Your First World War stories: Globe readers, in their own words, on loved ones who fought at Hill 70, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele
From fathers who went to war as teenagers to the Indigenous battalion behind Hill 70's heavy fighting, here are some of your family stories of the First World War
Table of contents • Percy Argyle • Albert Charles Ballinger • George Barney • Herbert Blackall • Milton Carr • Donald Francis Coffey • J. Philip Finlayson • Cecil E. Gillespie • Basil Harford • John Henry Harvey • Jack Hudgins • William (Bill) Ralph Mitchell • Masumi Mitsui • Herbert Leonard Moore • James Moses • Berndt and William Nyrerod • Henri and Omer Paquette • Tom Potts and Donald McKenzie • George Seadon • William R. Stephens• Arthur Leopold Watt
My father, Lance Corporal Percy Argyle, saw action at Vimy Ridge. He was shot in the right hand and face, and got shrapnel in the legs. He returned to fight at Passchendaele, where he was wounded a second time.
In 1962 he shared his memories of the battle in a letter to me:
... We were shelled and held up for a short time but by 5 a.m. we were in position and waiting for the orders to go. Our Sergeants came with the rum jug and gave each man a shot of rum. It was cold and damp and mud up almost to your knees, shell holes full of water, a wounded man if he fell into one almost always drowned.
At zero hour it seemed as if the heavens opened with one huge crash, it became light as day, and after, only one thought, press on, get going. I do not remember how long we were getting to the top of the Ridge but it did not seem very long. By this time it was broad day and we could see right across the plain to the towns and villages on the other side … The Germans thought the Ridge could not be taken, the dugouts and shelters themselves were impregnable to shell fire, but what are you going to do when someone sneaks up to your back door and lobs a Stokes mortar down your stairway. I would say lots of Germans were buried alive this way because after a Stokes mortar exploded in a dugout it caved the whole thing in.
–Ray Argyle, Kingston
Albert Charles Ballinger
My uncle, Private Albert Charles Ballinger, fought and died in the Battle for Hill 70.
He was a laborer from Brantford, Ont., who enlisted on Sept. 18, 1915, when he was 19. The following month, his father, Albert Ballinger, also enlisted at age 44.
In March, 1917, after four months in France, the father was discharged, suffering from arthritic pain in the joints after sleeping on the ground without blankets.
He embarked for Canada from Liverpool in June. In August, his son died on the first day of the Battle for Hill 70.
Both served with the 75th Battalion.
Only recently did I learn that the 75th Battalion is perpetuated by a reserve unit, the Toronto Scottish Regiment, where I served from 1961 until 1964 when I joined the regular army.
–Eric Ballinger, Victoria
My grandfather George Barney, from Guelph, was at the Battle of Hill 70 in August, 1917. At this time I believe George was serving as a personal assistant to a major, previously holding the position of driver and gunner in a howitzer battery.
I have started transcribing his war diary, two very small books, covering 1916 and 1917. The writing is hard to read in many places. The 1917 diary has a lock of his fiancé Maud (my late grandmother's) hair still in the front cover.
Tuesday 14 August, 1917:
Up 9:30. Boss calls me every morning, we do gown tonight. Scrap comes off tomorrow. Fritz shelled our trench heavy at 3:30 am. M. Williams goes forward as L. O.
Wednesday 15 August, 1917:
Up all night waiting for kit. Saw the start of attack. 4:25 am all kinds of coloured lights. Fritz shelled as I came down yesterday.
Thursday 16 August, 1917:
Up 8. Had a good sleep. Letter from Maud telling me of Henry’s death. Fritz makes several counter-attacks but gained nothing. Lots of Amm. went up at night.
(Note: Maud is George's fiancé, and my grandmother. Henry was Maud's older brother, who was an Engineer in the Royal Flying Corp. He was killed in a plane crash.)
Friday 17 August, 1917:
Up 8. Boss was out with Amm. last night. Fritz shelled La Brebris & Bully. I went to Nouex-Les-Mines for Boss. Saw Amos Brohman.
