Uncle Oscar's Last Day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eastminster Poppy Garden, November, 2015

On the morning of April 9, 2016 – 99 years after the Battle of Vimy Ridge – I made a presentation to Eastminster United Church, Belleville. The presentation was part of a poppy ceremony to commemorate the 99th anniversary of the battle which lent so much to the establishment of Canada as a proud and independent nation.

 

Uncle Oscar's Last Day

Ninety-nine years ago this morning my Uncle Oscar died at Vimy Ridge. He was a machine gunner with the Second Division as they crept uphill to free the village of Thelus. A shell exploded, killing Pte. Oscar French and another soldier.

Uncle Oscar was one of 37 machine-gunners killed in the attack on Vimy Ridge; one of more than 3,600 men who died in the three-day battle to drive the Germans off an obscure hill in northeastern France.

Vimy Ridge is commemorated as an historic moment in Canadian military history, a defining moment in the development of our nationhood, and a pivotal moment in the creation of our national identity.

We were the tough buggers who did what the French and the British had failed to do: drive the Huns off a ridge of land commanding that part of the Front. The Germans would come to respect, and possibly fear, the Canadians. There is captured evidence to confirm this. Our troops were tough, and achieved the unexpected to win victory.

But it wasn’t easily attained. Those 3,600 men lost forever represented almost five per cent of the Canadians killed in the entire four-year war.  Another 7,000 were wounded.

But the First World War was like that. You could sit for weeks in the trenches, with nothing more dangerous than gnats and rats to pester you. Then you could go over the top and lose hundreds of your buddies in a single day.

At the Battle of the Somme, for instance, the British lost 60,000 men in a single day. In…One…Day! The First Newfoundland Regiment lost over 700 men out of 800 in 30 minutes. In the time it takes me to deliver this message, 700 men were killed or wounded at Beaumont-Hamel.

Let me set the Vimy scene for you. Sylvia and I got a look at the lay of the land when we visited Vimy Ridge a couple of years ago. The Ridge is about seven kilometres long, running northwest-southeast. The southwestern slope, that is, towards the Allied side, slopes gently upwards toward the crest. The ridge drops off sharply on the northeastern side, where the Germans were in control. The ridge is forested now, as it probably was when the war broke out. But by the time the Canadians attacked, shellfire and explosives had cleared the land of any forest cover.

The ridge was drenched in blood and littered with body parts before the Canadians arrived. The French had already lost more than 100,000 dead or wounded soldiers  in failed attempts to budge the Germans.

I must point out that the Canadian attack on Vimy was not an isolated incident. If it had been, we would never have made it. It was a part of the British-led Arras offensive, named after a moderate-sized city not far away. That offensive, in turn, was a diversionary tactic to draw German forces away from a French attack further south.

The four Canadian divisions, working side by side for the first time, were ordered to seize the strategic strong point of Vimy Ridge. Holding the high ground would give the occupier an important vantage point over lower ground on either side.

It is true that the Canadians accomplished what the French and British had failed: in a few hours they took Vimy Ridge. But it would be unfair to suggest that Canadians did it because they were rougher or tougher. A great deal of planning, based on previous failed experiences, went into the assault. It was carefully rehearsed. Full-scale models were built behind the lines. Troops were shown models and maps and photographs of the ridge. Infantry soldiers were trained in grenade-throwing and machine-gunning. New platoon tactics were introduced to keep the troops together and driving forward. Rather than have the men march up to the Front where they would be exposed to shell fire and bombs, engineers dug tunnels well into the ridge so the men could emerge from the ground as close to the line as possible. The hill is made of chalk, so digging was fairly easy. We were down in the tunnels at Vimy. It was very eery to think of thousands of men crammed into those tunnels, waiting for the signal to emerge into the fire of the enemy.

The Germans knew an attack was coming; they just didn’t know when. For a week, the Allies bombarded the German lines intensely with a seemingly endless supply of shells. This was usually a sure sign that an attack was imminent. Suddenly the pounding stopped. At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, Easter Monday, more than 15,000 Canadians poured onto the ridge. With wind, snow and sleet at their backs – a hindrance to the Germans – they made way up the slope behind a rolling artillery barrage. The barrage was intended to pin down the Germans and keep them from reaching their machine gun positions.

By early afternoon, most of the ridge had been captured. After three days of fighting, Canadians with the help of British forces completed capture of the entire ridge. To that point in the war it was the single greatest Allied advance.

But it came with a terrible price. All the planning went out the window in the face of reality. Many German machine gun positions escaped the artillery barrage, flanks opened up between Canadian units, stretcher bearers couldn’t get onto the field and field dressing stations were overwhelmed with the injured and the dying.

Here’s how the scene was described in official records of the Second Division about 9 am on the opening day:

“Wounded men were sprawled everywhere in the slime, in the shell holes, in the mine craters, some screaming to the skies, some lying silently, some begging for help, some struggling to keep from drowning in (water-filled) craters, the field swarming with stretcher-bearers trying to keep up with the casualties.”

And yet, acts of bravery by individuals or small groups of men flushed out the Germans and captured a number of key machine-gun positions.

My uncle, Pte. Oscar French, was part of a machine-gun crew in the Second Division, assigned to attack the village of Thelus towards the southern end of Vimy Ridge. He and another soldier were killed by shell-fire. They are buried in a small graveyard called Nine Elms Military Cemetery between Thelus and Arras. He was just a farm boy from Ontario, buried forever beneath the farmland of France.

There are a couple of other points I want to make about the events at Vimy. While the Canadian divisions had worked together under one commander, that commander had been British General Sir Julian Byng. Shortly after the success at Vimy, the Canadian corps was turned over to a Canadian commander, Arthur Currie.

As I said, this was the first time all four Canadian divisions had worked together under one command to achieve a single goal. This can be traced in part by the strong opinions of Sir Sam Hughes.

You may have heard of Sir Sam. He was minister of militia and defence for Canada, until the prime minister could no longer stand his arrogance and his abrogation of power, and kicked him out of cabinet in November 1916. He was, not to put it gently, an abrasive, insufferable, pompous, irascible, nationalistic old goat. But still, he had kept the Canadians together in the field and created the cohesion that led to our united success at Vimy.

My forth-coming book, Letters to Vimy, contains a series of fictional letters that I have written to Uncle Oscar in reply to real letters from him to his mother, my grandmother. I described the process this way:

“When Canadian soldiers first arrived in Britain, they were seen as colonial replacements to fill gaps in British formations. The Canadian government resisted this attitude, and Sam Hughes refused to let the Canadian units be split up. They trained in Britain together, they went to France together, and ultimately they fought together at Vimy Ridge, four divisions side by side, shoulder to shoulder, sweeping the Germans off the hill and securing the heights for the Good Guys.

“Uncle, that was you and thousands like you. You were there, you sacrificed your life, but your colleagues acting together achieved your goal and instilled pride in an emerging nation. To this day we celebrate that victory and mark the spot with a massive monument atop Vimy Ridge. We take pride in that achievement, and rightfully so. In that crucible of Vimy Ridge, we began to forge Canada as an independent nation.”

 

LETTERS TO VIMY