Another chapter from the record of the Canadians who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the Great War
W. W. MURRAY
IN THE course of his recent trip to France, the Right Honorable W. L. Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, visited Vimy Ridge where, on the famous Hill 145, this country is erecting a monument to commemorate the achievements of the Canadian Corps on April 9, 1917, and subsequent days. The premier was also conducted to the subterranean cave, near La Folie Farm, “big enough to quarter an entire battalion,” on the walls of which Canadian soldiers had carved their names, regimental badges and whatever else occurred to them as acceptable subjects whereon to exercise their art. The spaciousness of this tunnel astounded the prime minister who, following his visit, well understood why the Germans sheltering in such retreats had regarded Vimy Ridge as impregnable. The enemy excavated many similar defence-works on the ridge, dug-outs far underground, capable of accommodating whole companies who could remain in perfect security from even the most devastating bombardment, emerging only to engage the infantry when the gunfire had rolled past.
One visualizes just such a place in recalling the incident for which Major Thain W. MacDowell, then a captain of the 38th Battalion, Eastern Ontario Regiment, was awarded the Victoria Cross. MacDowell, with his company runners, Kebus and Hay, behind him, gingerly descending the fifty odd steps beneath the surface of the earth and suddenly coming upon seventyseven men of the Prussian Guards, bluffing them into surrender and “getting away with it”—the picture is both inspiring and amusing. But the battle of Vimy Ridge was filled with inspiring events, and of these the story of how the five Canadians, upon whom the Victoria Cross was conferred, earned the distinction, stands out in bold relief against a vivid background.
An Underground Fortress
r"PHERE are several features connected with the assault and capture of Vimy Ridge which give it a character of its own in the record of the Canadian Corps. One is that the engagement was the first purely all-Canadian operation to be carried out on a grand scale on the Western Front. Another can be extracted from the speech delivered by Hon. J. L. Ralston, C.M.G., minister of national defence, to the Canadian Club of New York, at their last Armistice Day luncheon. Speaking on Canada’s war effort, the minister said:
“It is probable that Vimy Ridge and its vicinity were the scene of more bloody fighting than any other section of the Western Front, with the possible exception of Verdun. In 1915, the French made terrific efforts to secure the ridge and suffered appalling losses. They were only partially successful. Other Allied troops had taken over the ground from the French
Army, and, in May 1916, by a surprise attack had been pushed off the portion of the ridge which afforded observation over the German lines.
“The Canadians not only retrieved the lost ground, but captured and consolidated the whole Ridge; and the offensive was carried across the plain to the very gates of Lens.”
On April 9, deeds of heroism were performed which secured recognition for three Canadians—MacDowell, No. 427586 Private W. J. Milne, 16th Canadian Battalion, and No. 53730 Lance-Sergeant E. W. Sifton, 18th Battalion. Next day No. 80887 Private J. G. Pattison of the 50th Battalion earned the Victoria Cross, and on May 3rd, Lieut. R. G. Combe, of the 27th Battalion, surrendered his life in the performance of an act for which he was given the coveted award.
To recount the deeds of the first three is to present a partial picture of the whole Canadian front on that Easter Monday in 1917 when, in a dismal mixture of sleet and snow, the four divisions of the Corps clambered out of their positions and fought their way from trench
to trench over the crest of Vimy Ridge and down to the Plains of Douai. The 16th Battalion, in which Milne served, was a unit of the 1st Division which operated on the right flank of the attack; immediately north of it was the 2nd Division, of which the 18th Battalion that was distinguished by Sifton’s bravery formed part. The 3rd Division continued the line until on the extreme left flank fought the troops of the 4th Division, in which MacDowell’s unit, the 38th Battalion, served.
Zero Hour was at 5.30 o’clock in the morning—a sombre, overcast dawn. “Wheel to wheel” behind them, the Canadian infantrymen had the greatest concentration of guns that had up to that time flattened any portion of the Western Front in a deluge of metal. Amid an ear-splitting crash of explosions that rocked the whole country round, the 16th Battalion moved forward to its first objective. As it did so, a storm of snow, hail and sleet descended, turning the churned-up soil into a quagmire. It would have been perfectly proper to assume that the Canadian artillery had blasted every living thing off the Ridge, and without a doubt nothing above ground survived. But the deep dugouts were the refuge of the enemy, and into these they had flocked as soon as the barrage dropped down on them. When the guns lifted to enable the infantry to press home the attack, the Germans reappeared with their machine-guns. And, whatever else may be said of them, the German machinegunners were stout-hearted technicians.
