Vimy Ridge: Personal connections.

March 21, 2017
Waiter-Herbert Tracy-WWI-Death-Newspaper Clipping

My Great Uncle – article in Toronto paper in 1917.

One hundred years ago on April 9, 1917 the Canadian Corps fought a battle that told the world we were no longer a colony, but a true nation. This was the first time during the Great War all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together in a single operation. Some 97,184 soldiers of the Canadian Corps participated in the battle

Vimy Ridge located in France was a strategic high point the Allies wanted to capture to gain an advantage over the Germans. Attempts to capture it had been made on several occasions before without success. The Canadians had gained a name for themselves as tough, never say die soldiers, so they were called in to attempt to capture the objective.

Canadian commanders did the following key things to prepare for the battle,

  • built tram-ways and plank roads to enable the movement of over 800 tons of ammunition, rations and equipment per day leading up to the battle.
  • had 72 kilometres of pipe laid to supply 600,000 gallons of water per day for the horses.
  • amassed 50,000 horses to move artillery pieces and shift supplies.
  • constructed a full-scale mock-up of the ridge behind the lines so troops could rehearse movements. This the first time this was done.
  • a series of underground caves and tunnels were constructed close to and under the ridge.

The attack was planned for 5:30 am on the morning of April 9th. Several hours before all the men were given a hot meal and a tot of rum.

The attack began on schedule at 5:30 am behind a creeping artillery barrage. The artillery barrage moved several yards each time and the infantry followed behind. This was a tactic that gave the soldiers some protection as it forced the Germans to keep their heads down and caused confusion in their ranks. The first wave went forward through the underground tunnels to catch the Germans by surprise. Some of these caves and tunnels were large enough to hold an entire battalion. Artillery bombardments had been on-going for several days ahead of the attack, this was to confuse the enemy and keep them guessing as to when the actual attack was coming.

Within the first hour the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions reached the first objective and by 8 am the final objective. The battle continued for two days with another two for mopping up. Victory was declared April 10th. The Canadians accomplished what no other troops had been able to. The cost was high with Canadians suffering 10,600 casualties including 3,598 killed. Over 4,000 Germans were captured during the battle.

This battle is personal for me because members of my family took part. As a genealogical researcher I spent a lot of time looking into our military history. I discovered connections to Vimy Ridge and other battles of World War I.

Cuthbert “Bert” Sendell:
My grandfather on mother’s side served in the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) and was at Vimy Ridge. He survived and came home. Interestingly he enlisted as Herbert Strain, his biological father’s first name and his stepfather’s last name.

Herbert Tracy Waite:
Grandmother’s big brother who unfortunately was killed at Vimy. He was only 20 years of age and left behind a wife and children back home. The newspaper article at top is a document I found during my research. Date of his death was actually April 13, 1917, but reporter didn’t have a lot of information at that time. Very sad reading and this is just one example of thousands. He is commemorated at the Vimy Memorial in France, but is one of thousands whose body was never found.

Vimy Ridge was just an entry in the history books to me, but that history came alive when I discovered my ancestors contributed to Canada’s war effort. This coming April 9th I will be proudly thinking about their sacrifice one hundred years ago.

Suggested Reading:
Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918, Cook, Tim, Penguin Canada 2008
Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, Nicholson, G.W.L., McGill-Queen’s University Press 2015
(First published in 1962)
Vimy, Berton, Pierre, McClelland and Stewart 1986
The Vimy Ridge Foundation website


Forgotten Tragedy: Sinking of the Empress of Ireland

May 28, 2014
Empress of Ireland. Photo: Library & Archives of Canada, Public Domain

Empress of Ireland. Photo: Library & Archives of Canada, Public Domain

May 29, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Empress of Ireland in Canadian waters.

RMS Empress of Ireland was a Canadian Pacific Steamship liner plying a regular route between Liverpool, England and Quebec City, Quebec.

In the early hours of May 29, 1914 she was outbound from Quebec near Rimouski on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. The pilot had just disembarked and the ship resumed her journey to Liverpool. The lights of a steam ship had been sighted nearby. Both ships became hidden in a heavy fog bank. Fog whistles on both ships began blowing regularly. Suddenly the SS Storstad, a Norwegian steamer, crashed into the side of the Empress causing severe damage below the waterline.

At the time of the collision the Empress carried 1,477 passengers and crew. Most of the passengers were asleep at the time of the accident. Within 14 minutes the ship sank. Only 465 persons survived. The death toll was 1,012 (840 passengers and 172 crew). Tragically 134 of those who perished were children.

Removing bodies of children from rescue/recovery ship at Quebec. Photo: Library of Congress, Public Domain

Removing bodies of children from rescue/recovery ship at Quebec. Photo: Library of Congress, Public Domain

The wreck lies at the relatively shallow depth of 130 feet (40 metres) and is accessible to skilled divers. Over the years many artifacts have been salvaged. Shortly after the accident salvage crews recovered 318 bags of mail and 212 bars of silver.

In 1999 the Canadian government designated the wreck a National Historic Site and it is now protected from further salvage.

On May 29, 2014 Canada Post  issued stamps to commemorate the sinking and loss of life. Numerous memorial services are planned to remember those who died in the sinking.

The Empress played a significant part in Canadian history. It made 95 trans-Atlantic crossing and carried over 120,000 immigrants to Canada. Many of these people settled in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba and contributed to the development of the West.

The sinking is still considered the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history.

References for more information:

Maritime Museum of Quebec

Library & Archives of Canada

The Empress of Ireland (Facebook)

Merseyside Maritime Museum (Liverpool, UK)

 

 


The Great War 1914 – 1919 – Centennial

January 2, 2014

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The year 2014 marks 100 years since The Great War, better known as World War I began. The war to end all wars in fact spawned the even more destructive Second World War. This year will mark 75 years since its violent forces swept the world.

As a genealogist and historian I have long been fascinated by the cause and events of these two conflicts. Both these wars changed the world forever in many ways.

What caused this war of 1914? Europe at the time consisted of many ambitious countries who were allied through treaty with many other nations. All these nations had dreams of grandeur through expansion and imperialism. The British, French, Germans, Russians, Italians, and Ottoman empires were all competing economically and militarily. When the Archduke was assassinated one blamed the other. Foolish pride and inflexibility carried the day. Military forces were massed on borders, ultimatums were issued, and finally attacks took place. The domino effect resulted in a world war. Kings, dictators and politicians had their war into which young men were the fodder to fuel the fires.

My grandfather like most Canadians enlisted in the Canadian Army when war was declared in 1914. Young men rushed to serve King and country and to do their duty. To many it was a great adventure. When they discovered the terrible reality of modern warfare the adventure turned to survival. These young men did their duty and served valiantly, but at a horrible cost.

Has mankind learned its lesson? Much as I’d like to believe so it has not. Wars constantly rage throughout our world today. Fortunately none have escalated into a worldwide conflict, but we have had our near misses, Korea, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War to name a few examples.

We must understand our history and learn from it, otherwise we are sure to repeat our mistakes. Nations like human beings are driven by foolish pride, nationalist goals, racism, jealousies and ambitions of domination.

The major difference in this world of the 21st century is that mankind possesses the means to make itself extinct, nuclear weapons and weaponized diseases being two major methods of mass destruction.

This centennial year should be a challenge to all of us to learn more about our human history and to open our eyes to the mistakes of the past.

More posts to follow on World War I.

 


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