The chapter entitled "The Great War" in Courage Rewarded covers the experiences of Canadian soldiers in the First World War, describing how they found courage to overcome fear in dreadful conditions of combat. The excerpt below deals with the Battle of Vimy Ridge in particular:
The bombardment opened up on March 27 and gradually increased in intensity until the morning of April 9. At 0530, the final bombardment began and, as the troops rose and marched up the slope, it rolled ahead of them, smashing German trenches and artillery positions. The Germans were blinded by a driving wind, with snow and sleet, and by mid-afternoon all objectives had been taken except for two strongpoints on high ground. All the same, it had been a bitter battle, as Donald Ross of the 87th Battalion described it:
"I was shot going across no-man’s land. Despite my wound, I managed to get into the enemy’s trench with the rest. Instead of finding our battalion on our right and left we found the enemy…. A terrific battle followed. My rifle, which held 10 rounds, was soon emptied, and as we were too close-quarter to reload I had to use my bayonet, which broke shortly, and then made a club of my rifle.
While the Canadian soldiers had carried out their task firmly and courageously, they had not done it with the same romantic vision that they had in 1915. Even in victory, the Canadian Corps still lost almost11,000 men killed or wounded in seven days on the Ridge. Lieutenant Claude Williams later wrote that “none of us have lost our nerve, but the novelty has worn off, we have seen too much of the shady side of fighting to love it for the mere sake of adventure. When called upon we are cheerfully ready to do anything we are told but do not feel the same wild enthusiasm as formerly. We are all steadied and sobered up.”
Some, however, felt that they had had enough after Vimy: Donald Ross wrote, “I believe I am beginning to show the white feather. I have finished writing to Captain Troop to see if he can find me a job here in England… When we went over the top at Vimy we had 900 [officers and men]. When counted going out they had 121 officers and men. So you can imagine what it was like.
The men of the Canadian Corps, however, were now battle-hardened veterans after having survived the experiences of 1916, and their fatalistic attitude helped stiffen the resolve of the new replacements. According to Captain John MacGregor of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion, “most of my section had been with me on the Somme; we were fatalists; if we were going to stop one, so be it."
The completeness and swiftness of the victory was stunning, more so perhaps in comparison with the meagre gains of 1916. The British historian Richard Holmes has written that “the capture of Vimy Ridge remains to this day a remarkable feat of arms. It represents a triumph of co-ordination, preparation and sheer courage.” Among the gallantry decorations later awarded for this battle, four Canadian soldiers would receive the Victoria Cross.
The next day, all the major Canadian newspapers trumpeted the story, in colourful language that would initiate the pattern in which this military accomplishment would be seen for years ahead. The Vancouver Sun wrote, “Historic Achievement of Canada’s Soldiers was in Conformity with Past Record.” The Nottingham Guardian stated that “Canadian valour will stand out as in imperishable addition to the glory of the gallant colonials.” And the New York Times published that the battle would be “in Canada’s history, one of the great days, a day of glory to furnish inspiration to her sons for generations.”
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history