'Canadians take Vimy Ridge': A soldier's diaries recount battle preparations and horrors of war

As Canadians mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, diaries kept by a young soldier from Toronto reveal the horror of war and preparations for a battle many see as a pivotal point in the country’s history.

Pte. Elmer McKenzie recorded daily life and experiences during First World War

Paul McKenzie, left, is proud of his father, Elmer McKenzie, who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. (David Common/CBC)

The telegram to Moses McKenzie said everything and nothing. His son Elmer had been injured, "but the nature of the wounds not yet received."

It wasn't clear how the young Toronto man had been injured on that late winter day in 1917. Or how seriously.

Elmer McKenzie's father received a telegram dated March 6, 1917, letting him know his son had been injured. (CBC)

An ocean away, in a mud-, blood- and rat-filled trench on Vimy Ridge in northern France, Pte. Elmer McKenzie jotted a short note about his injury into one of the four small diaries where he recorded his own First World War.

"On patrol to foot of ridge. Under fire from enemy snipers. And brought back an important message through very heavy shell fire to battalion headquarters."

"He saved lives," says his granddaughter Jean Miso.

She and thousands of other Canadians are expected to attend the 100th anniversary of the great and terrifying battle on April 9 at Vimy.

Starting in late 1914, French and British forces had tried and failed to seize the strategic ridge. 

More than 100,000 died trying over the next two years. Then came all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the first time they were assembled together. The resulting success, on April 9, 1917, marked a pivotal moment in Canadian history.

'Proud of all the soldiers'

Elmer's son Paul wasn't yet born, but he is clear on Vimy's legacy.

"It put Canada on the map. I was not only proud of my dad. I was proud of all the soldiers who served."

McKenzie's four war diaries cover his experiences in Europe from 1916 to 1918. (David Common/CBC)

As the Canadians were preparing in March 1917, Elmer, a scout with the 42nd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, saw German troops massing right in the path of the advancing Canadians.

"So he ran back and warned them off," says Miso.

The Germans did everything to stop him. Snipers fired round after round as he raced through the rain-filled craters left by months of barrages. German artillery attempted to zero in on him to stop his message. He was wounded in the hand. But it didn't stop him.

McKenzie's first diary was dated beginning May 17, 1916 and followed his activities with the 92nd Highlanders of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. (David Common/CBC)

He was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery by the Canadian Army.

The unlikely soldier

Elmer McKenzie only went to war because his father wouldn't allow his other son to sign up without a buddy.

And so Elmer, and his older brother Doug, enlisted when the First World War began in 1914. His diaries detail the elaborate preparations for the Vimy battle, the coveted moments where indoor sleep could be found and the horrors when they happened.

He recounts celebrating a rare bath, which he was afforded about every three weeks, and mourning friends decapitated by German shellfire.

Vimy Ridge has become a seminal moment  in Canadian history. The losses were high — more than 10,000 Canadians killed or wounded — but it's a fight, some have argued, that marked an important step toward the country's eventual independence from Britain. 

McKenzie's mention in his diary of a pivotal Canadian moment in the First World War was brief. 'Canadians take Vimy Ridge,'' he wrote for April 9, 1917, along with noting his brother Doug was wounded and the weather was 'very stormy.'

The short dispatch in Elmer's diary from April 9, 1917, records simply: "Canadians take Vimy Ridge. Doug [his brother] gets wounded. Spend night in [battalion headquarters]. Old German dugout on ridge. Very stormy weather and muddy."

'Physical drill. Bayonet fighting'

Elmer arrived at Vimy in October 1916. He was 19, facing an intractable fight that had already claimed more than 100,000 French and British lives. The training began immediately for a major push that would come the following spring.

"Physical drill. Bayonet fighting," he jotted into the small notebook, which had pre-printed dates on each page.

Many Canadians had already died in artillery and sniper attacks above ground, and in skirmishes below, in the extensive tunnel system that sometimes saw German and Canadian soldiers digging into one another's tunnels beneath the ridge. The stress was incredible. Courage was often encouraged by a rum ration.

