A Tale of Vimy Ridge – Pt. 1 – A Soldier’s Story

I feel a sense of a circle closed. A sense of peace and pride in being Canadian.

On April 9, 2017, I attended the 100th Anniversary ceremonies at Vimy Ridge, near Arras in Nord-Pas-de-Calais. I was there for him.

My husband and my stepson, so handsome in his full dress uniform, with his girlfriend at his side stood by me, for him – for them all.  I wept most of the day on and off.  It was powerful, visceral, fierce.  Throughout the ceremonies, amid 25,000 Canadians, you could have heard a pin drop.  The silence, the respect, was phenomenal.

“There haven’t been this many Canadians here at one time since the First World War,” my sweetheart commented.  He’s probably right.

Having been in the UK for over five years now, we were overwhelmed at being among Canadians again, hearing familiar accents, seeing familiar looking faces. We Canadians tend to think we don’t have a national culture, but I can tell you – there is a look to Canadians that is familiar to those who have been away; there is a vocal timbre that is comforting to ears that have been away. On a ridge far from Canada, we were at home for a few hours.

The day began in Bethune, at our hotel about half an hour from Vimy Ridge. The grade 12 class of St Mary School, from Fort Albert, Saskatchewan, was also staying there, having joined about 10,000 other high school students from across Canada in attending. That morning, we sat next to a couple of them at breakfast. We asked why there were there and they told us they had learned about it in history class and had decided to make this their class trip. They had each been given the name of one of the soldiers to research and report on in class, in preparation.

“Do you mind if I tell you about one of them?” I asked. Their eyes lit up, or maybe I imagined that.

“Please,” they said.

***

Thomas Kerr Hall was born on November 14, 1899, to Thomas Samuel Hall and his wife Minnie Campbell Moran, in the city of Toronto, Ontario. He was the youngest of the four children, the baby of the family.  At the time, his father was a motorman.  Dad had always told me that his grandfather drove the cable cars in Toronto.

His mother, my great-grandmother, died on January 28, 1900, of pernicious anoemia of 11 weeks’ duration.  She was 35 years old.

On March 29, 1902, Thomas Kerr’s father remarried, to Agnes Anne Mariner.  By this time, his father was a baker and over the next seven years, his five half-siblings were born.

In 1911, my great-grandfather had become an agent of some kind and the family had moved to 301 Balliol Street, near Yonge and Davisville, in Toronto. The house is still there surrounded by apartment buildings. Thomas Kerr was 11 in June of that year and had gone to school for most of 1910, according to the 1911 census. He could, as could his entire family, read and write.

By 1915, when he was 15 years old, Thomas Kerr was a jeweller. He now lived at 5 Regent Street just off Old Weston Road where it meets Rogers Road in the west end of Toronto, with his brother, my grandfather, Maurice Moran Hall and his wife Myrtle May Ellis, and their two-year-old daughter, Fern. His father and step-mother lived out in Ellesmere just east of Toronto. On November 14, 1915, he turned 16.  By then, World War I had been going on for a little over a year.  It would have been in all the papers, perhaps some friends and family members had already enlisted, casualty lists would have started to appear.

Three months after his 16th birthday, on February 10, 1916, Thomas Kerr Hall enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 170th Battalion, the Mississauga Horse.  He was 5’4”, weighed 105lbs, had blue eyes and brown hair, a large scar on his right buttock and another on his left shin.  He was in ‘fair’ condition and had a 34-inch chest.  He is noted as appearing to be 18 years of age and two months and his year of birth is listed as 1897.

As best I can find out from his service history, he trained at Camp Borden, or at least that’s where he was when he signed his will on October 2, 1916. Imagine being 16 and having to do so because you were going into battle. What an age to face your own mortality in such a way. He bequeathed all of his real estate and his personal estate to his brother, Maurice.  How much of either he would have had was debatable.  It was a form they all filled in, regardless of personal circumstances.

His service record says that he shipped out from Halifax on the S.S. Mauritania on October 25, 1916, arriving in Liverpool on October 31, 1916.

On November 1, 1916, he assigned his military pay of $20.00 a month to his father, Thomas Samuel Hall.  Upon his death, this would be sent to his father.  In the end, it amounted to $140.00, $20.00 for each month he was overseas, plus one.

As far as I can tell, Thomas Kerr Hall spent the next month at Camp Bramshott in Hampshire, northeast of Portsmouth. In an odd coincidence, this camp in the English countryside was not far from a town called Borden, the name of his Camp back in Ontario. At Bramshott, the troops slept in wooden huts.  There was a hospital and an open-air theatre.  Support buildings were constructed, comprising corrugated iron huts that housed a shop, café, indoor theatre, and bank, among other things, all to ease things for the Canadians.

On December 5, 1916, while he was at Bramshott, his orders came down.  On December 6, 1916, he landed in France.  On December 10, 1916, he was transferred to the 75th Battalion, a seasoned battalion that had already seen action at the Somme among other places.  He joined the 75th in a ‘Transfer of Strength’ on December 12, 1916.  They needed men.

Pvt. Thomas Kerr Hall left to join his new unit on December 28, 1916.  He was noted as having joined his unit ‘in the field’ on December 30, 1916.  I don’t know where that was.  I do know that it is likely he was sent to the Vimy area, where intensive training was being undertaken for the battle that would begin on April 9, 1917.

