100th anniversary of Battle of Vimy Ridge
This April is the 100th anniversary of battle of Vimy Ridge
"War stories had been my favourite. I had read all about the ancient battles and thought it would be grand to go to war.
There was no romance, no living out between battles.
No individual combat, no great fighters who could defeat everyone they met.
This was a business of killing and living was below the surface of the ground in filth.
" Robert Dean Cumming, 1935
This April is the 100th anniversary of battle of Vimy Ridge.
The Canadian government is determined to make this historical event into a patriotic celebration including the requisite politicians, retired generals all organized by Veterans Affairs with public money.
Vimy Ridge will be promoted and glorified as the nation building feat equivalent to Nelson's victory at Trafalgar or Wellington's victory at Waterloo.
Perhaps the participants of those events would have disagreed.
All of the veterans of the first world war have now passed.
Any opportunity for further eye witness accounts is gone.
Their history should not now be owned by political dignitaries.
It seems a constant amongst those that returned from the front lines of WW1 that they didn't want to talk about it.
The participants lacked our current sense of the glory of war. Eye witness accounts from the trenches are rare as the horror was too much to recall.
With that, I introduce the reader to my grandfather.
Robert Dean Cumming was born at Grenfell, North West Territories (now Saskatchewan) on December 26, 1898.
When his mother died, Robert and two of his four brothers were shipped east to live with spinster aunts.
Three of the boys stayed in Grenell with their father. Robert was only 15 and living in Campbellford, Ontario at the outbreak of WW1.
Typical of the sons of Scottish immigrants, Roberts older brothers rushed to enlist in Canada's expeditionary army.
Fearing the war would be over in 6 months, Robert attempted to enlist when he was only 16.
His father intervened holding Robert back from enlisting for another year.
Robert and his friends were healthy farm boys that knew manual labour and they could ride a horse.
The slaughter in Europe was into its second year and replacements were needed.
These facts made it easy for the enlisting officer at Kingston, Ontario to sign up these teenagers knowing they were lying about their age.
Thereafter, Robert and his friends became just another number in Canada's fledging war machine.
It wasn't until a quarter century after Vimy Ridge that Robert Dean Cumming decided to write out his memoirs.
His hand written notes languished in a shoe box for over another quarter century until transcribed by one of his daughters.
Those notes of fading ink had their edges frayed by mice however the portions pertaining to WW 1 remained.
What follows is the account of the battle of Vimy Ridge through the eyes of a teenager.
In April 2017, 348766 found himself at Vimy Ridge on the crew of field artillery attached to the 3rd battery, First Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery.
There is more to the battle than just the three celebrated days.
We pick up the memoir starting at Christmas 1916.
"Our wagon lines were in a courtyard and very muddy. It was hard to get out of the mud. On my birthday (Dec 26), I was warned for fatigue.
About 20 of us left to go to Vimy to dig gun pits. As we had no food the first 3 days we were glad to eat Bully Beef when we got the chance.
On the Vimy front it was quiet, just then. We were in billets at a place called Anzin (Anzin-Saint-Aubin) and could walk in every day to the gun positions.
We were here about 2 or 3 weeks and then received word our guns were again in action to the right of Bully Grenay.
We were loaded on cars being 40 hommes described on the outside and left.
We went to our wagon lines somewhere near Hersin (Hersin-Coupigny), a day or so after we landed.
The NCO in charge said, ‘They need a gun layer at the gun, can anyone here lay a gun?’ I was the first to respond.
I claimed to be an expert gun layer and was sent up. The Corporal being amused that I should go up as a gun layer supposed to be a well trained gunner.
When I arrived and announced myself as the gun layer, I was greeted with a terrible flow of oaths.
Everything was damned, from kids to the War Office. However only one man on the gun knew how to lay a gun.
The day after I arrived he was away and we were ordered to stand for registering.
The Sgt. looked at me, swore for about five minutes and said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ I said sure I could and sat in the firing seat.