The Epic of Milne
ry'HE front of the 16th L Battalion was swept by a leaden belt and the Highlanders dropped. Many casualties were suffered from a machine-gun that was being industriously served by a resolute crew. Private Milne spotted the emplacement, and, on his hands and knees, he worked his way toward it. A bag of bombs was slung over his shoulder. The fire was low, bullets almost ricocheting off the ground, which forced Milne to hug the mud. By some saving grace he was untouched. He got within measurable distance of the emplacement and leaped to his feet. Into the middle of the machine-gun crew he hurtled his bombs, following these up by rushing the gun itself. This menace removed, his comrades dashed on to their first objective and concontinued to the next—the
famous “Zwischen Stellung” (Intermediate Position).
The front of the Highlanders was raked by a vicious fire which came with particular ferocity from an old haystack directly in the line of advance. Milne’s tactics having proved successful in the first instance, he elected to repeat them. Again crawling forward he discovered the haystack to be a concealment for a concrete emplacement, behind which a group of gunners were exacting heavy toll. Milne’s first missile knocked the gun out of commission. Taking advantage of the consternation among the crew, the gallant Highlander rushed the position and forced the surrender of the enemy. Of him the citation says:
“His wonderful bravery and resource on these two occasions undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades.
“Private Milne was killed shortly after capturing the second gun.”
On the sector immediately north of the 16th Battalion, fronting Neuville St. Vaast, the feat of Private Milne was almost duplicated by Sergeant Sifton, of the 18th Battalion. This London, Ontario, unit had made a clean-cut job of the first objective—the old German front-line; but when our men descended on the second they ran into grim opposition. It was the old story— machine-guns. Within their cement fortresses the Germans traversed the whole area, ripping a wide swath through the Western Ontario men. “C” Company of the 18th were badly cut-up, and one gun immediately in front was causing most of the casualties. Sifton located it, the barrel peeping over the parapet and twitching jerkily as it vomited the contents of belt after belt.
Sifton did not hesitate. Bounding forward in the teeth of the murderous fire, he plunged into the trench, and with the courage of a lion took on the whole crew in a bayonet fight. It was soon over—and the Canadian won. But his daring brought on him an avalanche of Germans who closed in upon him. Undismayed the sergeant tackled them all; for, like Alan Breek, he was “a bonny fechter.” With bayonet and clubbed rifle he did deadly execution until “C” Company dashed up and closed the issue. The 18th Battalion were now safe at their objective and Sifton set his platoon to work consolidating the position and evacuating the injured enemy. Then took place one of those acts of treachery which still further stained the record of an already badly blotted war. Unobserved, a wounded German reached stealthily for a rifle, levelled it at the brave young Canadian, and pressed the trigger. Sergeant Sifton dropped dead.
“His conspicuous valor,” says the official citation, “undoubtedly saved many lives, and contributed largely to the success of the operation.”
MacDowell’s Colossal Bluff
rT'HE hardest fighting of the Vimy Ridge engagement
during the first two days took place in the sectors immediately south of the Souchez River, in the vicinity of “The Pimple.” The Germans fought stubbornly to retain their grip on this lofty eminence, and they were not dislodged until the evening of April 10.
It was during the grim conflict waged in this neighborhood that Captain T. W.
MacDowell, of the 38th Battalion, earned the Victoria Cross. MacDowell had a flair for capturing prisoners.
Only five months previously he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for garnering three officers and fifty men on the Somme. At Vimy Ridge he exceeded this “bag.”
With his two company orderlies,
Privates Kebus and Hay, he found the footing over the ridge toward the first objective somewhat better than the men of his company, with the result that when they hit the front line of the German position, the trio were alone.
The remainder of the company had worked somewhat over to a flank. In their stride MacDowell and his two runners had destroyed one machine-gun and chased the crew from another. He was closely pursuing one of the fleeing gunners, when the latter scuttled like a rabbit into the dark entrance of a dugout. MacDowell investigated. The shaft seemed to penetrate right into the bowels of the earth, for its descent was steep and pitch-black. A deep-lunged roar, demanding the surrender of whatever Germans might be sheltering below, met with no response; but that some of the enemy were there was beyond doubt.
The officer decided to enquire. The steps were endless. Down and down he went until he felt that he must be hitting the very base of Vimy Ridge
itself. But eventually he reached the bottom. A narrow tunnel led in from the foot of the steps, and rounding it MacDowell found himself crashing right into a phalanx of Prussian Guards. They were, as MacDowell said in his report, “all big, strong men who came in last night. They had plenty of rations; but we had a great time taking them prisoners.”
His method was to turn back, quick as lightning, and shout orders up the dugout stairs to an imaginary force. The bluff worked, and up went seventy-seven pairs of hands.
