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Child Soldier Chapter #2



1918 CHILD SOLDIER FROM HILLIER
(Reprinted from the March 18, 2009 edition of the Town Crier, Mildmay)

(The following is the 2nd in a series providing background for the theatre performance of 1918 Child Soldier from Hillier by Suzanne Pasternak, that will be staged at the Teeswater Town Hall on Saturday March 28, 2009. The fundraiser for the Town Hall will have 2:00 pm matinee and 8:00 pm evening performances).

Chapter -Canadians at Vimy Ridge
(See Photo Gallery for Images)

By John Thompson

Background

In Canada, many men who rushed off to volunteer in August 1914 were simply afraid that they might miss out on the action. General consensus in the media predicted that the war would be over by Christmas!

Robert Clarence Thompson enlisted in the army at the tender age of 13, but on the insistence of his father, he was discharged after one month.

One Toronto newspaper described volunteer enlistments of Canadians who were “carried away with patriotic enthusiasm at the thought that Britain…. had decided to give the bully of Europe a trouncing.” That bully was Germany.

The determined Thompson ran away from home and successfully re-enlisted in Wellington, Ontario on March 16, 1916 (at age 14, using attestation papers that falsified his birth-date) with the 155th battalion. For many young Canadians, the army provided an escape from the tedium of farm or factory work… and recruits would earn a pretty decent salary of $1.10 per day… plus food, a uniform and undoubtedly some adventure abroad.

In September 1916, Thompson was sent to England for six months of training (possibly at the camp at Salisbury Plain) and then, to France to engage in the battles.

The Reality of War

On April 22, 1915, Canadian soldiers in the trenches near Ypres had their first encounter with the poisonous chlorine gas released by the Germans, which had taken warfare to a new low.

With 6,700 soldiers killed at this Second Battle of Ypres, Canadians at home were shocked to read the long death lists that had been confirmed.

In June 1916 more than 8,000 Canadians were killed in the battle of Mont Sorrel.

The number of Canadian soldiers had grown from the 1914 original contribution of 30,000 men, to 150,000 in 1915, with a further pledge from Prime Minister Robert Borden that the troops from Canada would grow to 500,000 in 1916.

On July 1, 1916, the battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest days in history -in that single day more than 57,000 British Empire soldiers lay dead or wounded. By the end of the Somme offensive in November, the Canadian casualties were pegged at 24,029.

Vimy Ridge

After the slaughter at the Somme, the Allies drastically needed a breakthrough. The Germans had a seemingly impregnable bastion on Vimy Ridge, a 15-kilometres long escarpment north of the French city of Arras. Since October 1914, more than 160,000 French and British soldiers had died on attacks at Vimy.

When the Canadians arrived at Vimy in December 1916, with disdain, the Germans hoisted a sign indicating “Welcome Canadians”. In a further absurdity of the war, on Christmas Day, men of the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry arranged a truce with some Germans and exchanged rum toasts while caroling together “Silent Night”. Both sides then retreated to their trenches, digging in for a long, cold winter.

In early 1917, the task of capturing Vimy fell to the Canadians, including young Robert Thompson. Canadians, once deemed to be untrained and rowdy, through discipline and training, had emerged into one of the most effective fighting forces on the Allied side.

The front at Vimy was a maze of trenches, below which was a honeycomb of caves -some large enough to hold hundreds of men, connected by tunnels, endearingly called subways.

Preparations were underway for the eventual onslaught of Vimy Ridge. Split-second timing would be needed as the planned Allied advance would utilize a “creeping barrage”.

Near the end of March, 15” howitzers were hauled into place. Each of these monster cannons weighed 20 tons and hurled a 1,500 pound shell.

On Friday April 6, (Good Friday) news that the United States had joined the Allies was a tremendous spirit-booster. Senior officials confirmed the attack on Vimy would be Easter Monday, April 9, 1917.

In the week before the scheduled advance of the soldiers, more than 50,000 tons of explosives were hurled at the German lines to soften their defences.

On Sunday night, there was no sleep for the men as they stood in full battle gear in the subways and trenches. Rain mixed with sleet began to fall and later turned to a blizzard of snow.

Before dawn, all grew quiet.

Two minutes before Zero Hour for the advance and attack, the order was given to “Fix bayonets.”

At 5:30 am it seemed like the whole world exploded.

One soldier described it -“Imagine the loudest clap of thunder you ever heard, multiplied by two and prolonged indefinitely.”

The day long fight - much if it in hand-to-hand contact - resulted in Vimy Ridge -the most powerful German position on the Western front -being completely in Allied hands.

A tremendous victory as Vimy Ridge was the deepest advance the Allies made in over two years of war.

But it had a price for Canada -the battle claimed 10,062 casualties, including 3,598 dead Canadian soldiers.

After the battle of Vimy, Robert Clarence Thompson's age (15) was discovered and he was sent back home to Prince Edward County for being under-aged.

And yet again he fled, this time to Toronto where he re-enlisted while still under-aged.

The Memorial

Following the war, Hill 145 on Vimy Ridge was selected as a fitting location for a memorial and 85 hectares was granted by France to Canada. More than 15,000 tons of concrete were used for the base on top of which rose two white marble pylons, each 69 metres high, representing Canada and France united in war and peace. Twenty marble status, each with symbolic meaning, were carved, with the largest depicting a weeping woman (Canada), representing a young nation mourning her fallen sons.

In 1936, five ocean liners brought 6,200 pilgrims from Canada - among them many war veterans - including Robert Clarence Thompson.

On July 26, 1936, 100,000 people gathered on Vimy Ridge for the unveiling ceremony.

They read the seemingly endless list of names carved on it -tribute to the thousands of husbands, sons and brothers who never came home from Vimy Ridge.

(In next week's March 25 edition of the Town Crier -Chapter Three-“The Halifax Explosion”)

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