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Icon 1 posted 08. April 2002 19:17
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(from the Toronto Star):

Vimy battle raged around wounded gunner
Canadian Army gunner's harrowing survival in bloody World War I battle

Gunner Sidor Crouch was wounded at Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. He survived the battle that claimed nearly 3,600 Canadian lives.

In 1915, Sidor Crouch, 19, enlisted in the Canadian Army and eventually ended up fighting at Vimy Ridge in France. Canada suffered more than 10, 000 casualties, including 3,598 killed, in one of World War I's bloodiest battles. His son, Philip Crouch, went to Sidor Crouch's home on Nov. 5, 1977, and asked him about his experiences at Vimy. This is Sidor Crouch's story as told to his son.
I had been in the trenches about nine months before arriving at Vimy Ridge with some of my comrades in the 20th Battalion, 2nd Division, in the Canadian Army. It was cold, muddy and swampy; we had to contend with lice and rats.

The battle at Vimy Ridge took place on Monday, April 9, 1917, but before then the engineering corps had built tunnels leading up to the German lines. They also constructed caves in the hills where men were gathered, sleeping on a single rubber sheet in the mud.

Before the battle there was a huge artillery barrage against German lines, which lasted for six days, day and night. I was part of a Lewis machine-gun crew. I was the gunner; there was also a loader and four men who were to protect us. Two of them were riflemen and two of them grenade men. All of us could handle any of the positions.

As the hours towards the start of the battle approached, the infantry soldiers were ordered into the tunnels. We machine gunners were ordered to crawl silently towards the German lines and to take up positions a short distance from them.

We were not to take any action until a signal was given — an artillery shell. We crawled silently towards the German lines and stayed there. We could see the Germans and we could hear them talking although they could not see us.

At 5:30 a.m. Easter Monday, the signal was given and the artillery opened up. We moved forward. The Germans in our immediate vicinity were so surprised that they immediately surrendered. The infantry orders were to walk slowly forward following the artillery barrage. Soldiers were to spray bullets in front of them as they walked. We had no trouble overcoming the first line.

There was a big battle for the second German line. They started running. Many of the Germans were paralyzed with shock from the bombardment. Even though they had not been wounded, they lay motionless with their cheeks twitching.

As we captured German artillery, our gunners would turn the weapons around to fire at the Germans. On the side to the east of us, huge tunnels had been dug in underneath German positions and dynamite had been placed there. The dynamite exploded and one huge blast ripped apart, and completely destroyed, the German positions in that area. There was a great deal of killing on both sides as the fighting continued.

I remember that the sun started to shine about 10 a.m. and that many German prisoners were taken. Many of these German prisoners were killed by their own artillery, which was shelling our lines. Our machine-gun group was moving constantly. We confronted a German machine gun position, and in effect a duel took place. As we fired at each other I decided to attempt to dig a trench with the bullets from my gun to the enemy's weapon.

After a while it appeared that we had silenced the German machine gun. It was my mistake, however. As I stood up I felt a blow like a baseball bat hit my right leg and I was knocked to the ground. I had been shot. Immediately another crewmember replaced me and shortly after this the German machine gun crew surrendered.

My group then moved ahead, leaving me on my own, in accordance with orders they had been given. The medics arrived, bandaged me and put me in a shell hole. They went to look for other wounded.

Right beside the hole was a dead German with a rifle. As I looked up I saw a huge crowd of Germans coming towards me. I thought it was a counter-attack and reached for the dead German's rifle to defend myself. To my relief, the Germans were prisoners, who were being chased to our rear lines by a few Canadians.

As I lay there, mules and horses passed by with ammunition. Darkness, and snow, fell and then I could see soldiers coming to collect the dead and wounded. I was hoarse and cold. I remember cavalry riding by at an extremely fast clip. I believe that they were East Indian, although I could not be sure about that. One of the horses came frighteningly close to me. I worried that I would not be picked up.

At one stage a sad looking German soldier approached me. He was unarmed, obviously frightened and anxious to surrender. He was small and underweight. I used the rifle from the nearby dead German soldier and motioned for him to come closer. He approached fearfully, and I indicated to him that I wanted him to carry me towards the Canadian side on his back. He finally understood, bent down and I got on his back, but he was not strong enough to carry me.

