In Vimy’s deadly shadow
Canada’s military came of age in the Great War’s bloody battle 100 years ago.
A lasting tribute stretches from a French wheat field to a Winnipeg park
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/04/2017 (2241 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
About a mile away from the majestic Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France — between a farmer’s pasture and a wheat field — sits a little-known tribute to those who lost their lives in the Great War battlefield.
In late 1917, only a couple of months after the bloody hellfire that defined a young nation’s military might, the men of the 44th Manitoba Battalion built a small memorial to honour comrades who had fallen during the winter, spring and summer battles of that year.
That original memorial, after surviving the rest of the war, was taken apart, rebuilt and placed in Winnipeg’s St. James Park in 1926, where it still stands today.
The memorial’s remaining shell in France was knocked down in 1990, only to be replaced in 2007 by a modest new one built by local French citizens. That year, it commemorated the 90th anniversary of the 44th’s capture of The Pimple, a German strong point, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 12, 1917.
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In late 1916, Canadian forces took up position in the open graveyard that was Vimy Ridge. Tens of thousands of French soldiers who had attacked the formidable German defences in 1915 laid petrified, skeletonized and unburied in the chalky soil. British soldiers who fought there in 1916 joined the dead and, in 1917, it was the Canadians’ turn to pay the butcher’s bill.
The 44th had suffered horribly in the Oct. 28, 1916, attack on the Regina Trench — a German stronghold in the Somme battlefield. After being pulled off the line in late November, they had spent two weeks in battalion rest to repair bodies and minds. As the men began their long march towards Vimy, the battalion was looking well and much smartened up, according to a Dec. 18 entry in the battalion’s War Diary. But, depression and death still weighed heavily on the men.
Old-timers told reinforcements “they have come to a unit that knows only how to be slaughtered, that has never taken a yard of trench, never captured a prisoner,” Ed Russenholt wrote in 6000 Canadian Men, a day-by-day war account of the battalion.
Russenholt, a farmer from Bowsman, Man., who joined the 44th in December 1914, got his first taste of Vimy’s front line on Christmas Day.
Wet weather had left the trenches in an awful state. The enemy’s shelling was intense and six men were killed in the six days the battalion was on the line.
In a Christmas letter to his father, Russenholt tried to make light of the situation.
“Water and mud is over the knees in spots — at night when making your rounds to see if the boys are O.K. you go sneaking along — remembering that Fritz is just over there within bombing distance and generally when you come to some place where you want to be extra quiet splash, you go! sprawling on your hands.”
They were relieved on New Year’s Day, but the battalion took its second turn on the line six days later and 10 more men were killed. Vimy Ridge was a living up to its deadly reputation.
In January 1917, British Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng, the commander of the Canadian Corps, was instructed his corps’ job in the coming spring offensive was to capture the ridge. Byng and his favourite Canadian general, Arthur Currie, knew the task could only be accomplished by transforming the four Canadian divisions into a professional army, by developing a strategic master plan, ensuring the German wire was cut, that the enemy machine guns and artillery were obliterated and that an effective creeping barrage protected the attacking battalions.
When the 44th arrived in England in 1915, they were told to forget what they had learned in Canada. On the Ypres salient, they were told to forget what they had learned in England. Now on Vimy Ridge, they were told to forget Ypres and the Somme.
The British Army and the Canadian Corps had learned some lessons on the Somme. The tactical innovations found in the booklet Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action (1917) became the foundations of the Canadian Corps’ success in battle. On the Somme, the infantry learned how to fight and die; at Vimy they learned how to fight and win. Nevertheless, the cost in young Canadian lives would be horrible.
In 1915 and 1916, each company of 200 men was composed primarily of riflemen with machine gunners, snipers and grenade throwers as separate sections. In 1917, the four platoons of each company — roughly 35-50 men — were organized into flexible fighting teams, which trained to fight their own miniature battles using all the weapons in the infantry’s arsenal.
The men were to fight as a cohesive unit that could and would continue an attack, even if their officers and non-commissioned officers were killed or wounded. In the newly integrated units, one team was made up of riflemen and snipers; the next were the grenade throwers; the third team used rifle grenades and the fourth team was the Lewis Light Machine Gun crew.
The men studied mock-ups of the German trenches they were assigned to attack and practised taking the objective over and over. They knew the enemy’s strong and weak points, they knew where every machine gun was located, they knew how to manoeuvre, overrun, take the objective and hold it against the inevitable counterattack.
