Lest We Forget
You are a 20-year-old boy. You are lying at the top of an escarpment, miles from home, waiting for the command. You are part of one of four divisions of the Canadian Corp and you are fighting three divisions of the German Army.
At 20 years old, you were anxious for adventure and of course you had to serve your country. You dreamed of victory and of this day, when your manhood would be tested. You thought back to the weekend when you sat in the pub with your boys. The more the beer, the louder the bragging became.
At that moment you thought you were invincible. You need to try to remember that, in the silence of this morning, waiting for the command to go.
You try to think of those you are saving. The people trapped behind enemy lines. Imagine their cries. You hear the call and you respond. Fear has not time to reason with you, you have been trained to do as you are commanded and over the ridge you go.
Two days later you are celebrating the capture of most of the ridge and the town celebrated with you. You yelled and danced with them but in your gut was the memory of the bloodshed you saw that day. You couldn’t sleep. You could see the faces of those who died beside you, those who died in front of you, those you killed. It didn’t seem like celebrating was really the right thing to be doing.
The second day, you lay on that ridge. This time you knew what you faced and your heart was pounding in your ears. Every nerve told you to get up and run away but you knew you would never do it. You looked over at your friends; they were concentrating too, waiting for the call. Nervous twitching and silence. You were the only one who was scared. You were sure of that. Everyone else looked so sure of themselves.
But scared or not, the call came and over the ridge you went, guns blazing, people falling, diving into the crapshoot that had become your life. Would this bullet have your name on it or the name of your best friend? You never knew, you just ran straight into the chaos, relied on the training you had been given and carrying out the tactical mission you had memorized. Your last rational thought was of your mother, her face turning toward you and then it all went blank as your gun began to fire.
What are you doing on the western edge of the Douai Plains? You should be home with your girlfriend, your school books, your dog.
And yet here you were. Crawling along the ground, feeling the ground move underneath you. Were you climbing over a German tunnel or was it just the force of the attack that was causing the earth to move?
You buried your face in the dirt, smelling the loam…stay still…wait for it. And the call went out again.
You were on your feet, running for your life. You could hear them falling behind you but you ran on. Your mind and spirit under the control of the training you had received. You reached the goal and fell to the ground, panting and sweating, willing your hands to stop shaking.
That night, there was bragging but the ghosts of those you left behind made the silences longer in between. Each time you left a piece of you on that battlefield and you lay awake at night wondering if someone you cared about was wounded but still alive, lying in the mud, dying, looking at the same stars.
The sun rose and you groaned your way out of bed. You had been pulled from a great dream. Your beautiful girlfriend was just leaning into your arms, face turned upwards, inviting a kiss and it was row call. Someone’s boot in your back shaking you awake.
Every muscle ached. You had been digging tunnels for days and days. The Germans had built tunnels under the trenches. They were blowing up whole sections of Canadian divisions while they were resting in their trenches.
Now the Royal Engineers had brought in tunneling specialists and he was digging. It was back breaking work and you never knew when you were going to dig through a wall and into the enemy. It was one thing to face Jerry above ground but entirely another in these man made graves.
You blocked it from your mind and you dug. More, harder, faster. You dug until the dirt scrapped your eyeballs and your blisters broke open and bled. You had dirt in every crease of your body and the sandpaper opened craters in your cracks.
There was no place to get clean so you went into a dead man’s sleep wearing days and then weeks of French grime on your body. Every night you dreamt of clean sheets and soft hands and every morning you woke up to do it all again.
After a while your heart no longer quickened at the commands. Your mind no longer saw your mothers face. Your emotions died, your body simply obeyed the commands as they came. You were tough, you would crack. You had to tell yourself that or you wouldn’t survive another day. You knew it wasn’t true but you couldn’t think about that or you would break down and cry for all you had lost.
Believing that you are in the right, believing that there is no choice but to do this, you carried on. Believing that you are saving the world, like superman, you roll out of bed again
The fight continues, your losses continue, your gaining ground but losing friends. Your sorrow doesn’t have time to process – you simply pick yourself up, gun ready and go again. Wait for the command and then go – just like you were trained to do.
In May, the division took a new leader and all four divisions were assembled to participate in this battle. You were sick of the whole thing. Sick of fighting, sick of being dirty, tired of the slaughter. You wanted this to be over now. British 5th Infantry Division came in to support you.
Fresh blood, new men. You saw their fresh faces and clean clothes. Welcome to hell, boys. They were soon to be as dirty and tired as you were.
170,000 men of which 97,000 were Canadian stood ready. It was time for this battle to end for good.
The plan was for a divided advance. The attack on the front would concentrate on Vimy to the east of the ridge, The Black Line. The first objective was to seize the German forward defense line.
For a second you wished you were discussing football…but you weren’t. And well you knew it.
