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Poppies - painted by Steve Thoms

Poppies - painted by Steve Thoms

In Honour of Canadian Remembrance Day, which honours the Armistice of November 11, 1918 and the service of soldiers before and since that bloody war, I am republishing two excerpts from the collected memoirs of my Great Grandfather, a veteran of two world wars, and in particular Vimy Ridge.  William Markle Pecover died in 1986 when I was about 15, a mountain of a man filled with vitality, and an inspiration to generations who followed him down the family tree.

On such a day, it bears reflection that as you read this there are more than 2800 soldiers posted in Kandahar, a battlefield equally dangerous and significantly more complex than Vimy Ridge.  So far, 133 of those have perished and more will soon.

Here is my Great Grandfather’s account of Vimy Ridge, excerpts of which were reprinted in Pierre Berton’s book Vimy:

A Memory of Vimy Ridge
By One Who Was There

By William Markle (Mark) Pecover
Private, D Company, 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion

William Markle Pecover and father, 1914

William Markle Pecover and father, 1916

I have been looking over a little, old, dirty, worn, khaki-covered diary tonight — one of those “Bound In Cloth” one-shilling affairs,  “Soldiers Own Diary for 1917, Containing Information Invaluable To Every Soldier At Home Or At The Front.” Here I have a record scribbled in pencil day by day, G.H.Q. orders to the contrary, of the lifetime of events crowded into those few months and years of war.

The memories that are brought back by such a record, who can tell? Something of pain — of a lingering witsfulness for the glorious cameraderie and high adventure of those days — a shudder, perhaps, at the horror — a thrill of pride at having gone, a prayer of thankfulness at having come back. A feeling almost akin to despair at the futility of it all that the years have revealed.

Turning over the pages, I come to that far-off Easter of 1917:

“Sunday (Easter Day), April 8: Left Petit Servins and marched to Mont St. Eloi en route to Neuville St. Vaast.”

“Monday, April 9: Over the bags to Farbus Woods.”

“Tuesday, April 10: On captured outpost in Farbus Woods, in a sunken road. Mac wounded. HELL!”

“Wednesday, April 11: Back to Neuville St. Vaast last night. Slept all day in cellars under the ruins; parcels from home.”

No very extended account of Canada’s greatest battle, yet enough to recall with perfect clearness and vividness of detail the events of two days that were burned into the very souls of those of us who “went over.” And on this Easter Monday, April 9, eleven years after, how many  thousands of us will in memory again climb those muddy, bloody heights of Vimy in the cold, wet, grey dawn — again live that ”crowded hour of glorious life?”

Bivouac at St. Eloi

Easter Sunday I remember — who of the “Sixth” does not? — around the woods of Mont St. Eloi. There in the welcome warmth of an early spring sun we bivouacked, enjoying what the stress of army life seldom permitted, a day of real rest. Pals gathered around in little groups and laughed and sang together in a comradeship that underneath all its lighthearted banter and good-natured chaff carried an undercurrent almost of sadness, because of what the next day might bring.  The regimental bands played throughout the day — airs contrived to keep down that question uppermost in the mind of every mother’s son of us lounging there in Mont St. Eloi, the question which I find pencilled across the page of my little khaki memo — “I wonder.”

Village of Mont St. Eloi, 1917

Village of Mont St. Eloi, 1917

“Madamoiselle From Armentiers” they played, and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kitbag,” and “Blighty.” Jazz, ragtime, doggerel verse, if you will, but immortal in the minds of those who sang them “over there” because men went to their death with these songs on their lips. So we sang while the bands played, and adjusted our equipment and drew down our ammunition and packed away our bully and biscuits and wrote letters home,  trying carefully to keep out any suggestion of the possibilities that Easter Monday might bring.

So at last Easter Sunday darkened into night, and with darkness came a chill, wet wind. We huddled together and shivered in little groups, and wished that we were away and through with the bloody business that we had come to carry out for Canada. As the night wore on, line upon line of Canadian boys marched past — silent, grim, with faces set and determined, splashing through the mud and wet to the front line. And when our turn came we formed up quietly in the darkness and swung into our place in the seemingly unending files of Canada’s young manhood.