In a 1960 CBC interview, Russenholt described the men’s new regime, under the critical eyes of the new battalion commander, Lt.-Col. Rhys Davies. “This is a job… and before you can turn out skilled workmen, they’ve got to do a lot of training… Training, training, training, training… And I remember every time that we were out from the line, as I was gun sergeant, I had classes going all the time, on those guns, even with a bunch of old-timers. We used to say that our gunners got so good, you know, that if they could dissemble a gun, put it in a scoop shovel and throw it in the air, it’d come down assembled and shoot.”
Although the men complained, wrote Russenholt, “at heart (they) are impressed with the thoroughness of the preparation — here is such a contrast to the affair of Regina Trench. To hone their skills, moral and fighting spirit, all infantry battalions on Vimy took turns raiding the enemy trenches. The Canadians were specialists at this kind of stealth warfare.”
Since 1915, front-line battalion commanders wanted to control their sector of no-man’s land to prevent German stealth attacks. At night, they sent out scouts to hunt down and ambush German working parties. It was known as “silent death” in trench parlance. Sometimes they sent out trench raiders in “butcher and bolt” operations.
The 44th’s first turn was on Feb. 3 and the training in the new tactics paid off when the officers and NCOs leading the attack were wounded. The men took the initiative, rushed and captured a German gun and 14 prisoners. This was the battalion’s first successful attack; it was a new era.
As March continued, the battalion continued its raids, intensive training and preparations for the upcoming battle. On March 20, the preliminary artillery barrage began. The barrage destroyed nearly 90 per cent of the German guns and most of the barbed-wire defences. On Easter Monday, April 9, the battalions of the Canadian Corps came out of Vimy’s trenches and tunnels and attacked the heights to gain their immortality in victory or in death.
The 44th and 50th (Alberta) were ordered to hold their trench positions on the far-left side of the battlefield, where they had been positioned all winter. They were not due to go into battle until April 11.
On the morning of April 9, the men of the 44th climbed out of their tunnels and trenches and, in the darkness, waited in anticipation of zero hour. Russenholt wrote in a 1936 essay of the “shock and awe” as the battle began:
“Away west of us flame leaped up like prairie fire. The sky split as the lightening of gun fire flashed upward and southward as far as the eye could see! And the tremendous booms of the big guns thundered. We knew that even as we stood, thousands of Canadian men… our comrades were advancing across No-Man’s Land into the deadly fire of surviving German machine guns…”
However, not all was going to plan. The 4th Division’s 11th Brigade was unable to take its objective, Hill 145, where the Vimy National Monument now stands. They faced withering machine-gun fire and the 44th and 50th were ordered to attack and take the hill.
On the morning of the 10th, the men moved toward the unfamiliar terrain, led by Lt-Col. Davies, who walked imperiously into battle carrying only a pistol and his walking stick. Davies had been a private in the Boer War and had risen through the ranks. In civilian life, he was a rancher in Russenholt’s home town.
As the 44th moved up the ridge, the ground was covered in the bodies of the men who died the day before. “(They) remembered so well how it happened because we of the 44th battalion had been mowed down by unchecked machine gun fire in attacking Regina Trench…,” Russenholt wrote.
Although unfamiliar with the terrain, they pressed on under heavy fire. Most of the officers and NCOs were killed or wounded, but the battalion’s men moved steadily forward to capture their objective.
As Dugald’s Wesley Runions stepped into no-man’s land, shrapnel hit him in the stomach and shoulder and he went down. But he said in an interview in 1982: “I heard the men cheer as they took the ridge.” Canadians now looked beyond the mud and the blood into the broad Douai Plain. The operation cost the battalion 100 casualties.
Their work was not done. On the evening of the 11th, the battalion moved forward to attack their original objective, The Pimple, at the northern end of the ridge. On the 12th, the men attacked in a blinding snowstorm. It was “a good old Manitoba blizzard,” one said, “just like home.”
The mud was nearly impassible and the men were forced to move around large craters. Winnipeg’s Capt. Douglass Marshall, a Military Cross recipient, described the scene in a 1960 CBC interview. “It was early in the morning, pitch dark, and this was our home territory because on The Pimple, that was our area that we had been in and out of all winter… but when we got up there, there was nothing, you couldn’t recognize anything it had been — it was just a quagmire, was churned into just muck all over… And they were shelling us then pretty heavily, and the shells were bouncing around and they did no damage at all; they went into the mud and then they blew up in the air. So, nobody got hurt much.”
Although facing heavy resistance, there was no failure in the attack. As the Germans retreated under continued pressure, the battle of Vimy Ridge came to an end. Victory was costly. In Canada’s bloodiest four days of battle, 3,598 men died and more than 7,000 were wounded.
