On April 9, 1917, Canada will mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Over generations, this battle has become synonymous with Canadian pride, bravery and sheer determination. Many families still share stories of their ancestor’s part in Vimy.
For the family of Captain Alec Walter Jack, the anniversary is particularly poignant.
Scottish-born Alec Walter Jack immigrated to B.C. in 1913. The First World War broke out while he was working in the mining town of Hedley for the Bank of British America.
In August 1915, he enlisted with the 54th Battalion (Kootenay), an infantry battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was 24 years old. He had to hire a car – they weren’t very common in those days – to drive to Vernon and enlist.
The battalion’s commander was Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Kemball, who, as Jack would later recall, “had forgotten more about soldiering than we ever knew.”
After training in Vernon, the battalion travelled overland to Halifax before sailing to England to wait for their deployment in France. They arrived in Le Havre, France in 1916 and were quickly in the middle of battle in Ypres.
When Jack spoke with the CBC on the 50th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge in 1967, he recalled a lucky moment while en route to the Somme in September 1916. Af after a firefight, where he became disoriented and separated from his battalion. He found himself crawling across no man’s land for four to five hours. Finally, as dawn broke, he made a dash for a parapet and dropped into the trench.
He realized later how dangerous this had been: several snipers had been close by, ready to shoot a stray finger if seen.
The next few months were hard days, full of combat, losing friends and living in cold, muddy conditions.
Jack recalled that early on the morning of March 1, 1917, the wind was variable and the gas so heavy it would sink into the trenches, creating challenging conditions for their intended raid on Snargate Trench near Hill 145 on during one of the early raids on Vimy Ridge.
Lt.-Col. Kemball, their commanding officer, chose to personally lead the battalion into the battle.
But the Germans were waiting.
Within five minutes, they lost 190 men, including Lt.–Col. Kemball and two other company commanders.
“It was a nightmare, an absolute nightmare of a raid,” Jack would later say. “And it happened just a month before Vimy … the result was, of course, that we were very much weakened when Vimy came along.”
After the action was over, the Germans sent an officer under a white flag with an offer of a short truce.
The German soldiers then assisted the Canadian battalion, carrying the dead and wounded halfway across no man’s land, where the Canadian forces took them the rest of the way.
“After the given time, that was finished, and the picnic started again,” said Jack. “I never saw that done anywhere else, all our time in France.”
Jack recalled that when the German soldiers carried Lt.–Col. Kemball’s body, they treated it with the greatest respect and spoke a few reverent words. Jack attributed the truce, and the co-operation that day to return casualties to the Canadian line, as an act in deference to the German forces’ respect for Kemball.
A month later, when the Battle of Vimy Ridge began on April 9, Capt. Jack was a newly commissioned officer.
It rained the night the battalion proceeded to the line, and the Germans were shelling heavily.
“The ridge was in an appalling mess,” Jack remembered. “Shell hole to shell hole practically the whole way across, interspersed with mine craters, barbed wire, [and] all the shell holes were full of water.”
When the attack broke at dawn, Jack was at battalion HQ.
It wouldn’t be long before reports started coming in from the front, but those reports were at odds with one another. Jack was detailed to go to the front, assess the situation and “carry out any reorganization of the battalion which seemed to be necessary” to get them to their objective, 500 yards further from where they were.
Jack had an escort of one Lewis gunner and half a dozen batmen to carry ammunition.
When Jack arrived at the left flank, he found the remnants of the 54th and 102nd batallions. “There were about 90 men of the 54th, and there were a few more of the 102nd,” Jack said. “[The] 102nd officers were all casualties and so were the 54th officers.”
“So here, as a young fellow of 25, I found myself in command of the remainder of two battalions of several hundred men with the left flank up in the air and Germans all around us at the back,” he said.
“I sent in a report on the situation, then sorted out the men, getting the 54th on the exposed flank and the 102nd on our right. Then I decided I would go forward myself and see what I could find out about the situation in front,” Jack would later recall.
“I knew that there must be scores of our men pinned down in shell holes by snipers and the same with the 102nd, probably far more than we had in the body in the trench. I got a volunteer to come with me and we crawled and crept down 500 or 600 yards to the far side of the ridge on the east side,” he said.
The volunteer that crawled across the battlefield with him was hit and killed by sniper fire. Thinking he was only wounded, Jack, at great personal risk, dragged him all the way back to the relative safety of their trench. It was only then he realized his comrade had been killed.
Jack would later be awarded the Military Cross, the Commonwealth’s third highest military medal, in recognition of his bravery.
The losses that day were high; the 54th Battalion alone lost 220 officers and men, bringing them down to “skeleton strength,” according to Jack.
A century later, the Battle of Vimy Ridge is remembered in Canada as not only the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought as a complete unit but also for their immense sacrifice.
More than 9,000 of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were lost the first day alone. Much was learned from Vimy Ridge, and it is often considered a turning point in how battles in the First World War were fought.
After Vimy Ridge, Jack went on to fight in Passchendaele, Amiens, and beyond. He was wounded on Sept 2, 1918 during the Breaking of the Hindenburg Line at Amiens, suffering a gunshot wound to the thigh.
He returned home to B.C. with his wife, Mary to raise a son and three daughters, who would make their home in Surrey, B.C.
His son, Allistair, became the bank manager of the Bank of Montreal in Cloverdale and later in at the waterfront branch in White Rock on the branch on the beach. His grandson, Sandy Wightman, who kindly shared this story with us, has also made his home in Cloverdale, and will honour his grandfather’s memory during a trip to Vimy Ridge for the centennial ceremonies.
Sue Bryant is an oral historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist and volunteers at the Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives. This is her first column for The Reporter.