In 2017, Canada marks the 100th anniversary of what is widely considered the battle that defined Canada as a nation.
Letters and other artifacts have provided some insights about the role that Port Alberni soldiers played in the battle for Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Arras that followed on its heels.
Vimy Ridge, the most prominent feature in the Nord-Pas-De-Calais region of Arras, France, was critical to a Great War victory. The Battle of Arras, from April 9-June 29, 1917, began with an Easter push and the massively important capture of Vimy Ridge from April 9-12, 1917.
Gerald LaBute hosts the Time Traveller, a history segment done for SHAW TV in Port Alberni. A December 2016 episode shown on Youtube talks about the Port Alberni fellows who participated in the Great War.
LaBute interviewed Shelley Harding of the Alberni Valley Museum about research Alberni students did on George Morton Bird, among others, last year.
George’s father, George Hubert Bird, was an early pioneer to the Alberni Valley who owned the Bird Sawmill. As a youngster, George Morton Bird attended the Valley’s first school in the basement of Watsons building on Argyle.
“They were able to follow his whole entire early life and then follow his journey when he enlisted in the army in 1915 … He was one that they were all taken with, this young man, and looking at his family pictures in that photo collection, and then discovering that he didn’t come home,” Harding recalled.
Letters George Morton Bird wrote to his family from France have been preserved in a public archive created online by Vancouver Island University at canadianletters.ca.
George Morton Bird was something of a marksman, he wrote. “When I was at the school I made four hits out of five at 200 yards on a target representing a man’s head. It was only exposed four seconds, and we were looking out of a trench, and when it appeared we had to put up the rifle, aim and fire before it disappeared, and four out of five was pretty good don’t you think so?” he wrote to his dad.
On Sept. 28, 1916 (convalescing in Liverpool after being wounded at the Somme): “Did you understand from my letter that I was at the Somme, I think it is too bad that the English papers hardly mention the Canadians there when they made such a fuss about the Australians. It was Canadians that took Courcelette. The 29th helped, but that was just before I got there. However, on the 26th our battn had to take some German trenches. A. Co which I am in, had a trench to take by themselves. I was in the second wave and had to carry a shovel, five bombs, five sandbags, some trench flares, 250 rounds of ammunition besides rifle equipment etc.
“We had a fierce place to go, and out of the camp any of about 90 or 100 I think about 20 or 25 got over we got the trench alright but it certainly was a hell we went through. Our artillery is terrible but Fritz put over an awful Barrage which one had to go through. I hadn’t gone 50 yards when a machine gun bullet went through my helmet and grazed my head, and also pieces of my helmet or bullet hit me in the shoulder. I laid in a shell hole for about ten seconds and decided to go on, when I saw I wasn’t badly hurt. As it turned out I did the best thing I could have done as Fritz (the Germans) shelled us fierce and the wounded out behind us got hit very bad. Tom Newell got hit slightly and came out with me to be dressed that evening. As far as I know only three of my platoon got over and I was hit,” he related in a letter.
“We didn’t have to do any bayonet work as Fritz beat it. Though I was in the second wave I got over about 9th or 10th man. I had several shots at the Germans as they were running and know for a fact that I got two of them anyway. J Thomson and Cole from Port Alberni were both killed I believe though I can’t be quite certain. It certainly is hell, but I think Fritz gets it far worse than we do. We had two or three prisoners (wounded) come out with us. You should have seen them duck when one of their shells came over when we were coming out. The shell fire and machine gun fire we had to go through is impossible to describe. The whole country around there is simply blasted to pieces. I believe our division is through with the Somme now and we are going to a much quieter place I can’t be quite certain though but they won’t be there but a very short time more anyway. I suppose I shouldn’t tell you this but I know it will go no further than you know in safe, and I wanted you to know where I had been in case anything should chance to happen in the future which God being willing I don’t think will.”
On Oct. 14, 1916, he wrote: “I certainly had a helmet on when I got hit, but a steel helmet might as well be paper when a bullet hits it, in fact might better, as in my case, the bullet went through and went to piece and though it only made a small mark on my head it made a very large hole where it went through the other side of the helmet, and two of the pieces glanced down off the inside and hit me on the shoulder. Now don’t think I was foolishly having a look, as I happened to be in front of the trench at the time. This bullet wasn’t the only one by a far way that came close. JR Thomson wasn’t in my company and I only know from a fellow that used to be in the [?] with me that he was killed. Cole was in my company, and I only heard he was killed, so possibly there was some mistake. I don’t think there is any doubt about J.R.T. as this fellow told me that he J.R.T. got hit on the forehead with shrapnel, and died an hour or so afterwards.”
