Ninety years later, we remember that cold Easter Monday, many claim as the moment Canada came into its own. In the words of Vimy veteran, Brigadier_General Alexander Ross, who initiated the first pilgrimage to the Vimy Memorial in 1936, “It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then . . . that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
On April 9, 1917, at precisely 5:30 am, the Canadians charged from their trenches and into history. Not a man envisioned the events that would unfold because of their courageous actions.
For the first time in history, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps came together for one objective – capture Vimy Ridge. They were well equipped to engage the enemy in the largest single Allied advance on the Western front up to that point in the war.
During months of planning, equipment and fire power were stockpiled, tunnels and trenches were dug and battle drills enacted on a make-believe battlefield. For the first time, observation balloons were used to spy on the Germans and detailed maps were given to section leaders, so they knew where they were going.
A three-week barrage of artillery hammered the Germans as a lead up to the attack. On that famous day, the crest of Vimy Ridge was taken by midday as scheduled. The battle for Vimy Ridge was won on April 12th when Hill 145, the highest point on the ridge, was taken.
Although the cost in casualties was small compared to the number of men killed in previous battles to take the Ridge, 10,602 Canadians were wounded and 3,598 were killed out of the some 20,000 soldiers who went over the top.
Many Canadians have family members who served in the First World War. Finding the veterans who fought at Vimy Ridge and in other battles and learning more about them can be a challenge.
If you know a family member died during the war, the first place to check for information is The Canadian Virtual War Memorial. One Halifax soldier found on this site is Sergeant George Alan Cunningham. He died on the first day of battle.
Serving with the 25th Battalion, 2nd Canadian Division, the 25-year-old was buried in the Thelus Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. He was the son of Sarah Cunningham who lived at 40 Lucknow Street and the late George Cunningham.
To learn more about this soldier, I used Sergeant Cunningham’s service number (469154) and searched The Soldiers of the First World War. I found his Attestation Papers which revealed he had enlisted on August 17, 1915 at Halifax with the 64th Overseas Battalion.
Born on November 5, 1896, Sergeant Cunningham was 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches tall, weighed 136 pounds and had light brown hair and blue eyes.
Referring to Nova Scotia’s Part in The Great War by M. Stuart Hunt, I learned the 64th Battalion was mobilized August 1917 in Sussex, NB. All recruits were from Nova Scotia. They trained for ten weeks before moving to Halifax in early November. They overwintered at Pier 2.
On March 31, 1916, the Battalion embarked for Liverpool, England on the S. S. Adriadic. In England, they continued training, but the 64th Battalion would never see battle. Reinforcements were needed, not complete battalions. Soldiers were posted to battalions already serving on the front line.
The War Diaries of the First World War is an excellent source for everyday details of life overseas. Sergeant Cunningham’s 25th Battalion can be found by entering “2nd Canadian Division” in the search box and “1917/04/??” in the date box.