“…Big doings these days, eh?” Russenholt wrote on April 15. “Last five days the old 44th has cleaned up accounts with Hienie for what happened at the Somme — and then some…”
After the battle, the battalion recuperated, re-equipped, and took on replacements. “Boys keep coming and going and now-a-days, I don’t know one quarter of the boys — used to know them all” wrote a newly promoted Lt. Russenholt.
This played out heavily in May and June, when unseasoned soldiers were thrown into battle against fresh, well-equipped and highly trained troops. The 44th’s optimism from Vimy would falter as it suffered 852 casualties over the next two months.
Their brigade’s first assignment was to carry out operations in a section of captured German trenches known as The Triangle. The men were not expected to take German trenches in a “bite and hold” operation, but to merely hold their precarious position and kill as many Germans counterattacking as they could.
The Canadians were surrounded on three sides, the enemy sniped constantly and were close enough to throw bombs into the trenches. As April moved into May, the men suffered an alarming number of casualties in, as Russenholt commented, “seemingly fruitless operations.”
The front line tour between May 7-12 was a deadly time. On May 8, the Germans attacked but were held off by an artillery bombardment. Soon they counterattacked from all sides using “flammenwerfers” or flame-throwers. They were about to overrun the battalion but Maj. Charles Belcher, according to an entry in the War Diary, “displayed magnificent leadership, rallying the scattered men and leading them over the top in face of Flammenwerfer… and later led an attack carried out in broad daylight without artillery protection.”
Belcher survived the attack but was shot by a sniper later in the day. He had been wounded twice during the battle of the Somme, was awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in dispatches for his bravery in the face of the enemy. He is buried near Vimy Ridge in Villiers Station Military Cemetery.
By the time the troops were relieved on May 12, the 280 casualties sustained by the battalion during this tour in the trenches were the highest since Regina Trench.
In the next front-line tour, the depleted battalion was ordered to capture the heavily defended town of La Coulette, just beyond The Triangle. The advancing companies were caught in German artillery and machine-gun fire. The battalion suffered 262 casualties, including 77 captured.
The battalion had gone from victory at Vimy to disaster. The men were disillusioned but not angry at the battalion officers. It was the higher-ups at brigade and division levels who betrayed them and sacrificed lives for no apparent purpose.
Writing to his sister, Russenholt bared his soul and penned a moving reflection of the life, feelings and fears of a Canadian infantryman. Nearly every friend and comrade he had trained and fought with in the past two years had been killed, wounded or captured. He is one of the few left whole.
Dear Sister Mine:
Don’t think that because I don’t write that I’ve forgotten you or all the kind things you have done for me. The memory of these things is one of the things I will carry to my grave, whether it is an old man’s resting place or a grave in a shell-hole as befits a soldier, as it were…. Often I have sat in the bottom of a trench when our friend has been putting a barrage on over our lines when our own shells whistled overhead — and Hienie’s crumped and crashed and whined in front, behind and overhead — and the air full of mud & flying shrapnel and the smoke and the stink of the high explosive — when chaos reigned — when all that holds a man is the habits that have been drilled into him in his training — combined with the knowledge that the other fellows are sticking — and sitting there the thing that has got him through [in] my mind has been the Twenty-third Psalm… And surely through it all He has been with me through the valley of the shadow of death — and cared for me on a certain day last October, on the Somme, when our battalion walked into Hienie’s machine gun fire and our boys were left out in “no-man’s land” wounded or killed — He Brought me out safely. Miss Murray in a letter at Xmas said, “Every man is immortal until his work is done” and if in God’s good time any of us is called surely it is for the best and because our work here has been completed…
That was his last letter from the front. Russenholt was gassed by a shell on May 9. His war was over. He was sent home and lived to the age of 100.
In 1917, the Canadian Corps was transformed into a highly trained professional army. Advances in artillery spotting and incorporating integrated battle platoon tactics taught the Canadians how to win battles, but the enemy was also highly skilled and determined. Hundreds of men from the 44th and tens of thousands in the Canadian Corps will die fighting their way to victory in the decisive battles of 1918.
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Few families felt the deadly cost of war more than the Bowes clan in Boissevain.
On the town’s war memorial, there are 58 names of men who died serving in the First World War. Thirteen are identified as having served in the 44th battalion. They were unmarried farmers, labourers and clerks; the majority were in their early 20s and the oldest was 40 years old. Eleven died on the Vimy front between Feb. 28 and June 3, 1917.
Three were brothers — Clifford, Fred and James Bowes. Fred and James died at Vimy, while Clifford was killed later that year at Passchendaele.