It was the first time I had actually been on a gun in action. I remembered my drill and did not get flustered. We fired on about a dozen different targets and had no difficulty. Later the Sgt. told me I had done fine and could consider myself a part of the gun crew.
Dick Clark was the Sgt. and as it was the first time I met him, it was a good start.
He liked me and I liked him. He was pleased that such a kid as I was, could do the work and he helped me a lot.
We were in the nicest quarters I had ever been in France. We took over some French gun pits.
They had tackles for the gun to rest upon and the table swung with the gun, also the trail rests were well made. Accurate firing was easy from here.
They even had a system of tubes to talk through, so that any gun could speak to the control pit without coming out in the open.
The gun pit was the strongest I ever saw. The roof was steel rails with plenty of dirt on top. The sides were also steel rails.
I have seen a direct hit made on it without damage to the pit itself. One day we were sitting in it and a soldier was writing home.
He leaned his head against the side of the pit when a shell struck. It did no damage to the gun pit but the soldier was dead.
Dick was always playing tricks. One day, he went to Loretta Ridge, which was about a mile or two away.
Here the dead from 1915 fighting remained unburied. He brought back some skulls. He said they were German, but no one could tell. He took the last guard for the night and tied a skull above every head so when we awoke it would be the first thing we would see.
One fellow screamed and rushed out. I wakened up and the noise he was making so attracted me, I did not notice the skull right away.
Some of the men could not see any fun in his joke.
Later Dick allowed me to go to the Ridge one misty day and look things over. It was a wonderful sight.
The dead were lying around us. Hundreds, especially in the gaps in the wire, between the two old front lines. In the old German trenches friend and foe were so intermingled you could not tell which was which.
The Ridge was very exposed and the Germans never let the French have a chance to bury the dead.
I was almost killed by a shell that day. One burst just a few feet away. I left right away after that and got back to the gun as quickly as possible.
We did a lot of firing here but also had a lot of fun.
One day two of us saw a French beer wagon going by. It was about 60 feet long and was piled from end to end with beer barrels.
The driver could not see the rear. We got a wheel barrow and walked along behind the wagon while the other loosened the beer and got himself off.
The Frenchman afterwards raised a big row. He knew where it had been stolen and a search was made. Our officer took him everywhere and when the Frenchman left the officer came back and said, ‘Now boys, I want a can of that beer.’, which he got.
While in the position our CO took to drinking all our rum, at least we never go any. He was always half shot and did not pay any attention to business.
If it had not been for our junior officers, I do not know what would have happened.
One day I was sent down to his billet in town with a message and had to await an answer. I was left in a hack shed. It was full of empty run jars.
I felt around and found two full ones. As it was getting dark when I left, I took them back. We all had our issues.
Next day we saw the CO for the first time in weeks. We were all going to be punished if the culprit did not own up etc.
I never said a word. One of the junior officers went down and told the CO that if we did not get our rum, he was going to complain regardless of what happened to himself. After that we got our rum, but the officer went to the Air Force. He is still in the Canadian Air Force.
One day a padre came along. I do not know who he was. He asked if he might fire a few shells on the German positions as his son had been killed shortly before. The officer said sure and called up the O.P. He fired several shells and finally the officer in charge told him it was reported back that he had made some direct hits and legs and arms had been seen flying about.
The padre went away satisfied. He must have just read about an eye for an eye. I always thought he did not display a very Christian spirit.
It was a beautiful country where we were. It had not been badly blown about. I never saw it again, but have been told that it was laid absolutely flat.
There used to be a little shrine in a woods, just big enough for about two to get in. I have often wondered what happened to it.
It was a beautiful setting and must have cost a lot of money.
However all good things must cease and we were ordered to get ready to move. The chaplain held a service for us and the old timers said we were going into a bad part of the line, as that was a sign.
It was the first service I had been to in France and the first time the padre had been around. Nearly everyone turned out.
The day before we were to leave, I was sent down to the wagon lines to get the limbers in shape and pack some of the equipment.
