Vimy Ridge

How a Cape Breton farmer led the battle for Hill 145

When Jim MacDonald makes his pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge on Sunday, he will be guided by a 100-year-old map, which is stained with mud from the First World War battlefield, and now sits carefully folded in archival paper at his Cape Breton home.

The map was carried by a young soldier, Percival William Anderson, as he led his men up Hill 145 on the evening of April 9, 1917. It shows trenches and German strongpoints, with lines and symbols added in Anderson’s own hand.

"I can imagine him with that map from morning to night," says MacDonald, an author and researcher in Baddeck, N.S.

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France. (Fred Chartrand\/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Like tens of thousands of other Canadians, MacDonald is in France for the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, and to honour the 3,598 Canadians who died and more than 7,000 wounded in the First World War battle.

But he also wants to tell the story of the 85th Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders and how their fight at Vimy Ridge ensured a victory for the Canadians.

His inspiration is Anderson, a farmer who left his home in Big Baddeck — not far from where MacDonald now lives — and enlisted in 1915 to join the war effort overseas.

This is Percival William Anderson's map of Hill 145.

Vimy Ridge, in northeastern France, was a key position for the Germans from the beginning of the First World War.

They dug into fortified trenches and strongpoints high up on the ridge, and monitored Allied troop movements in the surrounding countryside.

Three previous attempts to push the Germans out had resulted in the loss of more than 100,000 French soldiers, and dead bodies were buried in the muddy, shell-cratered battlefield.

The Germans seemed unbeatable.

The Allies knew that whoever controlled Vimy Ridge would be at a great advantage, and they had no choice but to try again to reclaim it.

The ominous task fell to the Canadians.

There were four Canadian divisions involved — each about 20,000 strong. Each was responsible for a specific area along the seven-kilometre stretch.

'Serious trouble'

Canadian soldiers man the trenches at Vimy Ridge in 1917. (The Canadian Press/Files)

The battle began at 5:30 a.m. Easter Monday, April 9, 1917.

The 1st and 2nd Canadian divisions were positioned at the southern part of the ridge where the elevation was lowest, but had the farthest to travel before meeting their objectives. The 3rd Division was tasked with securing another section at a higher elevation. The three achieved their targets by early in the afternoon.

It was the 4th Division, which faced Hill 145 — the highest part of the ridge — where the Canadians ran into "serious trouble," according to Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum and author of 10 books, including his latest, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend.

"Its front-line battalions are being torn apart by machine gun fire," he says. "The attack really grinds out about late in the morning on the 9th and it looks like defeat is imminent."

The 85th Battalion in August 1917. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

Percival William Anderson

Percival William Anderson

The battle stalled. The Germans had dug into Hill 145. Dead and wounded soldiers from both sides lay on the ridge.

It was feared the Germans would launch a counterattack from Hill 145 on the other three Canadian divisions that had managed to secure their objectives.

If the Canadians didn't act fast, the battle might end in defeat.

"Maj.-Gen. David Watson, the 4th divisional commander, throws in all of his reserves,” says Cook. “He's got nothing left except for one labour battalion, the 85th Battalion, which had recently arrived to France. And that is his last unit."

Officers of the 85th Battalion.

Officers of the 85th Battalion.

The 85th Battalion Nova Scotia Highlanders: Miners, farmers, fishermen and professionals from all across mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.

They were behind the scenes, carrying ammunition to the front and building trenches.

They weren't supposed to see battle.

Even so, they had trained for combat and they knew the battlefield.

The 85th Battalion in July 1917. (Dept. of National Defence\/Library and Archives Canada)

The 85th Battalion in July 1917. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

That afternoon two companies from the 85th were called to the front. Capt. Percival William Anderson, known as a natural leader, was put in charge of both.

"It's a desperate situation," says Cook, who described it as a "last throw of the dice for the Canadians."

On their way to the front, Anderson led his men through trenches and underground tunnels to stay out of German gunfire.

"We will take it or never come back,” he said of Hill 145, before marching his men into formation.

The Canadian military had developed a new offensive weapon called the "creeping barrage." Before the infantry advanced, the artillery fired ahead and shelled the Germans. This would keep the enemy inside their dugouts, making it difficult for them to fire back.

Anderson and the 85th were told to expect a barrage at zero hour, 6:45 pm., according to the battalion's war diary.

At the last minute it was called off by those higher in command. It was too risky, with several thousand wounded soldiers lying in the path of fire and with Canadian troops deployed on both sides of Hill 145.