The good thing was, that this was a doable plan. You had faith for that one second that you might be able to pull this off. It was time for everybody to go home. This actually could work and is sure beat digging trenches.
The final objective was the northern flank taking the Red Line (highest point on the Ridge). It was a place you were well familiar with. It was where you had started this battle three months earlier. It was your first taste of French dirt in your mouth.
The Blue line covered the town of Thelus and the woods outside Vimy and the Brown Line was to capture the Zwolfer-Graben trench and the German second line.
As part of the infantry, you would proceed close behind a creeping barrage of guns advancing in 100-yard increments. The bigger guns, howitzers would be the defense. Together they were going to cover you while you ran into enemy lines.
You would mark a position and then another unit would leap frog over you and take new territory and then you would leap frog over them and so on until you controlled the Ridge.
Germans had traditionally fought in accordance with the old doctrine of rigid defense. They spent two years constructing fortifications designed to keep the enemy from advancing past their line in the sand. Mines, trenches and barb wire were some of the things you had to conquer in this run for your life.
The geography of the Vimy battlefield made this defense strategy difficult to execute. The ridge was only 700 meters wide at its narrowest point and dropped off very steeply on the east side.
The German defensive strategy was to operate a strong front line defense and then move their reserves forward before the enemy could regroup. They relied mainly on machine guns.
Well you knew all about machine guns. They would cut through your lines in a bloody slaughter. The closer you got to your target, the more your ears rang with the rattings of the machine guns as they rained bullets on your and your comrades.
There were three lines of German infantry regiments made up of 15,000 men in each line. You greatly outnumbered them but of course you don’t know that at the time. You have no idea what faces you. You just run and react. You did know that this was the end, one way or another. You would either win or you would die or be captured. You were not going back to your old bunk tonight.
That night eight field brigade and two heavy artillery groups hunkered down to get some rest. You were one of those lying in the trench, pulling a muddy blanket over your legs, using your t-shirt for a pillow. Trying to stay warm.
Behind you, four heavy artillery groups, nine artillery field brigades, three divisional artillery groups and the artillery complement of the British 5th Division were finding their own bits of French soil to curl up in.
To the east, ten heavy artillery groups of the flanking I and XVII Corps were tucking for night. They were especially important as they were going to be the ones to take down the machine guns in the morning.
Four hundred and eighty 18 pounder field guns, one hundred thirty-eight 4.5 inch howitzers, ninety-six 2 inch trench mortars, twenty-four 9.45 inch mortars, supported by 245 corps-level siege guns and heavy mortars lie beside these men as they tried to sleep.
Each man, exhausted, mentally calming the demons in their heads, hummed battle tunes while they pretended to sleep.
For this exercise, the Canadian Corps received three times the artillery normally assigned to a corp for regular operations. You had never seen so much gun power in your life. It drove the testosterone in you wild.
You knew that a 1.6 million shell allotment meant you could use a high rate of fire. You were going to give them what for. You, along with your field technicians had laid 1,400 kilometers of telegraph and field telephone cabling, most while under enemy fire, all in preparation for this day.
As you lay on your muddy bed, listening to distant shellfire, you went over your training. Fire and movement was the tactic. Using a platoon, you used your hand grenade, rifle grenade and machine gun to suppress enemy strong point. Your unit was assigned a simple task but as each unit was also assigned a doable task, together they would achieve great things. So long as each unit did exactly what they were tasked with doing. This could work.
Everything in your tired, aching body was primed for this moment. Every bit of anger at the deaths around you, every thought of revenge, every piece of you that was tired of the dirt, the mud bed, the lack of sleep…vibrated waiting for dawn and the final call.
You are 20 years old. You had one year of university under your belt. You had a girlfriend and you were dreaming of the kind of life you would have with her. Maybe two kids, maybe buy a house. When this was all over and the world was safe, you could go back to the life you had planned. Today you were trapped in hell but at dawn you could see freedom.
This was dangerous work. Every leader trained two others to take his place if he were killed. 40,000 trench maps had been distributed and memorized so every sergeant and section commander knew the battlefield.
This battle was also fought underground. The soft but stable nature of the chalk dirt made tunnels easy to dig. British engineers had been digging tunnels through the ridge. Twelve subways up to 1.2 kilometers under the ground. They connected the front line to the reserve lines. Also underground was light rain lines, hospitals, command posts, water reservoirs, ammunition storage and communication centres. The Germans had dug similar tunnels. You studied your maps carefully. You didn’t want to get lost in the underground.
You are close to the front line. You can hear the yells of the midnight raids on trenches. Small groups of men crawled out into the night, jumping down into enemy trenches. Surprise, compliments of the Canadian Divisions.
The thought made you smile but then you heard a noise above you. Instantly awake, your gun in your hand, you were ready. Trench raids worked for both sides. Hearing those sounds in the night kept you from fully sleeping.