It did not take long and I amused myself by polishing my high boots. My, the drivers were sore. I had been immediately detailed for guard.
They always did that to gunners who went back. It was the dirtiest trick I know of. We were doing guards everyday while the drivers did two or three a week. Anyway, when I shined up they struck me off guard, as they were afraid a general order would go out for them all to shine up.
The drivers sure had good quarters here.
Next day our guns came out and off we started. We knew not where. We marched two days. It was an uneventful except at the end of the first day we had marched about 25 miles and I was dead. I was in a French home with two or three others and I guess I looked pretty wretched.
The old lady made me comfortable and said, ‘Poor garçon, plenty fatigue.’ She got me wine and food, then coffee and cognac.
She would not give the others any and turned them out. They were certainly angry and I was embarrassed to be made such a fuss about.
Shortly after I was told I was wanted for duty. I did not believe it, as it was one of the fellows turned out, and I thought it was just spite.
Dick came running over and was he angry, because I had not come. I got out in a hurry and we were ordered to take the guns in.
It was another 10 miles or so. I hardly remember the trip, I was so tired, but eventually we got in and found we were on the Vimy front quite close to the place where we had been putting in gun pits. Our old positions were occupied and we had to dig new gun pits.
This we did during the next few days.
The Vimy front at this time was very quiet so far as shelling went. There was tremendous activity in putting in gun positions and ammunition dumps.
At this time we had a six gun battery. It having been increased by two guns and had a new CO.
Things were better. Our old CO who was a Captain acting as Major fell off his horse while drunk and broke his shoulder.
That was the last we ever saw of him. He had had good service and at one time was a very efficient and well liked officer.
I guess the war just got him, as it did countless others.
We were busy getting our gun pit dug and some covering over our head. We had half round corrugated iron which we put down and covered over.
It answered to protect us against shrapnel and splinters. We put in sand bags at the rear and built up the sides and roof with it.
Our own dug out was just at the side.
One day Dick had ordered us out to put more covering on our own dug out. We were sore and the other two were grumbling about it.
Finally someone behind me told me to put a sand bag in a certain place and I said, ‘Oh, go to hell.’, without looking around.
I found it was General Morrison, the Commander of the Canadian Artillery in France, to whom I had spoken. Was my face red. He was very nice.
Told me quietly how I should do the job. Never mentioned my reply. Asked a few questions and walked off with a smile on his face...
... We worked very hard here. Day after day carrying ammunition and firing. I was gun deaf and so were the others.
I could hear nothing unless it was shouted in my ear. The concussion of the gun being fired in a small enclosed space was terrific. I have seen us often go over 48 hours without a wink of sleep. We had to be careful in action to see everyone was awake otherwise the recoil might kill them.
With all this work we were ordered to dig a dugout for the officers. It was the silliest order I ever saw, we were over worked as it was.
All they needed was a kitchen, dining room, and separate bedroom for each officer also a sitting room and office. We finished it with not too much covering.
The Germans must have watched us because the day after we were finished, they dropped a big shell on top of it.
One fellow who was very angry about the job said I hope they get a direct hit on it. Within 10 minutes they did. The only man in the place was the Major’s batman and he was killed. Then we had to dig another. However after one day they took up a fatigue party from the wagon lines to finish it.
We were continually shooting, especially our gun. Our officer had a lot of new fangled ideas about shooting and our gun was always in action trying them out. He got very accurate shooting and used to challenge other officers to see which one could hit a target first.
He showed up an Imperial Battery once and we received a couple of pounds for it. Some of his ideas were later adopted by the other batteries.
It tended to more accurate shooting.
We were often short of food at Vimy. Why, I do not know. I remember on one occasion we did not get anything but tea and a slice of bread at each meal for three or four days. During this time the working party were up from the horse lines putting in the officers’ dug out.
The result was that night two of us also made a raid on the dump. It was under guard and only by extreme caution were we able to get in unobserved.
