'That day was like a scythe': Montreal and the casualty lists of Vimy Ridge

Given the horrific casualty rates of earlier battles such as the Battle of the Somme the previous year, an early claim that a formidable goal like Vimy Ridge was won with light losses must have seemed too good to be true. Tragically, it was.

Battalion diaries, newspapers detail decisive battle's toll on Montrealers 100 years ago

Men from Montreal's 87th Battalion hold a memorial service for members of the unit who were killed at Vimy Ridge. (Library and Archives Canada)

After two and half years of mostly desperate news from the battlefields of France, word of the Canadian Corps' successful attack on Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, spread hope and dread through neighbourhoods around Montreal.

The Gazette newspaper shouted the news in bold type from its front page: "British Strike Hard — Over 6,000 Prisoners. Canadians Capture the Famous Vimy Ridge."

Underneath, a sub-headline proclaimed, "Canadians captured 2,000 prisoners and the losses were surprisingly light."

For a brief moment, this last claim of "surprisingly light" losses must have been a relief to the countless residents of Montreal and other cities around Quebec with loved ones at the battlefront. 

Among the four Canadian divisions that attacked Vimy Ridge were Montreal's 13th, 14th, 24th, 42nd, 73rd and 87th infantry battalions and the 22nd (French-Canadian) Battalion.

Thousands of other Quebecers experienced the battle in artillery and mortar units, machine gun companies, medical units, engineering and pioneer companies, and in logistical roles.

Soldiers from the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment, march through a Montreal street. (Courtesy of the Royal Montreal Regiment Museum)

Given the horrific casualty rates of earlier battles, not least of all the Battle of the Somme the previous year, the idea that a formidable objective like Vimy Ridge was taken with only light losses must have seemed too good to be true.

The coming days would prove that claim to have been tragically premature.

Casualty lists tally battle's terrible toll

Caitlin Bailey, curator of the Canadian Centre for the Great War in Montreal, said the casualty lists that began appearing in newspapers on April 16 brought the magnitude of the battle, and its losses, into sharp perspective.

"If you look at the casualty lists from that time, it's not one page of names — it's four or five in the local newspaper for the dead, the wounded, the missing, the believed to be killed," Bailey says.  "That was the first big impact — that this was huge."

The two weeks after April 16 witnessed a grim math play out in the Gazette's Roll of Honour section as the numbers spiralled.

"658 Casualties in the Big Drive — Dead in two lists 151 — More than 100 officer casualties, of whom 38 are dead — Eight Montreal officers and 12 men in the lists," the section read that day.

The next days saw the headlines tally up the dead and wounded and offer projections based on the number of officers among the casualties.

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

"249 casualties in Monday's lists — Ninety-three officers, making a total of 213 in two days' lists — 10 local men included — Officer casualties reported indicate the total Canadian losses may exceed five thousand," the Roll of Honour for April 17 read.

This projection gave way to another the following day: "332 Canadian casualties in Tuesday's lists — Seventy-nine officers included, of whom 32 are dead and 8 missing — Total will be over 400 — An indication that the Canadian casualties from the Battle of Arras will be more than 8,000."

A tank advancing with Canadian infantry at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. (Library and Archives Canada)

By the end of April 1917, Canadian losses listed in the wake of the attack on Vimy Ridge numbered 11,776 officers and other ranks dead or wounded, including more than 370 from Montreal.

And casualties from Vimy Ridge, The Gazette warned on April 30, were "still being reported."

War diaries: 6 of 7 officers lost in a single battalion

Vimy's toll was also tallied in the war diaries of Montreal battalions involved in the battle and McGill University's No. 3 Canadian General Hospital.

The war diary for the 87th Battalion is a case in point. 

When Zero Hour arrived at 5:30 a.m. on April 9, 520 men from the 87th Battalion climbed from their trenches as part of the first wave of the Canadian attack.

German soldiers killed in the attack on Vimy Ridge. (Courtesy of the Royal Montreal Regiment Museum)

The diary reports that six of the seven officers leading the 87th into battle were killed or wounded within the first hours.

"Word had been received that Capt. Sare, [Officer Commanding the Assault], had been shot through the head with a bullet and could no longer carry on. Lieut. Yonkles had also been hit in the left arm, Majors Joy and Ross and Lieut. Savage had been killed, and Lieut. Sinclair badly wounded, leaving Lieut. Hannaford the only available officer of those who went over."

The 87th diary names 11 officers killed or wounded and notes 110 other ranks killed, 157 wounded and 25 missing.

A captured German machine gun on display at the Canadian Centre for the Great War in Montreal. (Stephen Smith / CBC)

The 24th Battalion's diary reports the unit suffering an estimated 225 casualties in the opening stages of the battle on April 9. Its diary entry for 5:30 a.m. reports that on reaching the German line

"[The battalion] encountered heavy resistance and in several places the advance was temporarily checked and held up by enemy machine guns.... These obstacles were removed, the trench captured and consolidated, our casualties being in the neighbourhood of 225, including two officers killed and four wounded."

A rough count of casualties listed in the diaries of the Montreal battalions and the Van Doos for April 1917 puts their combined casualties at more than 1,500, including at least 305 dead.

Staff and patients at McGill's No. 3 Canadian General Hospital. (McGill University)

McGill hospital 'taxed to the utmost' by Vimy wounded

The diary for the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, which was organized and staffed by McGill University's faculties of medicine and nursing, shows admissions in the wake of the assault on Vimy Ridge peaking on April 14 with 613.

"A very strenuous day on all ranks. Although working under such pressure, everyone rose to the occasion and did their work in such an efficient manner as to warrant unstinting praise," the diary entry reports.

Memorial windows at McGill's Strathcona Building commemorate three McGill professors who died in World War 1, including Dr. John McCrae, author of the poem In Flanders Fields.

In his monthly assessment at the end of April, the hospital's commanding officer, Col. H.S. Birkett, wrote of his surgical and nursing teams being "taxed to the utmost" that month.

"Especially was this so during the the fighting at Vimy Ridge when it was often necessary to work day and night," Birkett wrote. "As officer commanding, I could not be more proud of all ranks in the excellent spirit and cheerful work done in these times of stress and strain."

‘Canada Bereft’ is the largest statue at the front of the memorial and is said to depict ‘Canada mourning her fallen sons.’ Its inscription reads: ‘To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada.’ (Lara Chatterjee/CBC) (Lara Chatterjee/CBC)

Vimy battle 'like a scythe' through Canadian towns

The Battle of Vimy Ridge saw the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fight side by side for the first time, and it left families and communities across Canada united in grief, Bailey says.

"Every family in Canada was in some way affected by Vimy Ridge. They knew somebody, they had a relative. That day was like a scythe through their towns. I think people forget that. That was really the first effect. It was all these dead that they now had to mourn," Bailey says.

A telegram informing the mother of 14th Battalion officer Lieut. William Jeffrey Holliday that he has died from wounds received on the first day of the attack on Vimy Ridge. (Royal Montreal Regiment Museum)

Colin Robinson, a retired Lieut.-Colonel with the Royal Montreal Regiment, says the most feared person in Montreal in 1917 was a 14-year-old boy on a bicycle stopping at your house.

"He would have been bringing you a telegram telling you that your family member was either killed, wounded or, even worse, was missing," Robinson said.

"When someone is missing, there's that doubt, that hope that goes on for years and years."

The names of 11,285 who died during the Great War but have no known grave are carved into the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge. (Lara Chatterjee/CBC) (Lara Chatterjee/CBC)