (Private Gray lost his arm due to an injury sustained at Vimy Ridge). His Majesty King George V said to Field Marshall Douglas Haig, “Canada will be proud that the taking of Vimy Ridge has fallen to the lot of her troops.” And I do not doubt that the folks here in the South Peace region felt that pride every bit as keenly as the rest of the nation, even as they waited for their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons to return.

It is said that when having learned of the victory at Vimy Ridge, a French soldier declared “C’est impossible!” but upon learning it was the Canadians who had won, he exclaimed “Ah! Les Canadiens! C’est possible!”

That is our legacy.

researched & written by Kaylee Dyck

Sources:

for biographies of George Wesley Bass, David Barr, and Benjamin Gray, visit South Peace Soldiers Memorial

The Canadian Machine Gunner (see pages 18 & 27)

Preparing for the Attack on Vimy – Veterans Affairs Canada

Canadian War Diaries

Battle of Vimy Ridge – Wikipedia

Historica Canada

Dave Barr – Canadian Virtual War Memorial

Remembering the Somme

In addition to being Canada Day, July 1, 2016 marks one hundred years since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.  The battle, which lasted more than four months, is one of the bloodiest in military history – more than one million men were killed or wounded.

To commemorate this anniversary, here are the stories of two Grande Prairie men who fought at the Somme.

Gordon Belcourt

Gordon was born in Lac St. Anne to Magloire and Constance Letendre, some of the early Metis settlers to this area. Gordon signed up for WWI from Lake Saskatoon on July 17, 1915, at the time he owned land on the outskirts of Flying Shot Lake. He joined the 49th Regiment and left for France in April of 1916. At the time of enlistment he is listed as 23 years old standing 5 feet 7 inches tall. On Sept 28, 1915 he put in a request to be transferred from the 9th Reserve Battalion to the 49th. Gordon was wounded in June 1916 (shell or shrapnel wounds to his left side and leg) at the Battle of Mount Sorrel, which was a prelude to the Somme offensive. He was transported to the 3rd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station hospital where he died on June 4, 1916 from the wounds he received. Gordon is buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium.

Archibald Setter

Archie was born in Battleford, Saskatchewan and homesteaded near Spirit River.  A rumor had reached Grande Prairie that he had deserted, but a letter written to William Taft and printed in the Grande Prairie newspaper on February 20, 1917 told the truth:

Northumberland War Hospital

Dear Friend,

 I suppose you will be quite surprised to hear from me; however, as I am living in my bed at the above hospital I thought I would write you a few lines. We arrived in Liverpool on the 7th May 1916 and there went to a place called St. Martain’s Plains and from there I was drafted in to the 8th Bttn. and went to France in June. I was in the battle of Ypres in June and also was at the Somme when I got hit in the left ankle, and I have finally lost my left foot, it is cut off about 5 inches above the ankle, so my chances are pretty good for getting back to Canada once more. Well Bill, you people have no idea of the war, but I can tell you that it is simple hell.

…I suppose Grande Prairie is a big place now since the railroad is there….

Dean Hodgins was in the same Bttn. as me, I wrote to him a few times since I got wounded, but I have got no answer so I don’t know what has happened to him.

My leg is not quite healed yet but I am improving greatly. I think it will be some time yet before I will be able to use an artificial limb.

Well, Bill, this will be all for this time and if you don’t answer this letter please tell Mr. Rae that I want some papers.

I remain your friend,

Pte. A. Setter

No. 101051 No. 5 Ward, 8th Canadians

It was later reported in the Grande Prairie paper that Archibald came back to Canada and was working as a postmaster in Saskatchewan.

View Archie’s letter here

These are only two of many soldiers who saw action at the Somme.  A casualty list in the October 3, 1916 paper shows that nine more were wounded, and two killed – and that was only one list in a four month battle.  The casualties included:

George Perry Peebles (wounded)
William Bousfield (wounded)
Edgar Hudson (wounded)
Harold A. Wellwood (wounded)
Donald M. Innes (wounded)
Arthur Doubleday (wounded)
Clement Gawler Mead (wounded)
Wesley Harper (wounded)
Charles William Alfred Herbert (wounded)
Reid Crossley Watson (killed)
John Pringle (killed)

To find out more about the soldiers of the South Peace, visit our memorial page.

