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.

Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 1

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.Library and Archives Canada is releasing its latest podcast episode, “Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 1”.

April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the attack and capture of Vimy Ridge, when all four divisions of the Canadian Corps worked together for the first time. During the First World War, over 25,000 Canadians served with the British Flying Service as pilots, observers and mechanics, and even though the Battle of Vimy Ridge is better known as a ground offensive, many of the preparations for the assault on Vimy took place in the air. In Part 1 of this episode, we sit down with Bill Rawling, historian and author of the book Surviving Trench Warfare, and Hugh Halliday, author and retired curator at the Canadian War Museum, to discuss the role Canada and her allies played in the air over Vimy Ridge and Arras in April 1917, a month known as “Bloody April.”
A black-and-white photograph of a biplane with two aviators in the cockpits: one is piloting and the other is at the machine gun.

A Curtiss JN-4 gun installation, pilot’s gunnery, Royal Flying Corps, Canada, School of Aerial Gunnery at Camp Borden, Ontario, 1917 (MIKAN 3404272)

To view images associated with this podcast, here’s a direct link to our Flickr album.

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The Battle of Vimy Ridge—preparations

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.By Dr. George Hay

The Arras offensive of 1917 was divided into ten distinct actions comprising sizable battles along with flanking and subsidiary attacks. The first two actions of the first phase, the simultaneous battles at Vimy Ridge to the north of Arras and astride the river Scarpe in the centre, took place between April 9 and 14. The former was to be the Canadian Corps’ contribution to the offensive—the first time all four Canadian divisions had fought together—and was directed towards the formidable defences on the high ground. The original purpose of the attack was to form a defensive flank for the operations of the Third Army to the south, but given the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line the month before, its operational importance grew in magnitude. Possession of the ridge allowed German forces a commanding view of British and Commonwealth positions below; its capture would not only alleviate this issue for attacking forces, but would put that same advantage into the hands of the British.

A colour map showing places, rivers, and the moving lines of defence.

Situation map showing the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. (The National Archives, WO 95/1049/9)

As previously outlined, these operations had been planned in principle since the end of the previous year and very careful preparations had been made in respect of the training of personnel and the accumulation of artillery and the materiel of war. Furthermore, the actual attack on April 9 was the culminating thrust of a phase of operations including a large number of raids and an incredibly destructive artillery bombardment. The steady wearing down of the enemy’s morale and defences, combined with the diligent training and preparation conducted by the Canadians, set the stage for a climactic and decisive battle.

As in any major offensive operation, objectives were set for the Canadian Corps but they were specific and limited in their scope. Some were common to the divisions while others were assigned to particular sections of the line. They consisted of two primary (a black and a red line) and two secondary (a blue and a brown line).

A map of the Vimy crest showing the four stages of military objectives in colour: 1st objective in black, 2nd objective in red, 3rd objective in blue and 4th objective in brown.

A map of the Canadian Corps military objectives from the General Staff war diary, April 1917. (The National Archives, WO 95/1049/9)

A mimeographed map using different lines to illustrate the German regiments that were located behind the trenches at these two different time periods.

Order of battle showing the lines on April 6th and 26th. The map also shows the German regiments behind the lines on both those dates. It is dated April 27th and was produced by the Canadian Corps Intelligence. (The National Archives, WO 95/1049/9)

The first of these meant passing through the German frontline to a depth of around 700 yards. Once the ground was taken, the 3rd and 4th divisions would reform German support trenches into their main line of defence. The red line stood between 400 and 1000 yards ahead of the first objectives and represented the farthest goal of 3rd and 4th divisions. The blue and brown lines ran between 1,200 and 4,000 yards in front of the red line and were exclusively the responsibility of the 1st and 2nd divisions. Collectively these objectives incorporated an extensive and intricate system of trenches, dugouts, tunnels and strong points, which the German army had spent two years constructing. Their taking was to be intimately bound to the artillery fire plan, which would lift from each objective just before the infantry arrived.