The pain of the movement was so bad that I gave up on that idea. I then sent him on his way and he ran off with great speed.

At 6 the next morning, young Canadian soldiers were out trying to find the wounded and one found me. He gave me water and said he would come back with a stretcher and other men. He did come back with others, including German prisoners who were being used as stretcher-bearers.

I was carried to a valley, where there appeared to be thousands of wounded, and wrapped in a blanket.

The injured included British and Australian servicemen, as well as Canadians. I fell asleep and was put on a truck and taken to an Australian tent hospital. One of my biggest problems at the time was that the lice were unbearable. I was washed and put in a bed and they gave me coffee and they fed me.

I spent a week there and doctors put a splint on my right leg and wrapped the wound.

An Australian doctor approached me when he learned that I could speak Russian and asked me to teach him to speak the language (Crouch was born in what is now Ukraine. His name was changed from Kravets during a document mix-up when he immigrated in 1913).

After a week, a number of us were taken to a field to await trucks to take us to LeHavre. As we lay in the field, German artillery started to shell areas nearby. I was afraid that they were going to hit us, but for some reason the shelling stopped.

I was put on a truck and taken to a boat at LeHavre, which proceeded to Dover, England. Hospital treatment followed and I arrived back in Canada on April 24, 1918.
Sidor Crouch died in 1980. Tomorrow marks the 85th anniversary of Vimy Ridge
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Icon 1 posted 10. April 2002 21:58
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On Vimy Ridge, Canada came of age

J.L. Granatstein
Times Colonist (Victoria)

Tuesday, April 09, 2021

EIGHTY-FIVE YEARS AGO today, the Canadian Corps attacked Vimy Ridge. The German position had successfully resisted earlier French and British attacks, and was heavily defended. But the Canadians took the ridge and in the process made the Canadian Corps' great reputation. The victory of April 9, 1917, has also been hailed as the birth of Canadian nationalism, the day Canada ceased to be a colony and became a nation.

Vimy is the Canadian victory, the pinnacle of Canadian military achievement. Soldiers then and the media at home painted it as a triumph of arms -- and so it was. Part of this myth-making for civilians was the sense that Canadians had scaled a cliff, struggling to the top of the great ridge in the face of enemy fire. In fact, most of the ground in front of the Canadians was characterized by a gentle upward slope. No one needed pitons to scale the heights of Vimy.

More important, while Vimy was an enormously strong position, and while its capture by the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fighting together for the first time was a significant victory, it was a battle without exploitation. No cavalry streamed into the gap blasted in the enemy lines; no reserves moved forward. Vimy was a costly battle that mattered little in terms of the overall conduct of the war.

For the Canadians, it was an undoubted psychological fillip; for Gen. Sir Julian Byng, the British commander of the Canadians, it was the culmination of his career; and for people at home it showed that "our boys" could do great things. But its military importance, regrettably, was slight. Nonetheless, the battle was so perfectly planned and executed that it deserves its place in our military history.

By 1917, Canadians had been fighting for two years. The raw levies that had held the Germans off at Ypres in April 1915 now were experienced, well-trained soldiers.

The key to the success at Vimy came when Byng sent Maj.-Gen. Arthur Currie of the First Canadian Division to study the methods of the French. Currie learned that they emphasized reconnaissance, putting every man into the line to see the ground and likely enemy resistance points. They used air photographs extensively, distributing them to the officers of the assaulting units, who then briefed every man. When the attack went in, the objectives were geographical features, not hard-to-find map references.

Moreover, the French believed attacks were more likely to succeed if they used fresh troops. Above all, Currie recommended that the Canadian Corps, like the French, adopt a flexible, manoeuvrable platoon organization. In the battle for Vimy Ridge, Currie's ideas played the decisive role.

Byng's plan for the attack was ready by March 5, allowing a month for preparation. Engineers cut large dugouts into the chalky ground so men could mass in safety, and water and telephone lines were laid. The Canadians had massive fire support for their attack, one piece of heavy artillery for each 20 yards of front, and one field gun for every 10 yards. The artillery program had been carefully devised and called for an escalating two-week bombardment on trenches, machine-gun nests, and supply dumps. When the attack itself began, a rolling barrage would move forward in 100-yard increments while other guns hit defensive positions.