Joseph and Margaret Bowes had eight children: two died in infancy; Elma was a school teacher who died from a ruptured appendix when she was 22; the eldest son, Elliot, was a veterinarian; Clifford worked as a grain elevator agent; James (Jim) worked for the Dominion Bank; Fred worked as a clerk.
In the summer of 1915, Cliff, then 23, enlisted in the 222nd Overseas Battalion (Boissevain Platoon). By fall, he was in southern England training at the Canadian base at Bramshott.
He was a dutiful son and letter writer who kept his mother and father informed about a soldier’s life. The men worked hard, he wrote, and were up at 6:00 a.m. to do physical exercise, gun drill, bayonet fighting and route marches. Young men are always hungry, so Cliff commented the grub was “three squares a day, lots of it but quality at times only fair.”
He was a proud soldier and happy about joining up. In a January 1916 letter, he wrote: “It certainly will be a happy day for me when I am actually in the front — and you can rest assured that I will do my duty no matter how hard or at what cost.” As well, he had no truck or trade for the “cold footed or the damn lazy” and, like most men of the Canadian Corps, believed Canada should introduce conscription.
In 1916, Cliff’s two younger brothers — 20-year-old Fred and 22-year-old Jim — had also enlisted in the 222nd. They trained at Camp Hughes near Shilo in the summer and arrived in England in December 1916. They were posted to Shoreham Camp.
Young Fred was bit of a scamp and liked to have a good time, However, he was worried how his mother would take any news about his misadventures. So, he decided to get in the first word in a letter he wrote on Dec. 16.
“Two boys we got from Melita started chewing about who could drink the most booze of the bunch and the result is that on Saturday we went down and I’ll say we were a happy bunch coming home. “Anyway, we got home fine and went to bed but the next morning, well, we all felt rotten all day. In the evening, Hanley and I went down with the intention of having a [beer] to clear the stuff out of us and the result was that we both came home a damn sight worse than we were the first night. But never again. That’s enough for me, so don’t worry on that score. I am only telling you this because I thought likely you would hear of it anyway and have a wrong impression of it all together. Anyway, we’ve all sworn off and didn’t wait for New Year’s either.”
Cliff couldn’t join the 44th in the summer of 1916 and missed the battalion’s October bloody baptism of fire at Regina Trench. He had developed a severe case of sciatica and spent months suffering in the base hospital and undergoing a long rehabilitation. He was declared fit in the fall and joined the battalion at Vimy Ridge in December.
The battalion’s first trip up the line came on Christmas Day. In a New Years’ letter home, he didn’t mention how horrible the weather was, nor the deplorable conditions of the trenches, nor the six deaths.
“I have been through the big ordeal of my first trip into the line,” he wrote. “It was not so bad on the nerves as I thought it would be but just the same there is lots of excitement at times… We got our measly 15 francs (about $3) yesterday and spent the whole in about half an hour sampling French wine and champagne. Now don’t run away with the idea that we all got tanked for such is not the case.”
Also on Christmas Day, Jim learned that he and Fred were posted to the 44th, arriving in France in January.
They reached the front line on Jan. 6, 1917. In a February letter home, Jim wrote they were getting used to the gunfire but “I was out last Tuesday and we certainly got a decent baptism for a starter. Old Hymie was decidedly peeves in the morning but none of us got hurt… Say mother in case anything happens to Fred or I, we both left a will with the paymaster… I don’t expect that you will have occasion to use them but then you can never tell.”
By early February, the brothers would see each other regularly and, even though they were in different companies, fought together. “We each see other regularly… we’ve been in the line and over the top in the biggest raid ever pulled off in this part of the line,” Fred wrote on Feb. 20.
This was probably the raid on the night of Feb. 12, when 200 men from the 44th along with 670 other men from the 10th Brigade went over the bags. They raided 700 yards behind the lines, took dozens of prisoners and inflicted many casualties on the enemy.
On Feb. 27, in its usual concise prose, the War Diary noted: “situation was normal… Casualties during day 4 O.R. (other ranks) wounded. Weather Fine. The four casualties occurred at the end of the day when a German rifle grenade dropped into a forward listening post being manned by men from the 44th.”
Had one of them lit a cigarette, stood up or made a noise that revealed the men’s location to an attentive German grenadier? We’ll never know.
Boissevain’s Eddy O’Neil was lucky, he survived his wounds and the war. James McTaggart from Melita died of wounds. Jim Bowes and Fred Bowes did not survive.
On March 1, Cliff wrote that when word came down the line Fred had been wounded and Jim had died, he went to find the field ambulance, but it had already taken Fred to the casualty clearing station.