The surrender of such a tremendous body was embarrassing. MacDowell was faced with the problem of getting his captives out of the dugout and sent back to the Canadian line, with only two men to do it for him. He took the chance. He told off the Germans in parties of a dozen and passed each batch up the stairs where they were marshaled by Kebus and Hay. And then the expected happened. As soon as they saw how they had been fooled, the enemy were furious. One of their number snatched a rifle and shot at a runner, but he was summarily disposed of. And the lesson was taken to heart. Submissively this immense group were escorted back to swell the total taken by the Canadians on that stirring day.
The official citation tells the story baldly in ninety-five words—little more than one word for each prisoner!
A Lone Assault
HPHIRTEEN months before the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a man presented himself as a recruit to the 137th Battalion, then mobilizing at Calgary. He was forty-one years old, having been born at Woolwich, England, in 1875; and already he had a boy of eighteen serving in that same unit. The father was J. G. Pattison and his desperate bravery and unselfish devotion to his comrades furnish one of the brightest pages of the annals of those who have received the coveted Cross. Private Pattison, Senior, had been sent as a reinforcement to the 50th Battalion in February, 1917. Nine weeks
later he performed the feat of signal gallantry that gave him his niche among the immortals.
On that memorable Easter Monday, the 50th Battalion had been held in reserve; but their turn came next day. The enemy had bitterly contested every foot of ground on the northern sector of the ridge, and the 10th of April found them still clinging firmly to the eastern slope. A daylight operation to dislodge them from their position was decided upon, and at 3.15 o’clock in the afternoon the 50th Battalion went over. Progress was slow and casualties were heavy. The enemy machinegunners had a clear field of fire and laid an almost impenetrable belt of lead across the entire front. One strong-point stood in the way of the objective assigned to “A” Company, and time after time the Westerners attempted to force themselves through the storm. But they were as often beaten back, and they suffered grievous losses. “B” Company came up to buttress their attenuated ranks, and again the position was attacked; but this assault fared no better than its predecessors. The situation was critical. The men were scattered in shell holes fronting the strong-point, with bullets topping the grass, and there was every prospect of a definite check.
It was here Private Pattison decided that if anything lay in his power to avoid it, such should not be the case.
Surveying the ground carefully, he advanced alone toward the machine-gun nest. Jumping from shellhole to shellhole, crouching flat as the gunners traversed over him, and gaining yards between each sweep, he reached within a long throw of the enemy. Thereupon he raised himself erect. Coolly, as if he were in the practicepits at Witley, he lobbed over three bombs into the position. One would have caused the Germans a great deal of distress; three were too much. The heavy grenades knocked the machine-guns out of action and did considerable damage to their crews. Before they could recover, the Calgarian was among them, rounding off his work with the bayonet. When the rest of the company caught up with him, the forty-year old hero had finished his job.
Private Pattison survived this action, but met his death seven weeks later in front of Lens. As is the soldier’s right, when his son joined the 50th Battalion, also as a reinforcement, in September, 1917, he wore on his right breast the ribbon of the coveted distinction won by his father.
A Desperate Venture
THE ferocious local actions in the Lens vicinity and on the plains of Douai—in the aggregate more costly than the actual capture of the Ridge—signaled the tapering away of the great offensive. With Vimy’s lofty escarpment behind them, the Canadians pressed slowly forward, capturing a village here, a brickpile there, a trench somewhere else. The 3rd of May was the day set for an attack against the “Avion-MericourtAcheville-Fresnoy Line,” an operation which did not meet with the success hoped for and which resulted in heavy loss of life. The attacking troops were caught by shellfire as they assembled in the pitch darkness; few reached their objective.
Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe, of Winnipeg, was an officer of the 27th Battalion. When the German barrage descended on his company in their jumping-off area it blasted their formation to fragments. Zero Hour—3.45 a.m.—saw only a pitiful remnant left wherewith to launch the attack. But Combe gathered this forlorn hope and, a hero leading heroes, he set off behind the curtain of Canadian artillery for the German trenches. The enemy fire withered them; when Combe reached the enemy’s line, after an advance of hundreds of yards over open, featureless plain, five men alone out of his whole company were left. Undismayed they threw themselves on the packed position. With rifle and grenade this quintette, now joined by scattered details of other companies, hurled destruction among the enemy. They fought from traverse to traverse; dugouts were bombed; Germans surrendered by the dozen as this devoted band of adventurers forced their way to the right and left. Eighty prisoners were taken; 250 yards of trench were captured.
“Lieutenant Combe,” says his citation, “repeatedly charged the enemy, driving them before him, and whilst personally leading his bombers, was killed by an enemy sniper.
“His conduct inspired all ranks, and it was entirely due to his courage that the position was carried and held.”