Ypres, the Cost of Valour

A speaker at the Armistice Banquet in 1927 referred to a battle at a place called St. Julien.  I looked it up and found that St. Julien was one of four separate battles that made up the second Battle of Ypres (calgaryhighlanders.com).  Between 1914 and 1918, five battles were fought around Ypres, with over a million Allied casualties.  The battles were fought to deny the Germans a route across Belgium to the English Channel and protect coastal ports.  It was at St. Julien that “for the first time a former colonial force (1st Canadian Division) defeated that of European power (the German Empire) on European soil.”  This was the first mass use by Germany of poison gas on the Western Front, and when a 7 km gap opened in the line, the raw Canadian troops reformed the line and prevented a German breakthrough.  The Canadian Division’s trial by fire at Ypres earned them the reputation of tough and dependable troops, but they paid a high price.  “In the forty-eight crucial hours that they held the line, 6035 Canadians – or one man in every three who went into battle – became casualties; of that number, approximately 2000 (or one man in every nine) were killed.  (Quotes taken from Wikipedia)

Researched & written by Kathryn Auger

Grande Prairie Herald ~ November 18, 1927

Grande Prairie Herald ~ November 18, 1927

War News In G.P. ~This Week in 1914

Group photo of approximately 45 men enlisting for WWI from the Lake Saskatoon area. ~1914

Group photo of approximately 45 men enlisting for WWI from the Lake Saskatoon area. ~1914

August 4th was the 100th Anniversary of Canada’s entry into WWI; when Britain declared war on Germany, Canada was automatically brought into the was as a British Dominion. The August 4th issue of the paper did not mention this at all. Likely the paper had already been printed when the news was received by telegraph.

However, it is curious that other than the “Telegraphic War News”, there are very few local items in the papers through the entire month of August. not even an Editorial was written about the situation. A letter publishes August 25 seems to indicate that there had been some heated discussion amoung local citizens. The feeling that the war would be short (‘over by Christmas’) was possibly a factor, and there are indications that the isolation of the area contributed to frustration about what actions should be taken locally.

Below are various news articles taken from August 11, 25 & 28 issues of The Grande Prairie Herald.

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Written and researched by Kathryn Auger.

 

 

 

Researching WWI Soldiers

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Dave Capot World War I soldier, with one of his army friends.

The 100th anniversary of the first World War has many people looking at their family members who were involved in the conflict. Grande Prairie was a new town at that time, in fact celebrations are under way to celebrate it’s 100th anniversary as well. To make researching soldiers from the South Peace easier here is a list of resources that we have as well as other resources we think you would find helpful.

1. At South peace Regional Archives we have created a database of soldiers from the South Peace. We have tried to make this list as complete as possible but if we have missed someone please do not hesitate to let us know. Directory of WWI & WWII Soldiers

2. If you know your ancestor was involved in WWI and you would like to research further the Library and Archives website has a database that you can search on-line. Once you locate your ancestor’s record you can order his/her service file from them. They have plans to digitize all the service files and make them available on-line but that project may take a few years.

3. Also at the Library and Archives website you can find War Diaries,  these are helpful if you know what company your ancestor served under, you can then discover what conflicts and other things of note that were written down by the officer in charge. Here is the description from LAC website -” This database contains the digitised War Diaries of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) units. From the start of the First World War, CEF units were required to maintain a daily account of their “Actions in the Field.” This log was called a War Diary. The War Diaries are not personal diaries, rather they are a historical record of a unit’s administration, operations and activities during the First World War.”

4. Court Martial from WWI – this is another resource from LAC you can explore in searching for your ancestor.

5. A Canadian Timeline for WWI.

6. Veterans Affairs Canada has a great website that explores the conflicts and Canada’s involvement.

7. A website that is collecting information and stories about Canadian WWI soldiers. The Memory Project

5. Lives of the First World War is a project collecting information on ALL soldiers who were involved in WWI.

WWI was a big adventure for many boys from the Peace Country and Canada. The belief was that the War would quickly end and with that in mind many left their homesteads, families and friends to do their part. Too many didn’t come back.

RIP.

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WWI Anniversary – The Buck Brothers

July 28, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary since the start of WWI.  August 4, 1914 is a day that changed Canadian history for many families, Great Britain (which includes Canada) declared war on Germany.

This is an article that originally appeared in our June 2014 Newsletter about 2 local boys living in Lake Saskatoon who joined the fight.

Charles and Arthur Buck, from Hertfordshire, England, emigrated to Canada in 1910, when they were 24 and 22 years of age, respectively. They filed on land in the Lake Saskatoon district, calling their homestead Poplar Grove Farm.

When World War I began in 1914, recruitment drives and patriotic speeches convinced many of the young homesteaders to join up. Charles signed up with the British Military, 2nd King Edward Horse, and Arthur enlisted in the 49th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment.298
The 49th Battalion was soon fighting in France. Arthur died in the Battle of Passchendaele on November 1, 1917 and is buried in Poperinghe, Belgium. Charles was gassed during the war and although ill, managed to return to Poplar Grove Farm in the summer of 1918, with his English War Bride, a nurse named ‘Cis’. He died March 4, 1920 as a result of his war sickness and is buried in the small cemetery behind St. Andrews Anglican Church on the west side of Lake Saskatoon.
Neither Arthur nor Charles had any descendants, but in 2010, a niece from England donated a collection of their photographs to SPRA. They document the Buck brothers homestead activities, their cabin inside and out, and their battalion during the war. These can be seen on Charles and Arthur Buck fonds on our website.

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