An Ominous Silence

Neuville St. Vaast is but a short march from Mont St. Eloi, and soon we found ourselves crowded into a bit of a shallow, muddy “jumping off” trench. The front was strangely and ominously silent that night, evidencing the fact that Fritz had no inkling of pending events that were to cost him so dearly in a few short hours. We crouched down as close as we might to the mud bottom of the shallow trench and shivered under the merciless elements. A cold, drizzling sleet made the night miserable, and we longed for daylight and an end to this chilling inactivity.

How miserably any words of mine must fail in trying to picture the beginning of that glorious, terrible day — the terrific suddenness of it all, the fearful, maddening, terrifying roar that in one brief, awful moment broke the uncanny quiet of the black, early April morning, the roar from the throats of what seemed a thousand thousand  great guns. On the stroke of five — zero hour — in one great, terrible chorus as one unit they roared out across Vimy the first warning to the Germans that Canada wanted Vimy, that Canada’s young manhood had started up that fearful blood-bought road to Farbus Wood and Thelus and Petit and “the Pimple.” Wheel to wheel, line upon line, thousands of artillery hurled their challenge of death into the enemy lines. From behind us for miles came that deafening roar, while overhead screamed the great shells to burst out in front over the German lines. Lloyd George had kept his promise well. We were “battering our way to victory with big guns.”

The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917 - Painted by Richard Jack

The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917 - Painted by Richard Jack

Then as we watched, the mud all about us seemed stirred to life. From a myriad of dark shell holes and bits of trench Canadians crept and leaped and stumbled, their dark forms silhouetted against the lurid background of flame from the belching guns, moving with their faces toward the east, toward the crest of that much coveted strip of ridge which in a vain vain attempt to gain France had lost half a million men. Wave followed wave in endless succession, moving slowly, resolutely, silently as men filled with a fatal purpose and determination.

The Spectacle At Dawn

While we stood watching in silent awe the spectacle unfolding before us in the red light of the gun flashes, the wet grey dawn began to spread across the sky. Then we saw lines of prisoners beginning to wander towards our trenches — a scattered few at first, but steadily increasing in numbers, arguing well for the success of our first early attack. They came willingly, gladly it seemed. We watched them without malice — envied them their lot perhaps at being through with the bloody business, and wondered if we would get out of it as well as they.

German prisoners follow wounded Canadians to the rear, April 1917

German prisoners follow wounded Canadians to the rear, April 1917

As the daylight increased and we could look out over the ridge, we wondered whether anyone could be alive there. The havoc wrought by our guns was terrible — staggering, complete. As far as could be seen. the air was filled with gas and smoke and bursting shrapnel, and mud and debris blown to the skies from the merciless rain of fire. It seemed as if no inch of ground held by the enemy could escape that rain of death. And into the black cloud pressed wave upon wave of our boys. , while from continued to emerge new groups of prisoners, endless hundreds of wounded, with a smile of victory and satisfaction struggling through the suppressed agony of pain that filled the eyes.

Then, while we stood by, enthralled, horrified, yet filled with a strange exhultation because we were there, came a short word of command passed along the trench, and our wave clambored out into the mud and wire to take its place in the Juggernaut of war rolling mercilessly over Vimy. What a glorious moment this — yes, glorious in spite of all. War! War! War! The grand climax of the great adventure! And we who a few short months before had thrown aside school texts and laughingly, carelessly donned the khaki, felt ourselves thrilled and ran into the bloody business with the wild abandon of youth.

Fury Dies Down

Moving forward in the dull light of that clouded April morning, we learned full well the nature of a great modern battlefield. This was war. Many things we saw as we stumbled over the desolation of what had been bitterly contested ground but an hour earlier. And just ahead of us roared the barrage and all the fury of the fight — the death-rattle of the machine guns, bursting ov erhead of shrapnel, thousands upon thousands of great shells, all the fiendish implements of death that man had devised. . In contrast, the area through which we passed seemed strangely quiet. Here the fury had spent itself Here death reigned, and the agony of pain.

