By MPP Toby Barrett
One hundred years ago, three young brothers from our area’s Houghton Township were fighting in France as part of the Canadian Corps’ 14th Battalion.
Within a matter of days, all three would be dead.
Bill West, age 20, and Arthur West, age 27, were killed on April 9, 1917, during the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Their third remaining brother, Lewis West, age 21, would die Sept. 7 from wounds suffered at Vimy.
All told, 16 Norfolk boys were killed April 9 at Vimy Ridge, and nine more before the battle was over. Sadly, many more from our area and across Canada would also be casualties. During The Great War, over 625,000 Canadians answered the call to arms – an incredible turnout from a total population of 7.5 million.
In his book Norfolk Remembers the Great War, Grant Smith writes, “many were severely wounded, gassed, lost legs, arms and eyes, suffered shell-shock and battle fatigue. They came home and walked among us for too short a period. When they died years later, the horrors of the war still echoing in their minds, they were laid to rest in a Norfolk grave.”
The Vimy attack began at 5:30 the morning of Easter Monday, April 9, 1917. According to a Canadian veteran of the battle, Eberts Macintyre, “It was nauseating to contemplate the horrors that the representatives of two Christian nations would inflict on each other at the time of the Easter festival each believing that he was in the right.”
The horror of Vimy was officially recorded by the 2nd Division’s 6th Brigade: “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.”
The Battle of Vimy Ridge pitched four divisions of the Canadian Corps against three divisions of the German Sixth Army. The objective of the Canadian Corps was to take control of the German-held high ground. The success was due to a mixture of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training.
The infantry would proceed close behind a creeping barrage, advancing in timed 100-yard increments. The plan called for units to leapfrog over one another, as the advance progressed. The British made available an unprecedented artillery barrage with 100 heavy guns.
The introduction of the instantaneous fuse greatly improved the effectiveness of the artillery since this fuse burst reliably with the slightest of contact, unlike older timed fuses, making it especially effective at cutting barbed wire before the advance.
Vimy was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together and it has become a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice.
Four Canadians at Vimy received the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded to British and Commonwealth forces for valour.
The grounds of the site are still honeycombed with wartime tunnels, trenches, craters and unexploded munitions, and are largely closed off for public safety.
Queen Elizabeth II rededicated the restored Vimy monument on April 9, 2007 and is expected to attend the site again this coming April 9.
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