In early April 1917, as women were allowed to vote for the first time in B.C., Canadian troops in Europe were preparing for what has become one of the great battles of the First World War, and a defining moment for the nation.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge began on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corp were employed as a group.
“The classic quote is from one of the generals who was watching the attack: ‘In those few minutes, I saw a nation being born’,” said Dennis Oomen, curator of the Penticton Museum, which is currently running an exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
“The other sentiment is we started off as New Brunswickers, Quebecers, Manitobans, and we reached the top as Canadians,” said Oomen. “A hard-won victory and triumph like that has that effect, to unify.”
One of those young men trying to reach the top of Vimy Ridge was Leonard Victor Adams. Born in London, England in 1895, he emigrated with his family to Penticton in about 1911, and took up fruit growing, before enlisting in 1916.
Leonard never made it home. He was laid to rest in a Canadian cemetery at Pas de Calais in France, killed by shell fire at Vimy Ridge on April 9. According to records collected by the Canadian Great War Project, Leonard wasn’t alone.
Private Ronald Wisson; Lance Corporal William Taylor, Sergeant Lewis Morgan and Private Gerald Latimer all had connections to Penticton, and like Leonard, never made it back to their civilian lives and family.
Out of about 100,000 Canadians who fought at Vimy, there were more than 10,600 casualties, with about 3,600 deaths.
“The price paid was considerable. It is difficult to put an exact count on the number of Pentictonites that were killed,” said Oomen. “The First World War had a great impact on this community … It drew people together.”
Oomen said there are records of volunteer groups formed to send comforts to local soldiers overseas. Those comforts usually took the form of cigarettes, chocolate, knitted goods. But one group was raising money so the City of Penticton could buy a machine gun for the troops.
Author Yasmin John-Thorpe learned about the First World War and Vimy Ridge at school, growing up in Trinidad. So she was surprised when listening to a talk from the president of the Vimy Foundation, that the story of the battle wasn’t something children would learn at school.
“I knew Canadian history, American history, British history … because Trinidad in its own little way, we were part of the Allies,” said John-Thorpe. That was the inspiration for her children’s book Grandpa’s Gift, which tells the story of the Canadian battle to win Vimy Ridge.
Research included a trip to Europe to visit the the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were listed as “missing, presumed dead” in France during the First World War.
“I went to the cemeteries, shocked because there were 15-year-olds killed because they lied about their age,” said John-Thorpe. “I’m writing a book for eight to 14-year-olds. I can go into a Grade 8 class and say, this would have been you, you would have signed up and gone to fight this battle.”
When I when I speak to the kids I say to them you really have to understand that the life we have, the life you have, people sacrificed to get that for you.
History teaches us lessons and if we want to see what’s going to be in the future we just have to look at the past because history will repeat itself because we don’t seem to learn from our lessons.”
A hundred years later, the Battle of Vimy Ridge still resonates. While doing writing the book, John-Thorpe discovered that local optometrist Dr. John Twidale’s grandfather was one of the survivors of Vimy Ridge.
Twidale said he didn’t talk with his grandfather, Percival, about the war, or about Vimy. Not, he said, from his grandfather shying away from the topic, but just that it wasn’t a topic of conversation.
Luckily, Percival’s story was recorded for a University of Victoria Heritage project. He talks about his early life, and about joining the Lethbridge Highlanders and fighting at Vimy Ridge.
“We were in the first wave over,” said Percival on the recording. He didn’t make it to his objective, being wounded early in the battle. “I had my rifle bent almost double by a big piece of shell casing that hit my rifle. I was just picking up another rifle from someone who had fallen, when i got hit in the leg … a piece of shrapnel in my leg right through my shinbone.”
Still able to walk, Percival escorted six German prisoners to the rear and took himself to the dressing station.
“I didn’t know until I sat down and tried to get up again, that my leg was broken,” said Percival.
British Columbia’s War: 1914-1918 continues at the Penticton Museum until May 29. The museum is also hosting a lecture on the war: on April 11, the subject is the Second Canadian Mounted Rifles, from the Okanagan Valley, and their key role at Vimy, and on April 19, the lecturer is Keith Boehmer, historian at the Okanagan Military Museum, who will be discussing his trip to Vimy for the centennial observances.
Oomen is planning to continue the education process. The lectures are supported in part by Veterans’ Affairs, as is his plan to involve students.
“General knowledge about the First World War and the second is very, very low,” said Oomen. Starting with the next school year, he is going to be asking high school students to research and profile the names on Penticton’s Cenotaph to put them on commemorative plaques.
“It’s our job as museum to keep these to keep these memories and these stories alive,” said Oomen. “It adds to historical awareness and an appreciation of what has happened in the past. It adds to our quality of life and I think it makes us better citizens.”