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Archive for the ‘vimy’ Category

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. 4 Battalions of Canadians across a 7000 yard front stormed the ridge from rat-infested trenches knee-deep in mud and filth and scrambled their way into history [literally] over the bodies of the French and English who had gone before. The battle began at 7:05am – mere hours later 3600 young men lay dead. More than 18000 of them were injured over the next few days but on the 12th of April the Red Ensign fluttered from the highest point over 4000 Germans held captive below. It was the first time that Canadians had fought together as Canadians, not merely as support troops. Some say that this battle therefore was a turning point, not only in the war, but as a symbol of nationhood, marking the Canadians for the first time as an independent people in their own right.

The First World War was a war of ‘alliances’ – a conflict that might have remained a relatively minor skirmish in the larger scheme of things had not nation been tied to nation and state allied with state through treaties so complex and inextricable that when war was declared they were each obligated to defend the other. The shot that killed Franz Ferdinand was indeed a shot that rang around the world. All wars are stupid and this was one of the worst. At the end of it millions of young men on either side were dead. I wonder how old they were when they died. In Vietnam they say that the average age of the combatants was nineteen. Nineteen, think of that, nineteen. I have a son who is 20 – in an earlier time he could have been one of them.

My family was largely unaffected by the First World War because the children were too young and the older relatives were too old but that didn’t help them escape the flu that came hard on the heels of the war and actually killed more people than the war itself. The next generation was more involved in the Second World War. It was a family tradition to work in some profession allied to the navy – likely since Portsmouth always was a naval town. My uncles and aunts worked in the naval dockyards or in the victualing yards and some were naval officers. My Uncle Bernard was a commando, or so he said, but he had a wicked looking knife with knuckle grips to prove it. He never spoke about his part in the war but I do know that the older male members of the family took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk, sailing their little fishing boats across the Channel to bring the army home. They were trapped on the beaches, the Germans at their front and the sea at their back. Old-timers like my uncles braved the winds and the currants and the mortar shells to go and get them. They were the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ [an old movie about the retreat from Dunkirk, Uncle Bernard had a walk-on part].

Donald Ridley was my husband’s uncle. He had barely left school in the small northern town of New Liskeard where he lived when war broke out. He hastened to Toronto with his brothers to volunteer, like many other young Canadian men just like them. He was the lucky one – his brothers joined the air force and spent much of the war patrolling the western borders along the Pacific without incident while Donald trained as a machine gunner with the Toronto Scots Regiment and was duly embarked to England to fight. Then came two long years of anticlimax and frustration spent in billets in and around Aldershot in the south of England, chaffing at the news of things happening in Europe, in The Desert and in Italy. Finally – and he must have been so excited that the waiting and the endless training exercises were finally over – the call came down that the push was on to D-Day. The Canadian troops were mobilized. His company arrived in France a few weeks after the landings and found themselves immediately embroiled in the fierce and terrible fighting around Caen. He was attached to Tor-Scots D Company which in turn was attached as support gunners to the Saskatchewans. In driving rain and an ear-shattering thunderstorm they were formed up along their start line close to Verriers Ridge at 3 o’clock. Then these untried volunteers fought their way through the wheat fields and up the slopes in the pouring rain and the mud while the Germans stalked them, picking off the dying and the wounded with their guns or running them down with their tanks. Donald was killed within hours of the start of the battle, he was just 23. He is buried at Bayeux.

Let’s not any of us forget all of our veterans on either side – especially not today.

Roll of the dead and wounded [D Company Tor-Scots] July 20th 1944:

Killed:  Lt. George Gregg age 25, Pte. Clyde E. Johnston age 23, Pte. Don Ridley age 23

Missing:  Pte. Willam H. Young, age 24

Wounded: Pte.  L.A. Boustead, Pte. R. Brown, Pte. F.J. Finlay, Pte. D.C. Haigh, Pte. J.H. McCarthy, Pte. F.H. McConnell, Pte. T.A. McDowell, Pte. T. Davidson, Pte. J.I. Campbell, Pte. J.B. Morgan

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