CHAPTER XVI.

THE CAPTURE OF VIMY RIDGE.

April 9th, 1917.



    MY alarm clock went off at four a.m. on the great day of April 9th, which will always shine brightly in the annals of the war. I got up and ate the breakfast which I had prepared the night before, and taking with me my tin of bully-beef, I started off to see the opening barrage. It was quite dark when I emerged from the door of the Chateau and passed the sentry at the gate. I went through the village of Ecoivres, past the Crucifix by the cemetery, and then turning to the right went on to a path which led up to Bray Hill on the St. Eloi road. I found some men of one of our battalions bent on the same enterprise. We got into the field and climbed the hill, and there on the top of it waited for the attack to begin. The sky was overcast, but towards the east the grey light of approaching dawn was beginning to appear. It was a thrilling moment. Human lives were at stake. The honour of our country was at stake. The fate of civilization was at stake.
    Far over the dark fields, I looked towards the German lines, and, now and then, in the distance I saw a flarelight appear for a moment and then die away. Now and again, along our nine-mile front, I saw the flash of a gun and heard the distant report of a shell. It looked as if the war had gone to sleep, but we knew that all along the line our trenches were bristling with energy and filled with men animated with one resolve, with one fierce determination. It is no wonder that to those who have been in the war and passed though such moments, ordinary life and literature seem very tame. The thrill of such a moment is worth years of peace-time existence. To the watcher of a spectacle so awful and sublime, even human companionship struck a jarring note. I went over to a place by myself where I could not hear the other men talking, and there I waited. I watched the luminous hands of my watch get nearer and nearer to the fateful moment, for the barrage was to open at five-thirty. At five-fifteen the sky was getting lighter and already one could make out objects distinctly in the fields below. The long hand of my watch was at five-twenty-five. The fields, the roads, and the hedges were beginning to show the difference of colour in [Page 167] the early light. Five-twenty-seven! In three minutes the rain of death was to begin. In the awful silence around it seemed as if Nature were holding her breath in expectation of the staggering moment. Five-twenty-nine! God help our men! Five-thirty! With crisp sharp reports the iron throats of a battery nearby crashed forth their message of death to the Germans, and from three thousand guns at that moment the tempest of death swept through the air. It was a wonderful sound. The flashes of guns in all directions made lightnings in the dawn. The swish of shells though the air was continuous, and far over on the German trenches I saw the bursts of flame and smoke in a long continuous line, and, above the smoke, the white, red and green lights, which were the S.O.S. signals from the terrified enemy. In an instant his artillery replied, and against the morning clouds the bursting shrapnel flashed. Now and then our shells would hit a German ammunition dump, and, for a moment, a dull red light behind the clouds of smoke, added to the grandeur of the scene. I knelt on the ground and prayed to the God of Battles to guard our noble men in that awful line of death and destruction, and to give them victory, and I am not ashamed to confess that it was with the greatest difficulty I kept back my tears. There was so much human suffering and sorrow, there were such tremendous issues involved in that fierce attack, there was such splendour of human character being manifested now in that “far flung line,” where smoke and flame mocked the calm of the morning sky, that the watcher felt he was gazing upon eternal things.