And then it was time. Everyone was tense and conversation was at a minimum. Behind enemy lines, tension was thick. Everyone knew there would be a large-scale attack but they didn’t know how or when it would occur.
March 20, 1917, the first phase of the artillery bombardment began. Your ears would ring constantly from the sound of repeated and unrelenting gunfire. It was your job to go to the barbwire at the enemy line and bury a No 106. That little unstable beauty would make you sweat. This charge would go off with very little provocation and everybody became light-footed dancers as they buried them under the barbwire supports. They referred to them as “the women”.
The artillery barrage would come first from one division and then switch to another causing confusion behind the German lines.
Phase two began on April 2, 1017 and lasted one week. It deployed the entire artillery arsenal available. It caused the German trenches and their defensive works to be demolished. Rations were unable to get through and their solider were suffering from constant attack and lack of food and water.
During the night of April the 9th, you were moved into position. Creeping along the ground by moonlight, hauling supplies and passing ammunition hand by hand in the inky darkness, you shivered from the crisp cool night wind. Sleet stung your face making it hard to see. You moved quickly to keep from freezing.
At exactly 5:28am April 10th, you were ready. Laying in wait, gun and grenades at hand, waiting for the clock to move. Looking over at your friends, everyone held their breath. At 5:30am every single Canadian and British soldier began firing.
Within 30 seconds the engineers detonated all the mine charges that had been laid, decimating the German line.
The advancement had begun. Upon the yell, you jumped up and ran as far and as fast as you could under the cover of light gunfire. When the command was given, you dropped to the ground, reloaded and again upon command you fired while soldier ran and jumped over you, advancing in waves upon waves.
The Black line fell at 6:25am. At 7:00am the first Canadian Division had completed half of the Red Line. The 2nd Canadian Division reached the Red line and captured the town of Les Telleuls at the same time.
A large mine explosion announced the arrival of the 3rd Canadian Division. They blew a crater in the middle of no man’s land. The time was 7:30am.
The 4th Canadian Division was struggling. Hill 145 was still under German command. The 3rd Division was called back to assist. Undamaged German trenches were able to pin down and wound many of the 4th Division. The situation became seriously worse when the creeping barrage got too far ahead of the advancing line. Cut off, they were easy targets for the German sharp shooters.
Reserve units from the 4th Division came to the rescue and eventually they were able to take Hill 145 when the Germans ran out of ammunition.
By noon, you were behind enemy lines. Running, finding cover, waiting for gun cover, running again. At times your brain screaming to you – what are you doing here? What the heck is going on? It was confusion and death but you keep going. What else are you going to do? All you knew was press forward or die.
The Germans had begun to recapture part of the town of Vimy. It took them until 6pm to regain what they had lost in what was left of the destroyed town.
By sundown Germans were back on top of the ridge. Reinforcements had begun to arrive and by April 11th they were regaining strength. All was confusion.
There were Germans behind British and Canadian lines and you found yourself behind the German front line (or what was left of it) but you were surrounded by your own troops so you found a wooded area and dug in for night.
Hungry, you wolfed down the few rations that had survived. You would be fighting tomorrow on fumes but what could you do. You were so exhausted that you finally had your first good night sleep.
You woke up when the falling snow began to gather in your ears. It was the morning of April 12. You crawled toward your commanding officer for instructions.
The 4th Canadian Division was struggling but the previous night the Royal Engineers had fired 40 drums of gas directly into the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle. This caused mass confusion. By 4:00am the Germans had fought back and regained some ground.
At 5:00am, the 10th Canadian Brigade attacked once again, supported by the this time by the 24th British Division of I Corps to the north. The German defensive fell quickly and the ridge was finally captured by 6:00pm.
Your commanding officer instructed you and your troop to move silently. You were to surround the back of the retreating German forces. Moving through the woods, you could hear the distant gunplay. But you could also hear the bird song. It was confusing and peaceful in the woods as the sun was beginning to set. The falling snow landing in the leaves of the trees made you long for home. In your heart you knew if would soon be over. You could smell your girlfriends perfume; you could taste your mother’s homemade buns, you pictured your dog bounding through the snow ahead of you.
As your boots crunched through the snow, you were lulled into a sense of safety. Thoughts of home made you less observant than you should have been. Coming down a small ridge, you heard a sound. Turning, you faced the moment you knew would come.
You felt the bullet before you saw him. It burned through your chest. It was hot. Surprisingly hot. You started to move towards him. Ready to fight back but your body would no longer cooperate. Your legs gave out from under you and you saw the butt of his gun coming down and then blackness.
You were 20 years old. You and your dreams, like your face, buried deep in the French soil.
RIP Private John Earl Stanford – Died April 12, 1917
In memory of those who gave their lives in service of their country.
You have freedom because others sacrificed everything. Don’t waste it.