On Oct. 19, 1916, he wrote his father from LeHavre, France. “I met young ‘Woodward’ from McCoy Lake down in Le Havre a couple of days ago.”
In a letter from France, dated March 18, 1917, he wrote of other Alberni soldiers. “Young (Arthur) Lewis is still here, and I believe he is to stay in my company. Did I ever tell you that the two Greenard boys are in this battalion. One of them worked in the mill for you for a few days or so didn’t he?”
In a March 7, 1917 missive to his dad, he expressed surprise that a Henry Davey, who had been wounded, was reinlisting, as well as a Holinwood, presumably also from Port Alberni. “Arthur Lewis is here now, and he and [?] Pryde and I went out for a walk last night and had quite a talk about Port Alberni,” Bird wrote.
On April 16, 1917, George Morton Bird wrote about his role in the Easter advance.
“I suppose you have read all about the Great Easter Advance, and the part the Canadians took in it. If you should get an opportunity to see any of the moving pictures of it, you might see me amongst the other boys. I was right near the [?], and am the first man in a party of twelve or thirteen advancing in single file. I believe Jack Mathison and Edwin Davey were both wounded. Also one of the Greenards. Arthur Lewis, [?] Pryde, Tom [?] and the rest of us are all O.K.,” he wrote.
George Morton Bird died of injuries sustained in the Battle of Arras in June 1917.
“It was quite emotional at times when they realized the person they were researching didn’t come home,” Harding recalled of the students’ research.
Today, the lush countryside of Arras is a quiet backdrop for the ghosts of Vimy Ridge.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial sits high overlooking the Douai Plain.
On April 9, 1917, Canadians fought with their allies, inch by inch, for the high ground.
Together they did what the British and French armies alone could not.
Digging into history
Marc and Patricia Betournay have visited the massive tribute etched into Hill 145 in 1916 a number of times to ponder Canada’s destiny as the decisive force in the First World War’s most famed battle as it was forever carved in stone in 1936.
Marc is the retired chief mining engineer for the government of Canada. When he looks at Hill 145 and the graveyards all around it, he sees tunnels and diggers. He sees Canadian boys, making ready for the battle that has been described as Canada’s coming of age as a young nation.
“Standing here at the heights where the monument is, you can see the strategic importance of this plateau and beyond to open land,” Marc said.
Weak rock and chalk throughout Arras and elsewhere along the front made it difficult to maintain subterranean galleries of tunnels, dug under enemy lines in order for explosives to be set deep, creating havoc just before offensives began.
“It was a tremendous accomplishment. The preparations were obviously there, but the Canadians advanced against the artillery barrage. So many gave up their lives.
“One can see that all over the battlefield, not just on the monument itself. It’s the whole battlefield, where you see scars and shell holes – and when you walk, can’t help but put yourself in their shoes,” Marc said.
“In their very young shoes,” interjected Patricia. “Most of them were very young and went to war very valiantly.”
“Whenever we talk about the subterranean issues, it sort of brings it home – the things they had to do and prepare for … It’s a story of human drama,” said Marc.
“It’s about sacrifice in battle, not only against the enemy, and of course against the elements, but against time itself and having the war drag on so long,” he said on a bright November afternoon.
“Canadians were able to do something other proponents and allies in the First World War couldn’t do, to conquer No Man’s Land, and of course a very determined enemy,” he said.
According to veterans.gc.ca, coming from a country with a population under eight million, some 619,000 Canadians enlisted in the CEF. More than a 10th – 66,000 – died, and almost three times as many were wounded.
The Vimy memorial took 11 years to build, employing 11,000 tonnes of concrete and 6,000 tonnes of limestone hauled from an abandoned Roman quarry in what is now Croatia.
It was designed by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward, with 20 full-round sculpted limestone figures. The most dominant figure, “Canada Bereft,” was carved from a single 30-tonne block, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
“Head bowed in sorrow, she provides a powerful representation of Canada, a young nation grieving her dead. Overlooking the Douai Plain, she gazes down upon a symbolic tomb draped in laurel branches and bearing a helmet and sword,” the site says.
The names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France, whose final resting places were then unknown, are carved on the surface of the monument.
Port Alberni-born Jacqueline Carmichael is a Port Alberni-based writer who is working on a volume of poetry about her grandfather’s experiences in the First World War.