Today marks the 90th Anniversary of a battle that, according to historians, represents the true coming of age of my country.
On April 9th, 1917, Canadian troops fighting in WWI captured German positions and high ground that had previously repelled the best the French and British armies could throw at them. There were 10,000 casualties, including 3600 dead, a figure dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands who had previously died to win this particular piece of ground, and a statistic attributed to the Canadian courage, tenacity and forethought that had gone into the attack.
I got a call this week from two reporters, who in researching the battle, stumbled across a previous blog entry where I'd mentioned that my grandfather had been decorated at Vimy Ridge. They wanted to know what I knew of the battle and my grandfather's experiences and I thought I'd share them here.
Robert Henshaw was a farmer and a rancher who emigrated from England in 1909 and found a new home in Saskatchewan. When the war began, he rode 50 miles to Swift Current and joined a cavalry unit being shipped to France. They became the 5th Battalion of the Canadian Light Infantry because their horses never got to France.
My grandfather always claimed they got there but the French ate them. He never quite squared his love of horses with fighting for a country that considered them a delicacy.
His war record was impressive, including a number of medals and being twice "mentioned in dispatches". The first of these occurred at Vimy Ridge.
He never spoke of the war when I was a child and it was only after his death that friends who'd fought alongside him told us what he had done.
He had gone "over the top" into hand to hand combat 13 times and many more times to charge through the rain of artillery and machine gun fire that decimated millions of his generation.
His most vivid memories of Vimy were of walking behind a moving barrage of artillery fire that advanced ahead of the troops as they climbed the ridge. They had to keep a specific pace, 100 yards ever three minutes. Moving too fast would put them under their own shellfire and moving too slow would give the enemy in the trenches around them the opportunity to return from cover and open fire with their own cannon and machine guns.
No matter what opposition his company faced or what fire they took, they had to advance 100 yards every three minutes or meet certain death.
Late in the morning, his group was hit with an artillery shell "knocking down" several of the company. Though hurt himself, he single handedly held off a party of German soldiers coming for them, killing several and forcing the others back while stretcher bearers removed the wounded. Then he caught up with the rest of the Canadians steadily moving up the hill.
He said that the German trenches the Canadians overran included huge caves dug into the chalk base of the ridge. The walls were covered with the names of the Germans who had been hiding there, including the next of kin the reader should contact in the event of their deaths.
He also spoke of a beautiful green valley that lay on the other side of the ridge. It seemed untouched by the war. On one side of the ridge there was a sea of mud and misery and on the other, fertile fields, cattle and lush grass and trees. It somehow symbolized what was waiting when the struggle was over.
My Grandfather fought for a few more months before he finally received a wound that would send him home. Hit in the head by a bullet that went through his helmet, he still managed to keep fighting, once again holding his position until help could come. His relief found him standing in the open, firing the only weapon he could hold, a revolver taken from a dead officer. They asked why he hadn't laid down behind cover and he said he had tried but the blood from his wounds kept running in his eyes so he had to stay on his feet.
There are probably ten thousand stories like that about the men who fought at Vimy Ridge ninety years ago today. Stories of selfless courage, sacrifice and doing the honorable thing that most of us can barely comprehend, let alone see doing ourselves. And yet the truth is, that without such courage, sacrifice and their sense of honor, none of us would be able to enjoy the lives we now have. So please take some time today to remember these men -- and above all, offer them a silent "Thank You" for what they did and, perhaps more importantly, who they were.