Thursday, April 9, 2015

April 9th a special day in Canada

This year April 9th marks the 98th anniversary of the battle for Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in World War 1.  It has often been said that Canada was born as a Sovereign nation by this victory. It was the first time that the whole Canadian Expeditionary Forces fought as one, under full Canadian command.

So just how old is Canada anyway? My family came here in 1634 (Dieppe, France), my wife family came in the late 1700s (Yorkshire, England. I call them jokingly recent immigrants :-) Our country officially is born on June 1st 1867, but on April 9th 1917, at the battle of Vimy Ridge, Canadian from coast to coast fought for the first time side by side under Canadian command. Canada's sons had earned a place on the world stage as a truly Canadian entity, no longer as a British colonial sidekick. That is why we recall that day as significant in our young history.

I will try to recount part of this event thru the eyes of a relative of my wife:
Pte Walter Jefferson of the 25th Battalion of Nova Scotia.
Pte Walter Jefferson Service Number 733168, enlisted on the 16th of December 1915.
A few days later, the 112th Battalion (NS) was authorized on 22 December 1915 and  
embarked onboard the ship HMT Olympic for Great Britain where it provided reinforcements for the Canadian corps in the field until 7 January 1917 when its personnel were absorbed by the 26th Reserve Battalion, CEF. The 112th battalion disbanded on 15 August 1918.

That troop transport ship, the HMT Olympic is historically significant!
There was 3 ships built in 1911 of the then gigantic Olympic class for the Cunard's White Star line: You may have heard about one of them? 

RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Olympic first in class 

RMS Titanic, second in class
and finally the RMS Britannic.

That's right, Oncle Jefferson sailed off to war from Halifax on "Old reliable" HMT (Her Majesty Troop Ship) Olympic sister ship to the Titanic.
During her war service from 1914 and 1919 (when the last Canadians were brought back home) Olympic earned the nick name Old reliable by transporting over 201,000 men, burning 247,000 tons of coal and traveling about 184,000 miles without major incidents. She is even credited of sinking a German U-Boat by ramming it!
Of the other surviving sister's ship: HMT Britannic would serve as an Hospital ship.

On arrival, he would have trained at a Camp in Scotland or England before being send as reinforcement to the 25th Battalion.
The 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles), CEF (also known as "MacKenzie Battalion", "Master Raiders", "Raiding Battalion") was a unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great World War. It was the first of three to be raised entirely in Nova Scotia during the war. The 25th served in Belgium and France as part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division from September 16, 1915 until the end of the war.  
Of the 1000 Nova Scotians that started with the battalion, after the first year of fighting, 100 were left in the battalion while 900 were killed, taken prisoner, missing or injured.
The 25th Battalion was authorized on 7 November 1914 and embarked for Great Britain on 20 May 1915. The battalion was disbanded on 15 September 1920

The Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) was organized in 4 Divisions. The 25th was part of 2nd Canadian division, 5th Canadian Brigade

Infantry units of the 2nd Canadian Division

4th Canadian Brigade: (Formed after the original 4th Brigade was dispersed)

  • 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 1 October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 19th (Central Ontario) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 19 October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 20th (Central Ontario) Battalion Canadian Infantry. October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 19 October 1914 – 11 November 1918.

5th Canadian Brigade:

  • 22nd (Canadien Francais) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 21 October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 24th (Victoria Rifles, Montreal Qc) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 22 October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 25th (Nova Scotia) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 28 October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 2 November 1914 – 11 November 1918.

6th Canadian Brigade

  • 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 21 October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 28th (North West) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 19 October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 29th (Vancouver) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 24 October 1914 – 11 November 1918;
  • 31st (Alberta) Battalion Canadian Infantry. 16 November 1914 – 11 November 1918.


  • 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion. March 1916 – June 1917. To the 2nd Canadian Engineer Brigade.