Saturday 18 August, 1917:
Off. Cookhouse at the guns got a direct hit that smashed up everything. Nobody hurt. 2 men wounded at guns in last 3 days.
Tuesday 21 August, 1917:
Up 11 am. Attack at 4 a.m. we put up a bluff. Fritz straffed our locality all morning. At night he put over a great quantity of Gas shells.
Wednesday 22 August, 1917:
Up 9 am. Fine day. Found parts of new Gas shell but fell just outside our den. Not so much shelling today. Fritz hit one of our Amm wagons last night. 1 driver [wounded] & Horse killed.
Friday 24 August, 1917:
Up 11 a.m. Gas alarm last night. All clear 3 a.m. Fritz shelled heavy all morning. Scotty our Y. M. paper man was killed today. Sad news. Major came up.
Sunday 26 August, 1917:
Up 11 a.m. Fritz woke us up. He shelled the battery for 2 hours, put 2 guns out & exploded some Amm. Nobody hurt. Scrap on our right at 7 p.m.
Monday 27 August, 1917:
Up 10 a.m. Some shells fell over our dugout. Raining. M. Sparling goes down. Very quiet on front. Heavy rains & high wind. I am about 83 on the pass list.
–Keith Barney, Canberra, Australia
Herbert George Blackall
I have an "honourary" family member who was at Hill 70 and awarded the medal for gallantry. He was a British home child sent here to Canada and was placed on our farm near Newmarket, Ont.
His name is Herbert Blackall. He was loved very much by our family and his memory is still honoured.
Sadly Herbert died at the Battle of Paschendale on Nov. 9, 1917.
My father, Milton Carr, never talked about his experience in the war of 1914-18. Only on a rare occasion would we hear anything. One such time was at the outbreak of war in 1939, when my brother, Rex, joined the navy. My dad exclaimed that at least Rex would not have to endure the mud, fleas and rat-infested trenches and bombings that he had experienced at Vimy.
I was always fascinated by the mysterious gaping hole and ugly scar under his shoulder blade, which Dad was reluctant to talk about. As a teenager studying history, I related to him that we were discussing the battle of Vimy Ridge. After much coaxing, he opened up and said he was struck in the back with shrapnel as his company ascended into enemy-held territory at Vimy. He spent hours lying in a crater with blood draining the life out of him. A passing comrade saw him and, realizing he was not yet dead, poured a bottle of iodine into a swab of bandages and stuffed them into the gaping wound before continuing the assault. This saved my dad and he was found by the medics.
–Fraser Carr, Port Hope, Ont.
Donald Francis Coffey
Our great uncle, Donald Francis Coffey, fought at Hill 70 with the 10th Battalion and was killed in the battle on Aug. 15, 1917.
Donald was born in Pembroke, Ont., and joined the 194th Battalion in Edmonton at the age of 22 after migrating out west to find work, as I understand many in his generation did at the time. He was assigned to the 10th Battalion in the field on April 21, 1917, to help fill the ranks after the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
He was the uncle that my father never met, and the brother to Hildred Coffey, our grandmother. We still feel a connection to Donald, because our father was named after him.
Here is a letter to Hildred written by Donald's pal, Roy Waters, who was with him through the war and at his side when he was killed at Hill 70:
I am now going to carry out my promise made to your brother, D.F. Coffey, or Jim, as I always called him. I was with him all the time in England, as we came over with the 194th, and I went to France with him. He was like a brother to me, and happy any time, no matter what was before him.
The time we went into the line Jim said, ‘Roy, if anything happens to me, write my sister’ and I promised that I would. I was with him on the spot when he got killed. It sure hurt me to see the best chum I ever had killed alongside of me. He was the best man in the platoon, and always cool no matter how badly we were being shelled.
I was wounded the same day and that is why I did not write sooner. I just came out of the hospital a few days ago and my hand is just getting so I can write. The last thing Jim said was, ‘Be sure and write to my sister, Roy.’ I can rest good now that I have kept my promise. I hope this does not cause you pain, and I am sorry I did not writer before, for Jim sure died a brave soldier’s death. I will now close hoping this finds you well.