For weeks we had been drilled in the plan of the battle. Day after day we had gone “over the tapes” back at Maisull Bourche, across the open field of the French countryside where our lines of attack were laid out by white tapes. And so we were familiar in a general way with our direction and distance and final objective. It was to be the work of the “Sixth” to establish the furthest outposts along the steep eastern slope of Vimy. Farbus Wood was our objective, and Farbus village, a straggling clutter of ruins at the foot of the ridge. Here our orders were to “dig in,” establish a new front line and bear the brunt of the counter-attack which by all the rules of war Fritz could be counted upon to make.

Vimy Ridge, Officers' Dugout in the Canadian Lines

Vimy Ridge, Officers' Dugout in the Canadian Lines - the light was added later

Easter Monday was drawing to a close when, in the cold wet of the afternoon, we reached the crest of the ridge. Out in front of Farbus Wood we crouched in shell holes, waiting for the word of command to move forward to capture this last objective in the day’s great adv ance. But the first wild, fierce frenzy of the fight had spent itself, and the enemy, thoroughly beaten for that day, seemed to have no heart for further encounter. Broken and disorganized, they took what cover they could and escaped or gave up, willingly it seemed, to our boys. Only a broken, desultory fire met our advance, the most effective resistance  being offered by a battery of field guns — whizzbangs — at the bottom of the ridge, which fired at short range point blank into us, causing a number of casualties.

Germans Disorganized

Typical German Machine Gun Position, 1917

Typical German Machine Gun Position, 1917

Out across the Lens coal plains, from our high point of vantage, we watched with intense interest and satisfaction the disorganization of poor old Fritz. Not knowing the magnitude and extent of the Canadian plans for the day, the Germans could be seen moving back over the roads and across the fields of the Lens-Douai plain with every evidence of haste and disorganization — long files of troops, trucks, wagons, gun carriages in full retreat.

Scattered throughout the wood were many massive gun emplacements housing heavy artillery and so placed that they had been well protected from our artillery by the crest of the ridge. Underneath the guns were well positioned dugouts, and in these large groups of thoroughly frightened, thoroughly cowed and thoroughly beaten Germans had taken shelter. Our orders were to bomb out these remnants of a proud and arrogant army that a few hours before had considered itself invincible and the Ridge secure.

At a shouted order from above they came up the dugout stairs, haltingly, with hands raised above their heads, and a pleading “Mercy! Kamerade!” echoing along the bedraggled files. They were hesitant to respond to a harsh shouted order in pure “Canadian” embellished with a bit of fluent Canadian army profanity. But when, recalling a few words from a high school class, I shouted down: “Kommen si hier, Herr Fritz!” They appeared to be more willing to respond, although somewhat mystified and disappointed to find, when they reached the surface, that my total knowledge of Deutsch had been expended. They were disarmed, frisked and “desouvenirized,” and told to get out by pointing in the general direction of our lines, an order that they appeared glad and willing to obey. A couple of Mills bombs tossed down the dugout steps sealed the fate of those who had refused to come up.

At our objective, we captured several big guns in cement emplacements and I was through the dugouts connected with these and got quite a collection of souvenirs — belt, saw-bayonet, rifle and a German haversack full of odds and ends: leather tobacco pouch, old Dutch pipe, nail brush in leather case, silver-plated safety razor, officer’s cap and a few other little things. In the afternoon, however, we were called on to make an attack on the snipers along the track. I had to leave my souvenirs in the woods as they were too much to carry. Although the attack was cancelled at the last moment, I did not have an opportunity to go and collect my souvenirs, as the place where I left them was under fire. . .and after all, the best souvenir is a whole hide to go back with.

Canadians celebrating after fighting at Vimy [1918]

Canadians celebrating after fighting at Vimy - 1918

But we had done our day’s work. Night heralded by a cold snowflurry was beginning to draw its curtains over the desolate scene. We unstrapped our spades and dug in along a sunken road, a weary, weakened, depleted “thin khaki line” of young Canadians, yet proud withal, that our boys had proved worthy of the trust imposed on them. Vimy Ridge, the impregnable bastion of German strength along that sector of the Western Front,  had been captured.

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