He was to get a box while I kept watch. He left with a box and as the guard was looking the other way I grabbed one too.
We then had plenty of food for a couple of days. Only we shared it with the other gun crews.
Vimy was becoming more like a war camp every day. Guns were coming in until there were rows of them.
I do not suppose there would have been room, if they had been sitting wheel to wheel.
I had a few interesting experiences here. On one occasion I was digging an ammunition dump for our gun and a machine gun opened up on us.
The hole was about 18 inches deep and I flopped down. The bullets kept hitting the edge of the hole just above me. It seemed about an hour, but it would be less than a minute. Every one of those bullets passed within 3 or 4 inches of me and believe me I was lying close to the bottom of that hole.
On another occasion, I was sent with a message back to Auzin about 2 miles away. It was still sun light and several observation balloons were up.
I started overland and in a few seconds I was being shot at with a whiz bang. They shot well too, and I had to duck several times. Finally I jumped into an old trench and sat there about half and hour.
When I started out I was not bothered again. There was a road to our right rear and I was trying to get to that. As I neared it I saw about a dozen fellows coming out of the line. I hurried to get to them in order to have company as dusk was coming on. They came to a turn in the road just before I reached them. I was still about 100 yards away when four big naval shells landed on them. There was no warning, just ‘bang’.
Every shell hit on the road right where the men were. I never saw such a mess. Words would not describe it. The Germans did not fire any more.
I can tell you that sight bothered me for some time. I narrowly missed being with them. Just a minute later and I would have shared their fate.
As the 9th of April drew closer, our work increased. We were busy cutting wire most of the time. i.e. we would fire shrapnel at the wire to cut it.
This meant hours and hours of just straight firing. We fired hundreds of shells a day.
We had skeleton gun crews, just four of us. One man to lay the gun, one man to put on the range and open the breach, one man to load and set fuses and the Sgt. outside to take the orders for range, direction etc. It was the hardest kind of work, but I could stand up under it.
Lack of sleep was my worst trouble. I was just 18 and needed rest. We knew we were approaching a big battle.
For three days before Vimy we were continually shooting. I do not believe we got more than an hours sleep during this period.
I was dead tired and only the greatest effort kept me going. Finally we had been warned of the zero hour. It was, if I remember correctly, about 4 am., but may have been later. I knew it was before dawn. About 9 o’clock, before we were all ordered to bed for rest. It was welcome. I slept like a log.
About 10 minutes before the zero we were called by the signalers. We tried our lights on our aiming posts and they were out.
We sure hurried to get them fixed. They were in front and it would just be hell if we were out there when the guns opened.
We finally found the wire had been cut by a premature and fixed it.
There was not a sound that morning. Every gun was still. The barrage was to open to a second. Away back a big shell came slipping over as if on wings and then hell burst out. From thousands of guns we opened fired. We knew that up in front our infantry was going over.
The day before the attack, we were instructed just to put up a barrage behind the German line and to keep it there until the creeping barrage reached ours. Then we joined the creeping barrage for a few minutes. Later to jump back some thousands of yards to put up a barrage further back.
This relieved us of a lot of fuse setting and was welcome. All that morning we fired. Every fifty shots we would swab out the barrel to keep it cool.
Finally we had reached our limit of range and had to quit. We sat around waiting for our horses to come up to take up the guns.
The Germans started shelling us with gas shells. One struck about two feet away from me and I got one real whiff of it. I threw up and was quite sick for awhile, but got over it.
I am not sure if this was the time or not, but Fritz could not hit our gun with a low trajectory shell owing to the slight rise in front of us.
If he cleared the rise he hit about 25 yards behind us. I was sitting in the pit and he was shelling us. I was giving the corrections in his fire for the benefit of the others. I got a terrible calling down from one of the older men. I have never forgotten it. I was not smart again.
Before our horses came up we were ordered up to put roads over the old front lines in order that the guns could get through. It was a tragic sight.