"We had been practising and rehearsing the details for several days," wrote Lieut. Stuart Kirkland, "but didn't know the hour it was to start until the night before." Air photos and maps came well forward, and every man knew his task. Indiscreetly, Pte. Ronald MacKinnon of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry wrote to his father: "I am a rifle grenadier and am in the 'first wave.' We have a good bunch of boys to go over with and good artillery support so we are bound to get our objective alright. I understand we are going up against the Prussian Guards."

When the 15,000 troops from 21 battalions, fortified with a tot of rum and a hot meal, went over the top at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, they attacked in snow and sleet, the wind driving into the enemy lines.

The attack began with "the most wonderful artillery barrage ever known in the history of the world," Kirkland said. Behind the rolling barrage, the men moved steadily forward over the badly broken ground, most of Currie's First Division units reaching German front-line positions while the enemy still huddled in their dugouts. At the second German line, snipers and machine-guns began to inflict heavy casualties. The Second and Third Divisions similarly moved quickly over their first objectives, one unit of the Third Division capturing 150 Saxons in a dugout.

The First Division moved on, helped by snow that hid its advance. The Germans now fled or fell, and by 7 a.m. the division had seized most of its second objective. The Second Division moved over flattened enemy trenches, capturing many prisoners, though casualties were beginning to mount. Still, by 9:30 the two divisions had their third objective, as the British Official History noted, "in precisely the same manner as it had been worked out on the practice fields." The final objective soon followed, though it took a bayonet charge by the 6th Brigade to overcome machine-guns firing at point-blank range.

"Hundreds of men were now walking over the open in all directions," wrote Padre F.G. Scott. "German prisoners were being hurried back in scores. Wounded men, stretcher-bearers and men following up the advance were seen on all sides, and on the ground lay the bodies of friends and foes." From the air, a Canadian pilot saw what seemed to be men casually wandering across No Man's Land. The young Billy Bishop could see shells bursting among the Canadians and men falling, while others continued slowly forward. It looked like something unreal, he recalled, a game, not war.

Only the Fourth Division met sustained difficulties in taking Hill 145, the point that provided the Germans with observation over the valley of the River Souchez. Here the defences were very strong. Careful preparation brought the Canadians to within 150 yards of the German lines, but surprise was difficult to achieve. But that night the 85th Battalion, the Nova Scotia Highlanders, a battalion new to the front, took Hill 145.

There now remained only "the Pimple," the northern tip of Vimy Ridge. In the early hours of April 12 in the teeth of a gale, the Canadians surprised the Guards Regiment manning the position. Heavy fighting followed and by 6 a.m. the Canadians had the position. The ridge was now wholly in Canadian hands.

Stunned by the Canadians' rapid success, the Germans pulled back their line to eliminate the advantages of observation offered by the ridge. The Canadian Corps, having suffered 10,602 casualties, dug in on the line of the Lens-Arras railway, a gain of 4,500 yards. The opportunity for a breakthrough, like others in this war of attrition, disappeared into the swirling sleet of April.

Still, it was a famous victory, cheered to the echo in Canada and France. Capt. Georges Vanier of the 22nd Battalion wrote that "The morale of our troops is magnificent. We cannot lose -- what is more we are winning quickly and the war will be over within six months." The Canadians had captured a hitherto impregnable position and taken 4,000 prisoners.

That all four divisions of Canadians fought together at Vimy undoubtedly contributed to the victory. Worth remembering, however, is that Byng was British, as were his superiors -- the Canadian Corps did not fight under Canadian command until Currie took over. Moreover, it was not until late 1918 that the Canadian-born made up more than half of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. British immigrants had made up two-thirds of the first contingent and made up almost half of all who served.

Did this make the force less Canadian? On the contrary, virtually every commentator then and since concluded that the soldiers became Canadian in battle, convinced that their corps, their nation-in-formation, was something special. So it was -- and is.

J. L. Granatstein, former director of the Canadian War Museum, is the author of Canada's Army, Waging War and Keeping the Peace, forthcoming from University of Toronto Press.
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Posts: 404 | From: Toronto, Ontario, Canada | Registered: Jun 2000
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