The four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had been training hard for this battle.  They used a creeping barrage technique in which heavy gunfire would just precede the troops advancing on the front.  In this way, the German opposition would be cleared and this strategically important Ridge could be taken.  The Allies had been trying to take it for months.  The Canadians trained both back in Canada and again behind friendly lines not far from Vimy Ridge.  They might have had duty in the observation trenches, some of which were a mere 25 yards from German trenches.  So close that in the night, Canadian boys might run across and take a corner of the German trenches.  In the final month before the battle some 55 of these informal raids took place, resulting in captured German soldiers, arms, munitions and German trenches mined to make them useless.  A fair number of Canadians were lost during these midnight forays.

Meanwhile, below the earth, Welsh miners, assisted by the Canadian troops, tunnelled carefully, quietly, through the chalk from the backlines to the observation trenches, tunnels that would allow them to lay protected radio wire back to the command centre. Miles of tunnels, many of them undermined by the Germans, then re-undermined by the Canadians, each hoping to blast the hell out of the other side’s tunnels – all the while, listening for the sound of one another, stopping dead in their tracks, barely breathing, trying not to be heard in return.  Chalk conducts sound and the ridge was composed of chalk.  For six months, the miners scraped softly with picks and soldiers creeped about filling sandbags with chalk.  These bags provided protection in the trenches and a railway line was developed to help with their removal.

Above, the bombs exploded. Below, the men pulled mounds of chalk along railway lines. When they weren’t working the tunnels, they trained for what was to come or manned the observation trenches. They lived in mud, ate in mud, slept in it, laughed in it, read and wrote letters home in it.

Once completed, these tunnels housed hospital beds and command officers, water reservoirs and ammunition storage.  A city in chalk.  More importantly, they provided a safe network for the cabling required to send and receive messages from the forward observation posts.  Usually, these cables wound through the trenches and were as liable to be blown up as the soldiers.  This protected communication network was integral to the successful outcome of the battleplan which, if it worked, would take the high ground from the Germans and allow the British to advance toward Arras without the harassment of German guns.  What it had taken the Germans about two years to tunnel, the Canadians and Welsh replicated in six months, starting in October 1916.

Twice, Thomas Kerr’s pay was forfeit:  once, on February 7, 1917, for a day when he ‘negligently’ lost his kit; the second time on March 13, 1917, for seven days for ‘committing a nuisance’. I would be curious to know what he might have done.  If he was anything like my dad, his nephew born just four months before he shipped out and who would fight in the 2nd World War, I imagine all manner of mischief.  I have often wondered if Thomas Kerr ever held his baby nephew, ever had his finger held by chubby fingers.

In February 1917, the entirety of the Canadian Division was issued with a pamphlet outlining the battle plan. This was possibly the first time in military history that the entire battleplan was issued to every man in the field and not just the command staff.  They all had to learn not only their own jobs within the plan, but those of the men directly surrounding them, in case their Field Commanders were killed.  This would allow the battle to continue no matter what.

For weeks, the Canadians bombarded the German front lines, decimating them, clearing them for the assault to come.

On about April 7, 1917, the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Corps began to line the tunnels, waiting for the order to proceed.  They sat there for up to 36 hours, listening to the battle above, amplified by the porous chalk of which the ground was made.  Each man sat with his own thoughts, perhaps going over his part in the battle plan, ensuring weapons were clean and useable, perhaps in prayer or writing letters home.

At 5:30 on the morning of Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, the Canadian creeping barrage began and mines were detonated to blast the remaining forward German positions. The men below would have heard it and known the time had come.  The men of the 4th Division, of which the 75th Battalion was a part had been assigned the highest point, Hill 145, known as ‘the Pimple’.  As the day went on, each of the other three Divisions successfully took their objectives, but unfortunately, according to one account, some bright spark in command decided that he wanted a section of the German trenches left undamaged.  When the three Battalions assigned to the direct assault on Hill 145 rushed the German trenches, not only did they find themselves faced with machine gun nests, but the creeping barrage that had worked so well in other areas had out-paced them.  The 75th, along with Thomas Kerr Hall and three other Battalions of the 4th Division were told to retreat from their positions to provide back-up.  Between that, the cold, sleet and the mud, I don’t think many of them had a hope in hell.

The next note in my great-uncle’s service record is on April 13, 1917.  He was noted missing from his unit on April 9, 1917.  On May 7, 1917, he was ‘reported from base (missing)’, again the date given for this is April 9, 1917.  On May 8, 1917, he was ‘Struck off Strength – Missing – Presumed Dead’.  And again, the date given is the first day of the Battle of Arras, the Battle for Vimy Ridge which began on April 9, 1917.

The Vimy Ridge Memorial rests atop Hill 145 where he is presumed to have died.  Where Mother Courage gazes grief-stricken at the Douai Plain below.

Bronze Medallion and condolence card from the King, along with the announcement that he’d died.

***

“I guess he was about your age when he was killed,” I concluded.  The two girls, who had stopped plaiting one another’s hair to listen, agreed and thanked me for telling them about him.

Then their teacher called and we all realised it was time to go.

 

 

 

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