Your loving brother’s pal, Roy Waters.
I should add that our grandfather Hiram Easton was at Vimy Ridge serving with the 4th Field Ambulance Battalion CEF and our grandfather on our mother's side, Thomas Chard, served with the 102nd Battalion (North British Columbians) CEF and received the military medal. Both fortunately survived the war and we had the opportunity to know them when we were very young.
–Douglas Easton, Toronto
J. Philip Finlayson
One of nine children and seven brothers, Philip Finlayson was a farm lad from Prince Edward Island. He was the uncle of my late mother.
The family came from Scotland and while they had been in PEI for more than 100 years, Philip's mother tongue was Gaelic although he also spoke English. He was already in the 82nd regiment of militia when he enlisted at age 17 in the CEF.
He was killed in action at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, aged 18. He is buried at nine Elms Military Cemetery in Poperinge, Belgium.
His brothers John Donald and William served in the navy in WWI. John Donald died in 1938 from illness considered to be due to his war service.
It was only in 1932 that their widowed mother, Annie, was awarded a pension of $10 per month as a result of the death of Philip at Vimy Ridge. William went to sea again in World War II. By that time, Annie was in her 80s and was being assisted by her surviving daughter. Her daughter's son, Flight Sergeant Daniel MacInnis, was killed over the Bay of Biscay in October, 1943.
Cecil E. Gillespie
My father, Cecil E. Gillespie, fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge even though he was just a teenager.
Dad was 16 and, as he was tall for his age and looked older, he lied in order to be accepted into the army. My grandparents only found out after he was deployed. His mother, Louella, wrote to then-prime minister Robert Borden insisting to have her son returned home. This was eventually done, but only after Cecil had already seen action at the front. He had to reimburse two months' pay.
He did not talk much about his experiences. He did mention though, that while he hunkered in the trenches, there were rats the size of small dogs crawling all over him. He also told the story of a life and death situation when he came upon a young German soldier – perhaps his age. In a "kill or be killed" scenario, he killed the German. Years later, he could not help thinking that in another time, another place, he and this young German could perhaps have been friends – but this was war and this episode haunted him.
–Donald C. Gillespie, Toronto
The Battle of Hill 70 is not forgotten by all Canadians. My grandfather, Basil Harford of the 27th Winnipeg Battalion fought there and at Passchendaele. He arrived in France in May, 1917, thus narrowly missing the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
My brothers and sisters grew up on stories of the battle of Hill 70 and Passchendaele. My grandfather told us everything - the rats, the lice, the dead bodies and how horrible they smelled. He told us of using human bones protruding from the walls of trenches to hang items on. We learned of the horrors of war and the lifelong friendships formed. Grandpa told us how it felt to see the man next to him get blown up and how it looked.
I haven't forgotten Hill 70. I never will. To forget would mean to forget my grandfather's sacrifice of youth. I will always remember, and generations of my family that will follow will remember also.
–Debra Harford Vucko, Victoria
John Henry Harvey
My grandfather John Henry Harvey fought at all the major battles in the First World War, including Vimy. On August 30, 1917, he caught some shrapnel in his thigh and was sent home. Over the years before his death in 1975, bits of shrapnel would work themselves to the surface and he'd have to go to the hospital to get it removed.
My grandfather never spoke about the war except for one time he told my uncle Charles about Passchendaele. He spoke of the Germans using poison gas for the first time and that in the end, he could have walked for over a mile and never touched the ground by walking on dead bodies. It was such a profound moment in his life that when my uncle Gerald wanted to join up and head overseas at the end of the Second World War, there was a big chair-throwing fight in the kitchen between Grampy Henry and Gerald because Grampy was certain that Gerald would be killed.
Uncle Gerald served as a tank operator. My father fought the entire Italian campaign. All the boys came home.
–Markus Harvey, Maugerville, N.B.
My father, Jack Hudgins, 85th Highlanders, Nova Scotia, was at Vimy, where his younger brother still lies somewhere in the mud. Jack was in the midst of about eight other battles and it must have destroyed him.
