Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell, Private William Johnstone Milne and Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton

A banner that changes from a black-and-white photograph of a battle scene on the left to a colour photograph of the Vimy Memorial on the right.The Discover Blog returns to the First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients series, in which we profile each of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day that the actions took place for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today we present the story of three Canadian soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions on the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

On April 9, 1917, Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell of Lachute, Quebec, and two runners, Private James T. Kobus and Arthur James Hay, became separated from their unit while storming a German position. MacDowell destroyed one machine gun and put another out of action. With Kobus and Hay, MacDowell entered a dugout, where he convinced the German soldiers he encountered that the three were part of a much larger force. Two officers and 75 soldiers surrendered to MacDowell, Kobus and Hay. The three men held the position for five days until relieved (London Gazette, 8 June 1917, no. 30122, p. 5702). MacDowell, a previous recipient of the Distinguished Service Order, was promoted to the rank of Major and later became Lieutenant-Colonel of the Frontenac Regiment in Napanee, Ontario. He died in Nassau, Bahamas, on March 29, 1960, and is buried in Brockville, Ontario.

A black-and-white photograph of two men in uniform standing in a field.

Lieutenant-Colonel C.M. Edwards, D.S.O., and Major T.W. MacDowell, V.C., D.S.O., 38th Battalion, October 1917 (MIKAN 3521126)

A typewritten page of the accounts of the day, from 8:45 a.m. to 6:05 p.m. The account starting at 11 a.m. states the following: “A report from Capt.MacDowell, timed 10.30 was sent in by runner stating that he could see no sign of the 78th Battn and that the Bosche were firing with machine guns on him but that he had not been able to locate these (it subsequently turned out to be in CLAUDE Trench Junction of CLUTCH), and calling for reinforcements. This report was forwarded to Brigade. At the same time a Reserve Lewis Gun crew was sent up to Capt. MacDowell and Private G.J.P. Nunney, who had come in to get a wound dressed, stated he had a Lewis gun and had salved 32 pans of ammunition and volunteered, if he got a carrying party, to go out again, get the ammunition and go over to Capt. MacDowell. All men going out to this point carried ammunition and bombs. Major Howland was ordered to send men over to reinforce Capt. MacDowell which he did sending a Machine Gun crew and ammunition. Three officers and specialists who were at Chateau de la Haie were ordered up at this time and on arrival reinforced Capt. MacDowell.”

Second page of the “Report on the operations of 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion, April 9th to 13th, 1917” from the War Diaries, 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion, April 1917, page 34 (MIKAN 1883252)

Private William Johnstone Milne was born in Cambusnethan, Scotland, and immigrated to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1910. He enlisted in the 16th (Scottish) Battalion and was serving near Thelus, France, on the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. That day, as the advance of Milne’s company was held up by a German machine gun, Milne crawled forward and captured the gun. When his company was on the move again, Milne targeted another machine gun in the German line and succeeded in silencing it. His citation for the Victoria Cross states that his “wonderful bravery and resource on these two occasions undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades” (London Gazette, 8 June 1917, no. 30122, p. 5705). Private Milne was killed shortly after destroying the second German machine gun. His body was never recovered. He is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial, along with 11,000 other Canadians who died in France and have no known graves.

A black-and-white photograph of a man in uniform. His cap and collar are adorned with maple leaves, and he is looking directly at the photographer.

Private W.J. Milne, undated photograph (MIKAN 3357327)

Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton of Wallacetown, Ontario, enlisted with the 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion to serve as a battalion driver. Before the attack on Vimy Ridge, Sifton was asked to “take a chance with the boys in the front line,” a challenge he accepted. With his company under heavy machine-gun fire near Neuville-St. Vaast, France, Sifton located the German machine gun nest. He went through a gap in the wire, ran across open ground, charged the gun crew and managed to knock over the gun before fighting the gunners. As others in his company came forward, Sifton held off a German counter-attack (London Gazette, 8 June 1917, no. 30122, p. 5704). Just as he was about to be relieved, he was killed by a wounded German soldier.

A black-and-white photograph of two men adorning a makeshift grave with white stones in a desolate landscape that has patches of snow and frost on the ground. The grave is marked by a cross with the words “L.S. [Lance-Sergeant] E.W. Sifton, VC” and adorned with a maple leaf. Beside the grave is a larger cross with the words “RIP Canadian soldiers killed in action 9-4-17.”

Two comrades of the late Lance-Sergeant E.W. Sifton, V.C., 18th Battalion, visit his grave, February 1918 (MIKAN 3194451)

A typewritten account of the actions that led to Lance-Sergeant Sifton’s Victoria Cross medal: “An act of conspicuous gallantry was performed by Sergt. E.W.Sifton of ‘C’ Coy [Company]. A M.G. [machine gun] was holding up his Company and doing considerable damage. Sergt. Sifton, single-handed, attacked the Gun crew and bayoneted every man, but was unhappily shot by a dying Boche.”

War Diaries, 18th Canadian Infantry Battalion, April 9, 1917, page 6 (MIKAN 1883227)

Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton of Wallacetown, Ontario, enlisted with the 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion to serve as a battalion driver. Before the attack on Vimy Ridge, Sifton was asked to “take a chance with the boys in the front line,” a challenge he accepted. With his company under heavy machine-gun fire near Neuville-St. Vaast, France, Sifton located the German machine gun nest. He went through a gap in the wire, ran across open ground, charged the gun crew and managed to knock over the gun before fighting the gunners. As others in his company came forward, Sifton held off a German counter-attack (London Gazette, 8 June 1917, no. 30122, p. 5704). Just as he was about to be relieved, he was killed by a wounded German soldier.

Library and Archives Canada holds the military service files for Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell, Private William Johnstone Milne and Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton.

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