    When it got thoroughly light I determined to go on up the road to the 3rd Artillery Brigade which was to press on after the infantry. I found both officers and men very keen and preparing to advance. For weeks at night, they had been making bridges over the trenches, so that the guns could be moved forward rapidly on the day of the attack. I had breakfast with the O.C. of one of the batteries, a young fellow only twenty-three years of age who had left McGill to enter the war. He was afterwards killed in front of Arras. After breakfast I went on up the line till I came to the 3rd Artillery Brigade Headquarters, and there asked for the latest reports of progress. They were feeling anxious because the advancing battalions had given no signal for some time, and it was thought that they might have been held up. Someone, however looked at his watch and then at the schedule time of attack, and found that at [Page 168] that particular moment the men were to rest for ten minutes before pressing on. The instant the time for advance came, rockets were sent up to show that our men were still going ahead. I went up the road to Neuville St. Vaast, where there was an aid post, and there I saw the wounded coming in, some walking, with bandaged arms and heads, and some being brought in on stretchers. They were all in high spirits and said that the attack had been a great success. Of course, the walking wounded were the first to appear, the more serious cases came afterwards, but still there was the note of triumph in all the accounts of the fighting which I heard. I moved on to a track near Maison Blanche, and then followed up the men. The ridge by this time was secured and our front line was still pressing forward on the heels of the retreating Germans. It was a glorious moment. The attack which we had looked forward to and prepared for so long had been successful. The Germans had been taken by surprise and the important strategic point which guarded the rich coal fields of Northern France was in our possession.
    The sight of German trenches was something never to be forgotten. They had been strongly held and had been fortified with an immense maze of wire. But now they were ploughed and shattered by enormous shell holes. The wire was twisted and torn and the whole of that region looked as if a volcanic upheaval had broken the crust of the earth. Hundreds of men were now walking over the open in all directions. German prisoners were being hurried back in scores. Wounded men, stretcher-bearers and men following up the advance were seen on all sides, and on the ground lay the bodies of friends and foes who had passed to the Great Beyond. I met a British staff officer coming back from the front, who told me he belonged to Army Headquarters. He asked me if I was a Canadian, and when I replied that I was, he said, “I congratulate you upon it.” I reminded him that British artillery were also engaged in the attack and should share in the glory. “That may be,” he said, “but, never since the world began have men made a charge with finer spirit. It was a magnificent achievement.”
    Our burial parties were hard at work collecting the bodies of those who had fallen, and the chaplains were with them. I met some of the battalions, who, having done their part in the fighting, were coming back. Many of them had suffered heavily and the [Page 169] mingled feelings of loss and gain chastened their exaltation and tempered their sorrow. I made my way over to the ruins of the village of Thélus on our left, and there I had my lunch in a shell hole with some men, who were laughing over an incident of the attack. So sudden had been our advance that a German artillery officer who had a comfortable dugout in Thélus, had to run away before he was dressed. Two of our men had gone down into the dugout and there they found the water in the wash-basin still warm and many things scattered about in confusion. They took possession of everything that might be of use including some German war maps, and were just trying to get a very fine telephone when two other of our men hearing voices in the dugout and thinking the enemy might still be there, threw down a smoke bomb which set fire to the place. The invaders had to relinquish their pursuit of the telephone and beat a hasty retreat. Smoke was still rising from the dugout when I saw it and continued to do so for a day or two.
    Our signallers were following up the infantry and laying wires over the open. Everyone was in high spirits. By this time the retreating Germans had got well beyond the crest of the Ridge and across the valley. It was about six o’clock in the evening when I reached our final objective, which was just below the edge of the hill. There our men were digging themselves in. It was no pleasant task, because the wind was cold and it was beginning to snow. The prospect of spending a night there was not an attractive one, and every man was anxious to make the best home for himself he could in the ground. It was wonderful to look over the valley. I saw the villages of Willerval, Arleux and Bailleul-sur-Berthouit. They looked so peaceful in the green plain which had not been disturbed as yet by shells. The church spires stood up undamaged like those of some quiet hamlet in England. I thought, “If we could only follow up our advance and keep the Germans on the move,” but the day was at an end and the snow was getting heavier. I saw far off in the valley, numbers of little grey figures who seemed to be gradually gathering together, and I heard an officer say he thought the Germans were preparing for a counter-attack. Our men, however, paid little attention to them. The pressing question of the moment was how to get a comfortable and advantageous position for the night. Canadians never showed up better than at such times. They were so quiet and determined and bore their hardships with a spirit [Page 170] of good nature which rested on something sounder and more fundamental than even pleasure in achieving victory. About half-past six, when I started back, I met our Intelligence Officer, V.C., D.S.O., coming up to look over the line. He was a man who did much but said little and generally looked very solemn. I went up to him and said, “Major, far be it from me, as a man of peace and a man of God, to say anything suggestive of slaughter, but, if I were a combatant officer, I would drop some shrapnel in that valley in front of our lines.” Just the faint flicker of a smile passed over his countenance and he replied, “We are shelling the valley.” “No,” I said, “Our shells are going over the valley into the villages beyond, and the Germans in the plain are getting ready for a counter-attack. I could see them with my naked eyes.” “Well,” he replied, “I will go and look.”
    Later on when I was down in a German dugout which had been turned into the headquarters of our advanced artillery brigade, and was eating the half tin of cold baked beans which my friend, the C.O. had failed to consume, I had the satisfaction of hearing the message come through on the wires, that our artillery had to concentrate its fire on the valley, as the Germans were preparing for a counter-attack. When I left the warm comfortable dugout, I found that it was quite dark and still snowing. My flashlight was of little use for it only lit up the snowflakes immediately in front of me, and threw no light upon my path. I did not know how I should be able to get back in the darkness through the maze of shell holes and broken wire. Luckily a signaller came up to me and seeing my plight led me over to a light railway track which had just been laid, and told me that if I kept on it I should ultimately get back to the Arras-Bethune road. It was a hard scramble, for the track was narrow and very slippery, and had to be felt with the feet rather than seen with the eyes. I was terribly tired, for I had had a long walk and the excitement of the day and talking to such numbers of men had been very fatiguing. To add to my difficulties, our batteries lay between me and the road and were now in full action. My old dread of being killed by our own guns seemed to be justified on the present occasion. Gun flashes came every few seconds with a blinding effect, and I thought I should never get behind those confounded batteries. I had several tumbles in the snow-covered mud, but there was nothing to be done except to struggle on and trust to [Page 171] good luck to get through. When at last I reached the road I was devoutly thankful to be there and I made my way to the dugout of the signallers, where I was most kindly received and hospitably entertained, in spite of the fact that I kept dropping asleep in the midst of the conversation. One of our signal officers, in the morning, had gone over with some men in the first wave of the attack. He made directly for the German signallers’ dugout and went down with his followers, and, finding about forty men there, told them they were his prisoners. They were astonished at his appearance, but he took possession of the switch-board and told them that the Canadians had captured the Ridge. One of the Germans was sent up to find out, and returned with the report that the Canadians held the ground. Our men at once took possession of all the telegraph instruments and prevented information being sent back to the enemy in the rear lines. Having done this, our gallant Canadians ordered the prisoners out of the dugout and then sat down and ate the breakfast which they had just prepared. This was only one of many deeds of cool daring done that day. On one occasion the Germans were running so fast in front of one of our battalions that our men could not resist following them. They were actually rushing into the zone of our own fire in order to get at them. A gallant young lieutenant, who afterwards won the V.C., seeing the danger, with great pluck, ran in front of the men and halted them with the words, “Stop, Boys, give the barrage a chance.”
    In spite of the numbers of wounded and dying men which I had seen, the victory was such a complete and splendid one that April 9th, 1917, was one of the happiest days in my life, and when I started out from the signallers dugout on my way back to Ecoivres, and passed the hill where I had seen the opening of the great drama in the early morning, my heart was full of thankfulness to Almighty God for his blessing on our arms. I arrived at my room in the Château at about half past two a.m., very tired and very happy. I made myself a large cup of strong coffee, on my primus stove, ate a whole tin of cold baked beans, and then turned in to a sound slumber, filled with dreams of victory and glory, and awoke well and fit in the morning, more than ever proud of the grand old First Division which, as General Horne told us later, had made a new record in British war annals by taking every objective on the scheduled dot of the clock. [Page 172]