A mimeographed, typewritten page divided into three different sections: successive stages, distribution of troops, and headquarters and boundaries.

Proposed plan of attack showing the four different stages and timings of the advance. (The National Archives, WO 95/169/6)

A mimeographed, typewritten extract from a page explaining the strategy behind the artillery barrages supporting the assault: the “rolling” barrage, the “standing” barrage and field batteries in forward positions (known as silent forward batteries that were silent until it was time for them to be used on the more distant objectives).

Plan of bombardment in support of the assault. (The National Archives, WO 95/1049/10)

A black-and-white map showing the area around Vimy Ridge. The map is covered in wavy lines representing the rolling artillery barrage while the different objectives of the attack (black, red, blue, and brown) are represented by thicker lines.

Barrage map for the Vimy attack. (The National Archives, WO 153/1284)

Artillery preparation was understandably meticulous, beginning 20 days in advance and increasing in intensity as the day of the attack approached, all the while never giving away the full weight of firepower available. Both wire and strong points were kept under barrage, weakening German defences as well as the morale of those stationed at the front. Fire in support of the assault was similarly well planned, with a rolling shrapnel barrage due to fall in 100 yard lifts and standing barrages on defensive systems ahead of the advance. More than 200 machine guns were also to be brought to bear on the relatively narrow front, with 150 providing an indirect barrage and supporting fire; 130 due to be carried by the assaulting brigades for use in consolidation; and a further 78 held in reserve. The heavy artillery and companies of the Special Brigade Royal Engineers (gas companies armed with Livens Projectors) were to use high explosives and gas in counter-battery work to suppress German artillery.

Tanks, too, were allotted to the Canadian Corps in support of their operations. Having seen their debut at Flers-Courcelette on the Somme just seven months before, eight tanks were given the task of working around the defences of Thélus which sat between the 1st and 2nd Division—the two divisions with the furthest to travel. Despite their promise on the battlefield, all artillery and infantry planning was made without reliance on the contribution of the tanks given their limited number and reliability issues.

A black-and-white photograph of at least three teams of six horses pulling cannons into place.

Canadian Field Artillery bringing up the guns, Vimy Ridge, April, 1917. (Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3521867)

Reconnaissance by the Royal Flying Corps 16 Squadron and No. 1 Kite Balloon Company informed the plan of attack, while elaborate communications plans using buried cable, wireless and visual receiving stations for Forward Observation Officers of the artillery mitigated against complications on the day. Mining was used not only offensively with the intention of demolishing German strong points, but also to produce nearly four miles of tunnels and subways for the infantry coming forward for the attack and to evacuate the wounded.

Everything was in place for the hour of the assault, 5:30 am on April 9, 1917. The preceding hours of darkness aided by cloud cover had permitted the infantry to file forward unobserved into their jumping off positions, many of which were clearly observable to the enemy in daylight. Had this movement been witnessed, an enemy barrage may have broken up the assault wave with serious casualties; as it was, the positions were gained without notice. In the half-light of zero-hour under a cold overcast sky, when manoeuvring was still largely obscured from the enemy, the intense bombardment opened with sudden fury and the advance of the infantry began.

Biography

Dr. George Hay is a principal military record specialist at The National Archives of the United Kingdom and a historian of the British amateur military tradition. He holds a PhD in History.

This blog was developed under a collaborative agreement between Library and Archives Canada and The National Archives.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge – the Canadian Corps and its preparations

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.By Marcelle Cinq-Mars

Following Britain’s ultimatum to Germany and the resulting declaration of war, the Dominion of Canada found itself de facto swept up in the turmoil. Such were the ties of Empire between Great Britain and Canada in August 1914. In Canada, few opposed Canadian participation in a “European war,” as it was referred to at the time.

A black-and-white photo showing a field of white tents as far as the eye can see, and a long line of soldiers conducting military exercises in the foreground.