He rose from a plowboy to a lieutenant in a few years, but when I knew him he just let life happen. His family said that his body came back but his mind never did.
He put on a kilt, and took up arms because the English propaganda machine convinced him it was the right thing to do. The government offered him nothing and he asked for nothing; he seemed to think that was the proud thing to do.
Somehow, during a brief trip to Aberdeen – because Scotland was so much like home – he met my mother and persuaded her to go with him to a hamlet in Nova Scotia where she was a bright light and he was never seen.
I went to Vimy and found my uncle's name on the fabulous Canadian monument. Stunningly beautiful, I immediately understood its commitment to peace. It was a very cold day in April when I arrived, with hard, driving rain in my face. I could sense in my bones something of what it was like in the trenches, and it made me weep.
–Janet Hudgins, Vancouver
William (Bill) Ralph Mitchell
When the First World War began, my grandfather, William (Bill) Ralph Mitchell, was anxious to enlist, but kept a promise to his mother and didn't join until he turned 18.
During the battle to capture Hill 70, he was hit by shrapnel on August 16, three days before his 20 th birthday. He learned on his birthday that he would lose his left eye.
He went home with an artificial eye, a steel plate in the back of his head and shrapnel in his brain. He never returned to Europe but a remnant of his service was a life-long taste for whisky.
The night before he died, in 1971, he told his daughter, Betty, that a fellow soldier named Red Noxon had pulled him to safety behind the lines after he was hit. Noxon was an American who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Bill thought that Noxon was killed the day after he was wounded, but it turns out that he, too, survived the war. What a shame that they never met again. What a meeting that would have been, no doubt a bit of whisky would have been consumed.
– Mark Brigham, Regina
Masumi Mitsui, my grandfather, the son of a Japanese naval officer, immigrated to Canada in 1908. Undaunted by the discriminatory military-recruitment policy in British Columbia, he was one of 227 Japanese Canadians who travelled to Alberta, where they were permitted to enlist in 1916.
He served in the 10th Battalion of the Calgary Highlanders that was part of the troops that stormed Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. He was wounded in action and returned to the battlefield. For his service, he was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and, for his role in the battle for Hill 70, the Military Medal for Bravery. He commanded a section of 35 Japanese Canadians. All but five were killed. The citation says he salvaged a Lewis machine gun after its crew became casualties, "got the gun into action, causing many casualties to the enemy. Afterwards, he did splendid work in the mopping up and in dressing and evacuating the wounded."
During the Second World War, he, along with 21,000 Japanese Canadians were uprooted and dispossessed of their property and placed in internment camps. He died in 1987, six months shy of his 100th birthday and a year and a half before the federal government apologized for the injustices done to the Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
–David R. Mitsui, Edmonton
Herbert Leonard Moore
My grandfather, Herbert Leonard Moore, was killed on August 21, 1917, in the Battle of Hill 70. He fought with the 27 th Battalion, and was from Carberry, Manitoba. I have two letters from comrades.
One reads: Some of the boys who were with him at the time and Crookshanks and Teddy Cotton (both of Carberry) told me he was killed instantly along with another boy I do not know by name. The boys told me he was taken back and properly buried; they also put up a cross with his name and number.
Another wrote: Poor old Herb and I were very chummy; we were always together. In fact, the day he was killed, we went "over the top" together, but we lost one another in the smoke.
The battle of Hill 70 has always been remembered in our family. On this August 21 we shall remember him.
This photograph documents one of Canada's largely Indigenous formations of the Great War: the 107 th "Timber Wolf" Battalion, which went through the heavy fighting for Hill 70. Originally recruited around Winnipeg, half of the 107th's men were First Nations and Métis from Manitoba and Ontario. This photograph was sent by No. 6, my great-uncle Lieutenant James Moses (Delaware band, Six Nations of the Grand River).
