DIDSBURY – One hundred years ago on April 9, 1917 Canadian soldiers did what neither the French nor the British were able to do: take Vimy Ridge.
The battle was bloody and brutal and the cost enormous with more than 3,500 Canadian lives taken and another 7,000 injured.
Harvey Shevalier, who is a retired Canadian Forces chief warrant officer and has been a member of the Sundre Legion for more than 40 years, said the Battle of Vimy Ridge in northern France is remembered as a major turning point in the First World War.
It’s also the first time that Canada became known for winning a major battle.
“Canada external affairs was governed by the United Kingdom at that time,” he said. “This meant that once Britain declared war, Canada automatically followed in. After the initial German advances, the battle of the Western Front quickly turned to a stalemate.”
Shevalier said the life of a soldier during the First World War was miserable with soldiers having to live with constant mud, cold and vermin like rats.
“Soldiers faced many enemies across a narrow strip of land called ëno man’s land,’ which was nothing but mud, barbed wire, shell craters, and swept by enemy machine gunfire,” said Shevalier. “This is what the soldiers had to face when they went ëover the top,’ past the trenches and into the battle in Vimy Ridge itself.”
In the spring of 1917, after two and a half years of war in Europe, neither side had been able to make any significant progress.
“As part of an allied offensive, a major attack was planned for April to capture Vimy Ridge,” said Shevalier.
The Canadian Corps, which was made up of four divisions, took Vimy Ridge from the German Sixth Army due to a mixture of technical and tactical innovation and planning. The battle was the first occasion when all four divisions participated and it became known as a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice.
One soldier from Carstairs lost his life at Vimy Ridge during the battle. William Francis Dickson was part of the Manitoba Regiment of the Canadian Army Infantry. He died at aged 26 years old and is buried at Vimy Memorial in Pas de Calais, France.
Dickson was the son of William and Emma Jane Bennett Finn. The Canada War Graves Registers (Circumstances of Casualty) 1914-1948 notes that he was killed in action.
“During military operations in the vicinity of Vimy Ridge. He was instantly killed by shell fire.”
According to the Carstairs History Book, William Dickson (father of William Francis Dickson) was from eastern Saskatchewan and took over the Pearson Bros. store in Carstairs around 1910.
The Canadian Great War Project website reports that William Francis Dickson was a private in the 16th Battallion. Dickson was born in Balgonie, Sask, on Jan. 12, 1892 and was a druggist by trade. He enlisted with the army at age 23 on Sept. 20, 1915.
Garry Bratland, a member of the Carstairs Legion, told the Gazette that the trench warfare was horrible. Although they wouldn’t talk much about the wars, his grandfather fought in the First World War and his father in the Second World War. Both survived but were clearly impacted, Bratland recalls.
“We should never forget the sacrifice made of the lives of the Canadians in the First World War ever,” said Bratland. “The documentaries and films you see on TV are a constant reminder why we live in a country with so much peace and happiness but at a huge cost. Fortunately, my grandfather returned. For all those that returned there are thousands that are lying in Flanders Field and all over Europe.”
Bratland has visited many of the cemeteries in Europe and said it’s remarkable the amount of respect the countries that they freed and brought peace to paid the veterans from Canada.
“That’s what it means to me and that’s why I’m a member of the legion today,” he said. “My grandfather in the First World War and my father in the Second World War fought in India and Burma and returned after two bouts of malaria. Anyone who fights for freedom — that’s why I’m part of the legion today. Just out of respect.”
Bratland said that Vimy Ridge was one of the bloodiest battles for Canada in terms of lives lost and injured personnel.
“Vimy was a huge, catastrophic loss of Canadian soldiers,” he said. “There were thousands in a day that were lost. It was beyond shooting. It was hand-to-hand and bayonet when they ran out of ammunition. It was primitive warfare compared to what they have today. The loss of life was huge but it was also huge in bringing peace to the world.”
– Thanks to Norma Disney at Carstairs Legion for her great research on veterans.