April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle at Vimy Ridge, France. The First World War battle was large and bloody, and considered by many historians to be a defining moment in Canadian history. It was during this battle that Canadian troops were heralded for their bravery, their strength and for leading a stunning victory. This victory was not without great cost in terms of loss of life – over 10,000 Canadian were killed or wounded in this battle and today we will learn a bit more of two of those brave soldiers.
The battle began in the early morning of April 9, 1917. This was the first time all four Canadian divisions attacked together. The battle was considered a turning point in the war and holding the ridge was important to the eventual Allied victory.
Library and Archives Canada, the repository that holds the records for the Department of National Defence, has been working to digitize all of the records related to men and women who served Canada during the First World War. These records have allowed us to look into the lives of Oshawa residents who were there during that pivotal battle.
I have begun research into two soldiers from Oshawa who were at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. One of these soldiers, Pvt. Albert George Howard, was born on April 18, 1897. Albert was one of six children born to parents Leslie and Effie Howard. The family lived at 113 Elgin Street W.
Albert was just 18 years old when he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on June 25, 1915. When he enlisted, he joined the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles before being transferred to the 2nd Brigade of the Canadian Mounted Rifles. Just 23 days after enlisting, on July 18, 1915, Howard was in Quebec City where he boarded a ship bound for Shorncliffe Station in Kent, England. He arrived in England nine days later, reporting to Shorncliffe on July 27.
Shorncliffe was used as a staging camp to organize the soldiers destined for the Western Front. Howard joined the Canadian Training Division until he was sent to France on Sept. 22, 1915. By January 1916, Howard was a part of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade.
Howard got himself into a bit of trouble when he returned to his unit in December 1916 after being treated for shell concussion. He was tried by summary trial on Dec. 21, 1916. His military file indicates that he had to forfeit four days of pay for the offence of “Committing a nuisance in an outhouse belonging to a billet.” At this point, exactly what he did to that outhouse is unclear and may never be known.
Howard was with the 78th Battalion on April 9, 1917 when the battle at Vimy Ridge began. He was part of the 4th Canadian Division, 12th Brigade. The first wave of the offensive began on Easter Monday morning. The weather conditions were cold, with sleet and snow hampering efforts. While the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions were able to reach their first objective an hour or so into the battle, the 4th Division was struggling. The advance of the 4th Division was almost over shortly after it began. The decision to leave a portion of the German trench system intact was disastrous and resulted in a large portion of the right flank of the division being wounded or killed.
It is not clear exactly when on April 9 Pvt. Howard was killed. His final resting place is unknown. He is one of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers inscribed on the memorial at Vimy Ridge.
Another Oshawa resident who volunteered his services was Phillip J. Phillips. Born in Shoreditch, London, England on Dec. 28, 1875, to Henry and Elizabeth Phillips, the 1881 English census shows Phillip to be one of four children living at home.
Phillip married Emily Turnham on Christmas Day, 1898. The couple, along with their daughters Emily and Grace, arrived in Montreal from Liverpool, England on July 28, 1906. From there, the family made their way to the final destination of Oshawa. The ships registrar lists Phillips as a cabinet worker and he appears to have continued this work when he arrived in Oshawa as his attestation papers lists him as being a wood worker.
On Dec. 5, 1915, Phillips enlisted with the 116th Battalion in Oshawa with the Ontario Regiment. Phillips was with the 18th Canadian Infantry Battalion, 2nd Canadian Division during the battle of Vimy Ridge. He survived the initial battle from April 9 to 12 and was relieved from the front line by the 24th Battalion. At this time, the 18th Battalion moved back to the divisional reserve on April 13.
On May 6, the battalion moved back to the front to relieve the 24th Battalion. At the time, the front line was under heavy shellfire. On May 7, five soldiers were killed and 13 were wounded, having been under continuous bombardment of gas-shells by the Germans. Phillips was one of the five killed that day. He was wounded in the shell attacks and died of his wounds at the Regimental Aid station. He was buried at the Vimy Communal Cemetery, near Lens, France. At the time of his death, daughter Emily was 17, Grace was 12, and Philip Jr. was 7.
To survive the initial battle, with such a high casualty rate, only to die one month later truly speaks volumes about the horrors of the First World War.
These gentlemen are just two of the over 230,000 Canadians killed or wounded during the war to end all wars.