He felt it worth noting the ethnicity of his brother officers - an interesting commentary on the rising sense of Canadian identity in the months following Vimy Ridge: one could claim "Canada" as their country, while still claiming "Delaware" as their nation. No. 1 is Oliver Martin (Mohawk). He became a Brigadier General during the Second World War, the highest rank attained by a First Nations member. Moses was killed on April 1, 1918, while serving with the Royal Air Force. It was the day the RAF was formed so one of its first casualties is an Indigenous person from Canada.
–John Moses, Ottawa
Berndt and William Nyrerod
Our family has faithfully observed this occasion knowing that great-uncles Berndt and William Nyrerod fought together at Vimy Ridge and Hill 70. They were born in Scotland but had emigrated years earlier with their family to reside Kamsack, Sask. They both enlisted in 1916.
Berndt was gassed and wounded at Hill 70. He was sent back to England to recover, but was not physically able to go back to battle. He suffered the effects of his wounds all his life, but lived until he was in his 80s.
William, who was a machine gunner, unfortunately received a gunshot wound to the head on the first day of battle at Hill 70. He was taken to the hospital but did not regain consciousness and died a week later .. He was only 21. He was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
–Lori Arndt, Calgary
Henri and Omer Paquette
My uncles were Henri Paquette and his older brother Omer Paquette. They were small town Franco-Ontarian boys from Tilbury, Ont. They signed up in the summer of 1915 in Chatham, Ont. Henri was 21 and Homer was 26. A third Tilbury boy also enlisted at the same time.
They ended up in the 29th Battalion, which fought at Vimy as well as Hill 70. Henri did not make it to the latter. He went MIA in the spring of 1917. We believe he died during the Battle of Fresnoy. On the eve of May 7 his battalion had been at the front near/in Fresnoy en Ghoelle. It was relieved by the 19th Canadian Battalion that evening and the 29th headed towards the relief station for the allies in Neuville St. Vaast.
On their way they came under attack again and stopped to defend themselves. This was in the early hours of May 8, which coincides with the timing that he went missing and was presumed dead. We suspect Henri was killed in this defensive action.
His body was recovered (we don't know when) and is buried in Orchard Dump Cemetery in France. The family had no idea where he was until a few years ago, when I was planning a trip to Belgium and France. My partner and I began to do some research, and identified his resting place. We visited his grave then and my partner and I will be returning this May to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of his death. I remember my maternal grandmother crying when she spoke about his death.
Omer's records indicate that at the time of Henri's death in May, 1917, he was in England with a fractured fibia. He fractured it (the records say it was an "accident") April 20 (so not long after Vimy) and returned to his battalion Sept. 7, 1917, so I assume he would have been at Hill 70. He returned to Tilbury in 1919. My mom remembers him well. He married but did not have children. He was a quiet, kind man, who would never speak of the war.
–Paula Wilson, Toronto
Tom Potts and Donald McKenzie
My paternal cousins, Tom Potts and Donald McKenzie, from Temagami First Nation in Bear Island, Ont., both joined the CEF on Dec. 27, 1915, and became members of 1st platoon, A company, 87th Infantry (Canadian Grenadier Guards), and arrived in France in 1916 with the 4th Infantry Division.
Both men fought at Vimy Ridge and Hill 70. At Vimy, they were part of the attack on Hill 145, and their unit was cut up pretty badly in the initial attack. After the war, when Tom used to joke that both he and Donald joined together and served together in the same unit, and both received medals …Donald a medal for valour, and Tom some German metal from a gunshot wound! Though many people on Bear Island were nominally Christian by the First World War, some of the women invited a shaman to perform a shaking tent ceremony to let them know how the boys going off to war would fare. After he came out from the tent, he told the people that all the boys going to war would be injured, except for one who wouldn't suffer an injury, but all would return home alive.
Donald – involved in all the tough fights that involved the 4th Division, including Vimy – returned without suffering a wound. All the other men from Bear Island were wounded overseas.
Donald received the Military Medal for his actions at Hill 70. I later found the page in the 87th Regiment's war diary where Donald was mentioned in dispatches for bravery during the Battle for Hill 70.
Donald received the Military Medal for his actions at Hill 70. Tom Potts once showed his wounds to Donald's grandson, and he had six wound scars.