The dead were lying everywhere, but mostly our own. We met hundreds of German prisoners. One Sergeant was bringing out a German General and his staff. Someone yelled, ‘There’s old Von Hindenbery.’ The General gave him a haughty stare, but only got hooted for his trouble.
I shall never forget one man. He was sitting on the edge of a trench looking ahead of him with rather a pleased look on his face.
Several people spoke to him, but he was dead. Later the dead were collected and were being buried in long graves. The Chaplains were out doing their work. There was little time for lament, as there was work ahead. We worked to get our guns across and into action.
It started to snow. Of all the wet, cold days I ever remember, that was one of the worst. It was slippery too. The guns would sink to their hubs.
Our battery was the only one in the whole Canadian Corps that got its guns through and into action again, on the 9th of April, 1917.
Guns were mired everywhere. If the Germans could have counter-attacked and recaptured their old front line they would have captured the complete Field Artillery of the Canadian Corps. It was a battle to get through.
We literally carried the guns and only the timely help of a good shot of rum got us through. We dropped our trails, just to the right of the ‘nine elms’ and fired a few shots over by map. No registering was possible until the next day.
The ‘nine elms’ where we were, these were just nine stumps. To the rear of our guns was a deep German dugout. In it were some wounded Germans.
They could not believe that our guns were that far forward. They were treated well and moved out in a day or so.
This dugout had three entrances and would hold several hundred men if packed. It was full of the hardest biting lice I ever saw.
We stayed at the ‘nine elms’ about 10 days to two weeks. I saw a lot of interesting things happen.
The dead were everywhere. It took days to bury them and it was not uncommon to come across a dead soldier in out of the way places.
After a day or so we moved out of the deep dugout to a smaller one. When we went in, there was a dead German in one of the bunks.
The Sgt. grabbed him by the leg and pulled him out. He had been killed by a mill bomb being thrown in. He was badly smashed up. He hit the ground with a thud and made a noise with air escaping from the lungs. I jumped about a mile.
We used him as a step for a day or so but he began to get prime so we covered him up with dirt.
I saw very little robbery of the dead. Most men would not do it and prevented the others from doing it.
War however drew all classes together and we had to take the good with the bad.
At the ‘nine elms’ we were firing at about our extreme range, and it was very hard as our recoil went on the bummer.
We had to pry the gun home and fire again. It was tough work as we had to keep up the firing as much as possible to make as much support as possible.
In a few days, more guns got through and the burden was eased up. After a few days we were sent up to fix the road so we could take our guns to a railway which ran in front of Farbus Woods into Lens, at least I suppose it ran to Lens.
When we got back two or three miles the country began to look better. We were over the ridge and could look down upon the Germans and back for miles.
I remember one day being on top of the ridge waiting for dusk. It was beautifully clear. We could see German trains away behind the line.
There were some heavy artillery observation posts near and they did some long range shooting. One train, they put out of business.
We were working behind the line. Finally we got our road fixed and a site picked out for our guns.
We were just behind the railway and could see our shells burst when we fired. It was very exposed. We lost a lot of guns and men.
We replaced guns 13 times in that position owing to shell fire, so I am told. I was wounded before we left and can only go on what I was told. ....
© The descendants of Robert Dean Cumming, all rights reserved 2017
Today, the Internet makes it convenient to discover the claims of brilliance in the planning of the generals.
Everyone has an opinion. Yet all of these photos, charts, statistics, presumptions and facts gloss over the reality suffered by the several hundred thousand participants on all sides who were compelled to be witness to those three days in April one hundred years ago.
The men that carried the load and those countless people at home who shared the loses get forgotten in the greater story of victory, glory and nationhood.
It should be remembered some of these young men would be considered boys by today's standards and even those who survived had their lives changed forever. The glorification of this anniversary of victory should be tempered with an aversion to armed conflict as those who fought would be best remembered by preventing these tragedies in the future.
My grandfather was lucky to have survived as obviously were his descendants.
The full memoir will be published one day.