What I find most interesting is that as part of the 5th Division, Pte Jefferson (from my wife family side) would have probably fought alongside some of my family members in the 22nd Regiment (today called the Royal 22nd Regiment, headquarters in Quebec city) Who knew our families would be re-united 60 some years later?

His first combat experiences would have been in the later part of the Somme offensive, 
The Battle of Flers–Courcelette was a battle within the Franco-British Somme Offensive which took place in the summer and autumn of 1916. Launched on 15 September 1916 the battle went on for one week. Flers–Courcelette began with the objective of cutting a hole in the German line by using massed artillery and infantry attacks. This hole would then be exploited with the use of cavalry.
It was the third and final general offensive mounted by the British army during the battle of the Somme. The battle is significant for the first use of the tank in warfare. It also marked the debut of the Canadians and New-Zealand divisions on the Somme battlefields. 

The Canadian learned a few valuable lessons and were adamant of not repeating the same mistakes. The new Canadian strategy which includes the first uses of a rolling artillery barrage were first tested with success at Vimy.

Canadian and German forces facing each other

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a military engagement fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, during the First World War. The main combatants were the Canadian Corps, of four divisions, against three divisions of the German Sixth Army. The battle, which took place from 9 to 12 April 1917, was part of the opening phase of the British-led Battle of Arras, a diversionary attack for the French Nivelle Offensive.
The objective of the Canadian Corps was to take control of the German-held high ground along an escarpment at the northernmost end of the Arras Offensive. This would ensure that the southern flank could advance without suffering German enfilade fire. Supported by a creeping barrage, the Canadian Corps captured most of the ridge during the first day of the attack. The town of Thélus fell during the second day of the attack, as did the crest of the ridge once the Canadian Corps overcame a salient of considerable German resistance. The final objective, a fortified knoll located outside the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, fell to the Canadian Corps on 12 April. The German forces then retreated to the Oppy–Méricourt line

Canadian gunners in action (National Archive Canada)
Canadian tank in action at Vimy (National Archive Canada)
Canadian Machine gun emplacement on the ridge (National Archive Canada)
View from the top of Vimy (National Archive Canada)
Happy victorious Canadians being sent back into the reserves for a well deserved break
(National Archive Canada)

After a pause that allowed the rotation of exhausted units (and also allowed Germans re-reinforcements to pour into the area), General Allenby's Third Army undertook phase three. The second battle of the Scarpe, fought on the 23th and 24th Apr. Farther north, General Horne's First Army was committed to a subsidiary attack on La Coulotte on the 23rd April. Working in conjunction with the Third Army, both took part in the battle of Arleux 28th-29th April, the much larger fourth phase of the offensive.
25th Battalion war diaries for the 22-29 April 1917

This is where Pte W Jefferson went Missing In Action, presumed dead, on the 29th on the last day on the battle of Arleux. His remains were never found, his name is engraved on the  Vimy Ridge memorial along with all the others with no known graves

Canadian observers directing artillery fire during the battle of Arleux (National Archive Canada)

German prisoners of war moving a wounded Canadian soldier to the 
field dressing station after the battle of Arleux (National Archive Canada)

Pte W Jefferson is remembered in the great book of sacrifices in the 
peace tower of the Canadian parliament.

Returning Canadian troops in Halifax on board HMT Olympic in 1919, unfortunately Pte Jefferson would not be among them. (National Archive Canada)

Highlights of Pte Jefferson short career in the Canadian Army
- He sailed aboard HMT Olympic, sister ship to the RMS Titanic
- He saw the introduction of a new Canadian steel helmet introduced for the battle of the Somme
- He witness the introduction of the Lewis machine gun, the Stoke trench mortar
- He was part of history as the Tanks made its debut at the Somme
- He fought and survived the battle of Vimy Ridge, but was killed days after in a battle designed to reinforced our position on the Ridge

RIP My brother in arms
At the going down of the sun, we shall remember them

Bob, the family historian


  1. I salute you and this blog post. I hope that others read it and remember all the men who went and never came back.

  2. had forgotten this, thanks for the poignant repost today