Witley, April 9, 1917

Monday    Were inspected by Sir R. Borden at noon The wind blew cold Had the afternoon off. -Played cards

Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, was visiting Britain in order to attend the Sir Robert Borden LACImperial War Conference, which had brought together senior ministers from the Dominions fighting with (not for, Lloyd George is reported to have said) Britain. (1) While overseas, he visited camps and military hospitals in Britain and in France, so Witley was only one stop on the itinerary.

It is a busy day: first he inspects the infantry of the Fifth Division, and then watches a section of the Ammunition Column in FSMO. After inspecting the stables of the 13th  Brigade CEF, he turns his attention to a demonstration of gun drill by the 14th Brigade, while the 13th turns out for inspection in FSMO.  “The Prime Minister & all officers who accompanied him were particularly pleased with what they saw. 13th Bde time at the quick turn out was particularly good.” (2)

The weather is unpleasant again — “damnable” Archie Wills call it (3) — “a bright day marred by a chill and snow flurries” says a news report. That report adds two curious details. First, the prime minister sprained his ankle but carried on with “Spartan spirit.” Second, the luncheon served to Borden and the distinguished visitors with him consisted, by the prime minister’s request, “the ordinary soldiers’ rations.” (4)

The report of the Prime Minister’s inspection is buried on page 11 of tomorrow’s Globe, because the front page is occupied with news of the assault on Vimy Ridge. Commonly understood to be a defining point in Canadian identity and still a source of national pride and respect, the battle will occupy three more days, generate pages and pages of history and analysis, and be the solemn subject of a centennial commemoration this week in 2017.

Last night, while Percy and his mates were sleeping peacefully in their huts, all Four Divisions of the Canadians, fighting together for the first and only time, were preparing for the assault which launched at 5:30 this morning. The German stronghold on Vimy   Ridge has repelled three attacks since it was been established in October 1914, and has been more strongly fortified the longer it remains in German hands.

Vimy Canadian Pictorial 1917.JPG

The preparations have taken months – tunneling for troop movement and mining, road building to bring equipment and supplies forward and injured soldiers to the rear, and replicating the battlefield (without the steep slopes) where soldiers can rehearse what they are supposed to do. They have access to maps so that they understand what is expected, and they have practiced going forward even as their officers pretend to be killed or wounded.

Then nearly two weeks ago, the  bombardment has begun. It has damaged and destroyed German lines and fortifications, and pinned German soldiers in their dugouts preventing repair of the damage.  Over 200,000 eighteen-pounder shells alone have been fired by this point.

By the end of today, most of Vimy Ridge has been taken, a significant success in the much larger Allied plan.

A good short account of Vimy Ridge, by Tim Cook, can be found in the pages of Legion, March/April 2017 or on-line. Cook’s Vimy: The Battle and the Legend was published in March 2017.

(1) Robert Craig Brown, “Borden, Sir Robert Laird.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16. 2003.
(2)  War Diary of the Fifth Canadian Divisional Artillery. Vol. 3 (April 1917): 2. Library and Archives of Canada.
(3) Wills, Archie. Diary. 4: 32. April 9, 1917. Archie Wills Fonds, University of Victoria Archives. Copyright 2007, University of Victoria.
(4) “Borden sees Mimic Battle.” The Globe (1844-1936). April 10, 1917. 11. Archive available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

The photograph, taken by the Canadian Official War Photographer on the Western Front, comes from the Canadian War Pictorial [3: 1917]: 1.

Copyright 2017. See “More about this project.”

 

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