“Oh mother,” he wrote, “I am nearly heart-broken and crazy. Jim passed away very quietly, thinking of us all and not of himself. Mother, let one thing alone comfort you in the hour of your trouble and that your dead boy was one of the greatest heroes that passed away in this terrible strife. Although wounded far the worst and suffering intensely, he would not let them take him out until they had taken Fred first…
His funeral is to be held tomorrow and I still have that task to do. That is to see my brother buried near the shell-swept fields of France.”
In a June letter home, Cliff recalled Jim’s funeral. “I saw Jimmy at the cemetery and, Mother, he did look natural with his bonnie smile. They tell me he passed away quite contentedly. His only worry was for Fred and you.”
Initially, the medical staff at the casualty station thought Fred might pull through, but likely a leg would have to be amputated. The battalion padre wrote that although Fred’s progress was slow his chances were good and even Cliff was optimistic about Fred’s recovery.
Fred died on March 8. The nursing sister, G.N. Raine, wrote Mrs. Bowes and told her Fred had been unconscious most of the time and “so was spared pain.” The padre also wrote he had just performed Jim’s funeral service.
Cliff was not able to attend the service but did visit the graves later; in June he wrote to his father that “the boys’ graves are both beautiful. I am sure glad that when they had to go that it was not in the drive as they at least had a descent burial undisturbed from the turmoil of shells.”
The “drive” was the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. He knew that many of the men killed would have been obliterated by shell or mortar fire or buried so deep in the mud that their bodies would never be recovered or identified.
Cliff did not take part in the 44th’s attack on Hill 145, where the Vimy Memorial stands today, nor The Pimple. However, Boissevain’s dead were piling-up: six of his friends were killed between April 10-12.
After the deaths of his brothers, Cliff was re-assigned to a tunneling unit to work on Vimy’s underground lighting system. In late May, he was re-assigned to the 44th’s transport unit away from the front line and believed he would be out of the fighting. “(But) I would just as soon be up on the line but I have mother to think of now…”
In a late June letter, Cliff was not as keen on his brother Elliot joining up or being conscripted, as he had been for Fred and Jim. The family had suffered enough.
“I know if I was in his place I would fight to the last ditch, for his place is at home and I would sure rather see him at home than here… But we must not grumble about our part as we all willingly joined and are all willing to see it through…”
In his July letters, he’s very pleased to be getting so many letters from home and he talks about meeting up with the boys from Boissevain. As always, he’s thinking about his brothers and recalls the first night Jim and Fred hit the line.
“What a reception they had. But they didn’t seem to mind at all. They sure were men.”
In September, Cliff was given 10 days’ leave. He returned on Sept. 24 and re-joined his battalion, just as the Canadian Corps was readying to march to Passchendaele. He was killed on Oct. 28 during the battalion’s attack on Crest Farm on the outskirts of Passchendaele. The battalion padre, George Farquhar, wrote to Boissevain:
“Dear Mrs. Bowes,
My heart is heavy, so I feel called upon to write you with sad and even sadder news… As I write you now, I feel there is no help anywhere else for you except in God when you read the sad news that the third of your three boys has passed beyond.
Ever since his two brothers fell, I have tried to keep in touch with him. He was always the same boy he was when he left home… You will have seen some account of the hard fighting in the press. The conditions this time were worse than I have ever seen. The wide, almost level plain sloping gradually to the ridge, the deep mud and worst, the absence of any shelter, the open fighting and the intensive fire of the enemy. Yet our boys did magnificently, fulfilling all expectations and taking all the ground they were sent for. Your son D.C. Bowes, 622720, was with the men in the charge. In the first line, he was hit by a shell and death was instant.
…Your son was a splendid type of what any mother might be proud, liked by all and a capable and efficient soldier. You have given so much in this war, that I can say nothing more, only that our sympathies are with you and we pray God to give you help.”
His body was never recovered and he is memorialized on the Commonwealth Memorial at the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres) Belgium, along with the names of the 6,694 Canadians who died in the Ypres salient and have no known grave.
In 1924, the War Graves Commission dismantled the 44th’s Vimy memorial and shipped it overseas.
On June 27, 1926, in Winnipeg, grieving for her sons, the many dead sons of Boissevain and the thousands of Canadian sons, Margaret Bowes laid a wreath and dedicated the freshly reconstructed memorial to those who died in the bloody shadow of Vimy Ridge.
The full texts of the Bowes brothers letters may be read online in the Legion Magazine, September 2013. Ian Stewart explores the Great War at the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum and archives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org