I found the page in the 87th Regiment's war diary where my relation – Donald McKenzie – was mentioned in dispatches for bravery during the Battle of Hill 70, in August, 1917.
–Steve Turner, Aurora, Ont.
My grandfather George Seadon was nearly killed on the first day at Vimy Ridge.
Born in an Irish Catholic family near Barrie, Ont., he enlisted in 1915 and saw action at Arras, Ypres, the Somme, Hill 70, and Passchendaele.
On April 9, 1917, he was shot going over the parapet by a sniper. The bullet went through his elbow, and hit the pocket watch he carried in his breast pocket with his pay stubs. The watch deflected the bullet down along his abdomen, rather than through. My brother still has the watch.
The Catholic chaplain refused to give him last rites because my grandfather confessed to marrying a Protestant. That rejection made him so angry, he decided to live.
I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to return to Canada, with little education, an arm that didn't work and a wife to support. But he made the best of it, and that is a big reason why he is my hero.
–Clark Seadon, Toronto
William R. Stephens
On Sept. 10, 1915, my grandfather William R. (Bill) Stephens joined the newly created 36th Field Battery formed in Sydney. He was 18 at the time. Grandad became a signaler in January, 1917. In around the late 60s, early 1970s, he decided to make some voice recordings about the war, his experiences, memories and thoughts.
Two particular incidents specifically relating to Vimy Ridge:
On the morning of April 9th we laid lines forward to the 2nd CMR Headquarters at LaFolie farm on the top of the ridge. I’ll never forget standing there and looking out over the Douai Plain toward the villages of Avion, Mericourt, etc. It was a real hot spot around the remains of the old farm house. Our front line was just in front by a couple of hundred feet, later in the afternoon Harper, the other signaler with me, got hurt and had to return to the Battery. I was alone for a couple of hours before a replacement came up. We kept the lines in all that day and night. It snowed during the night.
After the Battery moved over the Ridge, he was stationed in an observation post with a lieutenant:
We had a sniping gun that was registered on several targets. We spotted two Germans in the back country making their way to the rear. They were out in the open and the Lieutenant thought it would be a good idea to have some fun with them.
He picked out the nearest registered target and made some corrections and I passed the word along to the Battery. The gun fired and we kept watch on our quarry.
Suddenly, they flopped to the ground; they had heard the shell coming; the shell exploded some distance from them. They were soon on their feet and this time they were running, their greatcoats flapping in the wind.
A new correction was passed to the gun and the whole performance was repeated, this time the shell burst a little closer. This went on 3 or 4 times.
The Lieutenant had binoculars and lost sight of them, I had the telescope and could see them quite clearly. He said to me “if you see them, give a new correction”. I passed the word along to the gunners, “add 1 degree more left, add 200 and fire”. We waited, the gun fired and the 2 poor fellows were still on top and going like hell.
Suddenly they flopped down and it looked to me as if the shell had landed on top of them. I don’t know perhaps they jumped into a trench – it was too far away to see, however, that was the last we saw of them.
Perhaps I was instrumental in killing some Germans, a job well done but now I think kind of cowardly, they didn’t have a chance, like shooting a partridge with a 12 gauge shotgun.
Arthur Leopold Watt
My great grandfather, Arthur Leopold Watt, was shot in the leg at Vimy Ridge laying communication wire on April 8, 1917, the night before the main Canadian advance on Vimy. His cousin Earl was shot and killed in October later that year. Earl is buried in the British Cemetery of Poelcapell in Belgium. My grandpa Leo was from Blyth, Ont. He enlisted at age 21, a farm boy without much work. He was part of the infantry and after he was shot was sent to England to recover from his leg wound. He was returned to the front as a machine gunner. He survived the rest of the war and returned to Huron county to become a respected farmer and marry and raise a family.
I am travelling to Vimy as a chaperone for 40 students from my high school in Oshawa, Ont. It will be an emotional and inspiring pilgrimage.
–Nicole Watt, Oshawa, Ont.
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