At Christmas, Elmer's diary records: "Fellows nearly all get drunk. Many fights."

Elmer's diary entry for Christmas Day 1916 recorded drunken festivities among other soldiers, but he didn't take part.

Elmer was not among them. He did not drink, smoke or swear — neither did the six other Toronto teens he'd signed up with. They became known as the Sunday School Boys.

His brother Doug was among them — but was shot early on and was treated in the rudimentary field hospitals behind the front lines.

Elmer, second from the top, was part of a group of soldiers known as the Sunday School Boys, a group of men who didn't smoke, swear or drink. (Jean Miso)

The remaining six were in a trench just weeks before the big battle, observing what was believed to be an unoccupied enemy position.

But Elmer, peering through his war binoculars, saw German soldiers preparing for a counter-attack.

At the Sunday School Boys' urging, Elmer raced to the rear to inform an officer. He made it. But a German shell landed where the five other "boys" were stationed, killing them all.

New Year's preparations

On New Year's Day 1917, Elmer was not celebrating.

His diary notes a "scouting and map course."

The Canadians had built a mock battlefield nearby, with near-exact measurements for the Canadians to practise what they all now knew was coming: climbing out of the trenches and running against a wall of steel in the form of bullets in an attempt to gain a few dozen metres of territory.

To keep the men warm — and perhaps to suppress some of their fear — the Canadians were offered rations of rum.

But the war diary records the dangerous consequences: "Two more of our men sniped. Too much rum made them expose themselves."

By March 1917, there are repeated references to "attack practice."

Elmer, now designated as a scout, was "laying tape," drawing out precise distances that he and his fellow Canadians would need to dash across an artificial battlefield, one mirrored off the real thing.

On March 26, two weeks before the full attack, he would "march through Villiers au Bois" and "return to the forward area." There was no turning back now.

On April 8, near the front of his battalion, Elmer was brought underground to a launching point out of the Grange Subway, the primary Canadian tunnel.

Elmer McKenzie's 42nd Battalion stepped up and onto Vimy Ridge at this point in the Grange tunnel. (Jean Miso)

The battle was to happen that day, but officers determined German coils of barbed wire still blocked the open field the Canadians needed to cross to seize the German front line. An intense artillery and machine gun barrage later destroyed much of it.

The ridge would be largely taken the next day.

By April 10, Elmer neatly writes in pencil: "Great view of all the towns." He is now in what had been a German position for nearly three years.

The battle was won, but the horrific and deadly routine of the war would continue. Before the month was out, Elmer records being "gassed" and observing "Fritz [the soldiers' colloquial for 'German'] plane brings down two of ours, one in flames."

The end delayed

A year and a half later, the war ended. But not for Elmer.

His paperwork, along with the records for a couple of dozen others, was misplaced by the Canadian Army. They became trapped in England. With no war to fight, but not officially released from service, they were unable to return home.

Elmer and his brother Doug, during the later stages of the First World War. (Jean Miso)

"It was my grandfather who went to the Governor General and persuaded him to get these 20 or 30 guys released," says Elmer's son Paul, who still lives in Toronto.

When they finally got back months after the armistice, says Paul, "nobody cared because all the parties and celebrations were basically over. And the other downer was that there were no jobs."

The soldiers who'd returned on schedule had scooped them up.

"My dad and others were left on a limb," Paul says.

Like many veterans, Elmer talked little of the war in the subsequent years. He returned to Toronto, working for many years as a locksmith.

Paul McKenzie and his daughter Jean Miso. (David Common/CBC)

It is the four volumes of his war diaries that tell the tale today.

Paul's daughter Jean Miso was so inspired by them that she wrote a book on Vimy. Her research started with her grandfather's own records.

"I feel privileged that I get to meet him twice. I met him as a young child … and then I went through his war diaries and got to know him all over again."

She will be back on the ridge itself for the centennial anniversary on April 9, standing where her grandfather noted the triumph of the day for Canada and the horrible cost for the Canadians there.