The First Canadian Army – a scene at Valcartier, 1914 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 3642184)

The King accepted the Government of Canada’s offer of an expeditionary force. With a great deal of enthusiasm—and disorganization—the first Canadian volunteers were quickly sent to Valcartier Military Camp, hastily built about 30 kilometres north of Québec. In just over a month, the first Canadian contingent of about 36,000 soldiers and officers was ready to sail for England.

Canadian volunteers

Who were the first Canadian volunteers who agreed to serve “for the duration” under the British Army Act?

Almost all of the roughly 1,500 officers in the first Canadian contingent had received military training in the Canadian militia. More than two thirds had been born in Canada, while the others came from other parts of the Empire. The proportion was reversed for the soldiers: over 65% had been born in other parts of the Empire, just under 30% were born in Canada, and the rest came from the United States and other allied countries.

By March 1917, when it was preparing to take Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Corps had changed considerably. Since arriving on Salisbury Plain 30 months earlier, the Canadians had been through a trial by fire, facing the first poison gas attacks at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 and fighting in the battles of Festubert (May 1915), St. Éloi (June 1916) and the Somme (July 1916). In 1916, Lieutenant-General Alderson had been replaced as Commander of the Canadian Corps by a new officer, Lieutenant-General Julian Byng.

A black-and-white photo of a uniformed man with a moustache, wearing an officer’s cap and a Sam Browne belt. His tunic is festooned with medals and military decorations, and he is staring directly and impassively into the camera.

Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng in May 1917. Photo taken by William Ivor Castle (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 3213526)

Byng was thus leading the Canadian Corps, which now consisted of four divisions. It should be noted that the 2nd Canadian Division included the only francophone battalion in the whole British Empire engaged at the front: the 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion (now the Royal 22e Régiment). Created in October 1914, this battalion was commanded entirely by francophone officers; French Canadians were able to serve their country in their own language.

Attack preparations

Once Byng’s plan had been submitted, modified and approved by the military command, preparations began for the attack on Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps, which had been assigned this task, prepared for the assault with great determination and meticulous care. Byng had a scale model of the German defences made, and he used it behind the lines as he personally supervised the Canadians’ training. Every day, officers and soldiers practiced, as realistically as possible, the tactics that they would employ during the attack. They worked on timing their advances to follow, and benefit from, the artillery’s creeping barrage.

During this time, Canadian and British engineers had to prepare ammunition stores, water tanks and pumps. Twenty-five feet below the trenches, the tunnel system was expanded, to ensure that the troops could move toward the front-line trenches and that the communications network was secure.

A map showing a close-up of part of the Canadian and German military positions. The inset shows the front line, from the North Sea to Reims in the south.

Map of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, before the battle started (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 178969

Royal Flying Corps pilots were tasked with observing German positions and bombarding key targets, such as railways and German airfields. The invaluable information that they gathered was relayed behind the lines and led to over 80% of the German artillery batteries’ locations being identified.

In the lead-up to the attack, the artillery began pounding the German trenches on March 20. This bombardment continued until April 2, when it reached its maximum intensity. It is estimated that more than 1 million artillery shells were fired during this preparatory period, with over 50,000 tons of explosives hitting the German positions. The damage to the German lines of communication from the artillery fire slowed the supply line to defenders in the front lines considerably.

A black-and-white photo of soldiers advancing across a field, with shells exploding just in front of the advancing column.

Canadians advancing through German barbed wire, April 1917 (Library and Archives Canada – MIKAN 3404765)

On the day of the attack, the 15,000 Canadians who took part in the assault on Vimy Ridge were confident of achieving their objectives. It was a momentous day for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which expected to clearly show its determination and effectiveness. Although the soldiers in the assault did not know it yet, it would also be a momentous day for Canada.

Related resources

Biography

Marcelle Cinq-Mars is a senior military archivist in the Government Records Branch at Library and Archives Canada. She has authored many books focusing mainly on the First World War.

This blog was developed under a collaborative agreement between Library and Archives Canada and The National Archives.