This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Canadian army’s victory at Vimy Ridge, as close to 100,000 soldiers poured out of trenches, dugouts and tunnels, surged up a steep slope and conquered a German army position considered impregnable.
Among them were members of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, predecessors of what is today the BC Dragoons, locally based out of the Brigadier Angle Armoury in downtown Kelowna.
The Okanagan region lost 47 soldiers killed in action at Vimy Ridge, while another 151 were wounded in the battle that began April 9 and ended April 12.
Overall, more than 3,500 Canadian soldiers died on that southern France battlefield.
Among those who returned home was Kelowna resident Chris DeHart’s dad, Victor DeHart, who fought and was wounded by shrapnel at Vimy Ridge.
While he was treated in England and returned home to the Okanagan, Victor never spoke of his World War I experiences to his family.
“Nobody talked about that back then. You just came home, sucked it up and carried on,” DeHart said.
“I didn’t ask him about it and he didn’t talk about it. But we all kind of dreaded the anniversary of the Vimy Ridge battle because he would start drinking three days before that and three days after.
“It was a dramatic experience for him. If you read Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, it’s well worth reading because it gives you an idea of the time and environment they lived in.
“It was trench warfare and there was mud, lice, rats, dead bodies lying on the ground. It was pretty horrific.”
Okanagan resident Fred Levitt’s grandfather was a machine gunner, fighting in the Vimy Ridge and Somme battles, before suffering a shrapnel injury in the Battle of Amiens on Aug. 8, 1918, an offensive by the Allied forces that ultimately brought an end to the First World War.
Levitt said his grandfather, Frederick Levitt, was reluctant to talk about what he went through on the battlefields, but he himself wasn’t particularly interested in asking questions about it as a teenager either.
“In retrospect, it was kind of stupid for me not to talk to him about it. If I had asked him questions, he probably would have answered them,” Levitt reflected.
But as he got older, that sense of family history and the desire to pass it on to his children and to the B.C. Dragoons inspired him to research and write a 70-page biography about his grandfather’s wartime experiences.
Frederick Levitt was injured when his unit was part of an offensive assault on German positions at Amiens in France. Starting at 5:30 a.m., the unit advanced forward, preceded by a barrage of artillery shells to weaken the German position.
“They were advancing too quickly and got caught up in the artillery barrage. One of the shells came down on them, killing two officers and wounding 26 others. My grandfather was hit in the mouth by a 45-calibre ball.”
Levitt would receive medical treatment in England and returned home to the small town of Elkhorn, Manitoba, where he would marry the widow of another soldier who fought and died in World War I.
He would eventually settle in Edmonton and wanted to enlist again when the Second World War broke out, even lying about his age to try and get enlisted. That didn’t work, but he did serve as a guard at German prisoner of war camps in Ontario and later southern Alberta during World War II.
“He was a real character and I admired him for everything he went through,” Levitt recalled.
“When I did his biography, it took me about two or three years to assemble it all. You can’t help but shed a few tears along the way when you do something like that.”
Levitt still has medals and other memorabilia from his grandfather’s military history, including that piece of shrapnel that hit him in the face in World War I.
Richard Hamilton can recall tears being shed when he tracked down the cemetery with the gravestone for his great uncle Hugh Megraw, his grandmother’s brother, who died in the Battle of Somme.
“The French lady who helped us find the gravestone knew nothing about the war, but she started to cry because of the idea someone had given their life for France. It’s hard not to get choked up at a cemetery like that,” Hamilton said, reflecting about that visit 25 years ago.
Like Levitt, he regrets as a young child not spending more time with his grandparents to learn about the family history related to World War I, something the 74-year-old has spent a lot of time of late learning more about.
Hamilton, DeHart and Levitt are part of the civilian group participating in the Vimy Ridge Return 2017 Tour taking place from June 9 to 20, organized by the B.C. Dragoons Regimental Council Society.
The tour, which will include representatives of the BC Dragoons and local military historian James Wood, will offer the opportunity to tour the Vimy Ridge memorial site in France along with several other famous World War I and II battlefields.
Wood, who teaches Canadian history at UBC Okanagan, said the history of Vimy Ridge is one that runs deep with the Dragoons.
“Vimy Ridge is a battle that many of us today may have heard about it but know little about its significance. But the history behind it is tremendously important to the regiment. This is our history,” said Wood, who did a four-year stint in the Dragoons before moving on to pursue his university education.
Today, Wood is a reserve officer with the Kelowna unit and will be in the procession on Sunday marching to the cenotaph in City Park to mark the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge.
Wood says the significance of Vimy Ridge to Canada is reflected in several ways, perhaps the most notable being the first battlefield victory attributed directly to the Canadian army, often cited as the beginning of Canada’s evolution from a British Empire dominion to an independent nation.
“The war was not going well for our side at that point. The Germans were entrenched on higher ground and both the French and British had tried to take their position and failed,” recalled Wood.
“It was careful preparation and planning and a lot of determination that enabled the Canadians to take that ridge.”
He said a visit to some of the World War I battlefields in 2000 was a “tremendously moving experience,” giving him a sense of the sacrifice and staggering carnage that resulted from World War I, as soldiers were ordered to charge machine-gun defended trenches repeatedly by military commanders who possessed little actual military experience but were appointed to their posts by rank and privilege in British and French society.
The total number of civilian and military casualties for World War I totalled 38 million—more than 17 million killed and 20 million wounded, ranking it as one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.
DeHart said the soldiers of that era were treated like pawns on a chessboard with little thought to their own well-being.
“They didn’t use drones back then. Men were the drones,” DeHart said.
“We are the privileged generation because we never had to fight in a war. We are living today on the sacrifices of many people who lost their lives. They paid the ultimate sacrifice.”