But it was too late to get that message to Anderson and his men.

At zero hour they heard only silence.

33rd Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, bringing up guns at Vimy Ridge. (Dept. of National Defence\/Library and Archives Canada)

33rd Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, bringing up guns at Vimy Ridge. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

“The 85th is left with this agonizing choice,” says Cook. "It is absolutely suicidal to attack at this point in the war without an artillery barrage. You have to keep the Germans down. But the 85th, they look at each other, their officers look at each other, and they go over the top in this wild bayonet charge, charging over the shell-cratered, muddied landscape."

Cook imagines the men of the 85th "understood that this was a very desperate situation" and that their unit had to succeed.

"I think each man probably had to look quite deep into his own soul and think about what he was going to do. But the officers decided that they would go over the top,” he says.

“And Percival Anderson had said before the battle in a kind of a rousing speech, 'We're going to take this thing or we're not coming back,' and I think there was a determination and a grit.

"These guys knew this position had to fall and they were going to take it."

'Tremendous courage'

(Phlis McGregor/CBC)

Cook says the 85th Battalion would have passed dead and dying Canadians from previous battles. When the Germans realized they were being attacked, they fired.

"That's where steel meets flesh, and it must have taken tremendous courage to push on through," says Cook.

He says: "The 85th let out this battle cry about halfway across the killing ground. They just tear through the Germans. In about 10 or 15 minutes of sharp bayonet fighting, in hand-to-hand combat and throwing of grenades, and stabbing men with their 17-inch bayonets and shooting them at close range, the Canadians drive the Germans from the ridge."

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, congratulating the 85th Battalion in August 1918 at the Battle of Amiens. (Dept. of National Defence\/Library and Archives Canada)

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, congratulating the 85th Battalion in August 1918 at the Battle of Amiens. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

It would have been a terrifying experience, says Jim MacDonald. The soldiers were on the move and would have been “firing from the hip.”

“They would have seen wounded Canadian and German soldiers. There would have been Canadian soldiers that tell them to get down,” he says. “But they kept going. On top of that the whole ground area was full of shell holes, big and small. Full of water and mud. There would have been blasted timbers, wire entanglement.

“You can imagine running over that, trying to dodge bodies and everything else and at the same time receiving machine-gun fire and sniper fire. Yet for some, you know, they just kept going."

Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden inspects the 85th Battalion at the Western Front in March 2017. (Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

Fifteen minutes after the battle began, the 85th Battalion captured the western slope of Hill 145. More than 40 men from the battalion had died. More than 100 others were wounded, including Anderson, who was hit with shrapnel but remained on duty.

He carried another wounded soldier from no man's land to safety.

The 85th's success was a turning point in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In the days that followed, Canadian units secured the entire ridge and turned Vimy into a victory for Canada.

Percival Anderson

Percival Anderson

Cook emphasizes that the 85th's attack could never have happened in isolation.

"For Vimy to succeed it had to be all of the components fighting together. It had to be all of the units pushing forward."

Officers strategized for months to ensure a good chance of success, and thousands of soldiers fought to achieve the Vimy victory.

But the 85th Battalion's attack at Hill 145 was "the most important part of this battle," Cook says.

"Without a doubt that attack by the 85th Battalion turns the tide from that defeat into a victory. And I think it is one of the most gut-wrenchingly powerful stories of the war."

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in northern France. (Michel Spingler/Associated Press)

Percival William Anderson survived the Battle of Vimy Ridge, but six months later, on Oct. 30, 1917, he was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele. He was 32 years old and a major by that time.

His body was never found.

His personal effects — including his map of Hill 145 — were sent to his family in Cape Breton.

The map was one of 5,000 of that scale issued of Hill 145, according to Gordon Beck, a First World War map specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton.

The map was looked after by relatives of Anderson for almost 100 years. It is now at the home of Jim MacDonald, who views himself as its guardian.

Jim MacDonald views himself as the guardian of Percival William Anderson's map. (Phlis McGregor\/CBC)

Jim MacDonald views himself as the guardian of Percival William Anderson's map. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

MacDonald is bringing with him to France a poster featuring a photograph of Anderson and his map of Hill 145. He hopes it will find a permanent place at the new visitor centre at Vimy.

The original map will stay in Baddeck, where MacDonald says it belongs.

He is also working on a plan to rename a mountain in Big Baddeck after the Anderson family.

Today, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands at Hill 145 on Vimy Ridge.

There are more than 11,000 names inscribed on the monument — Canadians who died in France and have no known grave.