What Vimy means to me

Vimy MemorialApril 9, 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the Battle of Vimy Ridge. This battle forged Canada’s path towards true independence and paved the way to an Allied victory in the War. In the March issue of Leaside Life, Allan Williams shared with our readers the very personal connection of Leasider Drew Hamblin to Vimy. We also called on Leasiders to share their own stories about Vimy. We were moved by the many stories we received. In this issue, we are proud to share some of them with you.

Robin Dickie tells the story of her grandfather, Wilfrid Heighington

Wilfrid Heighington
Wilfrid Heighington

I was so pleased to see the article about Drew Hamblin and his connection to Vimy Ridge in last month’s issue. I too, have a personal connection, as my grandfather, Wilfrid Heighington, served at Vimy.

Wilfrid left for France in 1915 at 18 years old. He was wounded twice (he had the unpleasant experience of having a Medical Officer pull a sheet over his face and say it was no use), and returned to further fighting. He was at the Somme in 1916 and at Vimy in 1917. He came home at the end of the war with what they termed “nervous debility.” His brother Geoffrey survived battle, earning the Military Cross for bravery, and then cruelly died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

It is my conjecture that my grandfather suffered what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Although he married, had three children whom he adored, and enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer, writer, and member of provincial parliament for St. David’s – from all accounts he suffered greatly from what he witnessed in that hellish war. I often wonder how much, if any, support there was for veterans in those days.

My grandparents made the pilgrimage to France in July, 1936 to the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial presided over by the King. How my grandfather felt about returning to the scenes of these epic battles is forever unknown. His body full of shrapnel, Wilfrid died of pneumonia at the age of 47 in 1945. My mother was only 15.

Recently, I came into possession of a box full of Wilf’s papers. In it are many treasures – including the program from the Vimy Memorial unveiling, maps and official reports he wrote from the front, telegrams to his mother reporting him as “dangerously ill,” a large collection of personal letters, and most magically, an envelope containing two pressed poppies with the note “from Vimy Ridge.” All of this affected me deeply, and compelled me to make a memory book this past year for my sisters and my kids.

Vimy is personal to me, but I feel that all Canadians must make April 9th an important day of remembrance. While I talk to my own kids about our family history to no end, I feel all Canadian children need to know the story of their sacrifice and Canada’s “coming of age.” Unfortunately, when I reached out to the schools, I was told that it is not in the TDSB curriculum until Grade 10 and that “the understanding would be lost to the elementary students.” I couldn’t disagree more.

Robin Dickie, Leaside resident

Doug Adamson tells the story of this father Alex

Alex Adamson
Alex Adamson

My father, Alex Adamson, was a 20-year-old private in Toronto’s 48th Highlanders regiment when he went over the top with the 15th Battalion at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. He had arrived in England in the fall of 1916 and trained on Salisbury Plain before going to France in early 1917.

During the months before Vimy he served in the front lines and participated in numerous raids on the German trenches. What he remembered most about the Vimy attack was waiting in the trenches in the cold and sleet and hearing the sound of a single shell from a naval gun far in the rear coming over his head and crashing onto the German trenches at exactly 5:30 a.m. to open the barrage that signaled the start of the attack. He had experienced creeping barrages before during big raids, but he remembered this one as being particularly tremendous: one gun for every 25 yards of front firing three rounds a minute then moving the barrage forward 100 yards every three minutes. As the Highlanders left their trenches and advanced over the open ground, they could see the shells falling on the German positions in front of them.

His other memory of Vimy was of the luxury of the German dugouts. The Germans had been on the ridge since October 1914 and had deep dugouts with all the comforts of home. In fact, the Germans were so confident in the strength of their positions that one prisoner captured a few days before the battle was reported to have claimed that the number of Canadians who would reach the top of the ridge would be so few they could be taken back to Canada in a rowboat. From the back of the captured German positions, my father remembered looking out over the Douai plain and seeing the slag heaps of the coal mines many miles away.

He was wounded during a German barrage shortly after the battle and spent the rest of the war in convalescent hospitals in England.

My father and I visited the Vimy monument and walked the battlefield in 1965. He was surprisingly unemotional about the visit. He did, however, remark that he never imagined he would one day be visiting Vimy with his own son.

Doug Adamson, Leaside resident

Judi Barnes’ family connection to Vimy Ridge and the “Red Baron”

Bernard Dunnett visits the grave of a fallen comrade at his 1936 Vimy pilgrimage
Bernard Dunnett visits the grave of a fallen comrade at his 1936 Vimy pilgrimage

Allan Williams’ article about Vimy Ridge inspired me to share my wife’s personal story about Vimy.

Judi Barnes’ maternal grandfather, Bernard Frederick Dunnett (1889-1955), was born in Ipswich, England, and came to Canada at a young age to work as a “farm boy” in Cannington, Ont. As a private in the 116th Battalion, he embarked on the SS Olympic from Halifax in March 1916.

We assume he was in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, as we know from photos that he was one of the 6,200 pilgrims who travelled to France in 1936 for the unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial by King Edward VIII. While he survived the war, and had a career with George Weston Ltd. selling the famous “Denver Sandwich Bars” (layers of biscuit and chocolate-covered caramel, and a favourite of soldiers overseas), family lore is that Bernard was exposed to mustard gas while in the trenches and died years later of tuberculosis.

Judi’s paternal great-uncle, Lieutenant George Henry Rathbone, died at 21 years of age, after only 20 days in France. A graduate of Parkdale Collegiate and member of Parkdale Canoe Club, he worked in the family business – Rathbone Lumber, near Queen and Dufferin – before enlisting with the 204th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in February 1916. He departed from Camp Borden in September 1916, and sailed on the SS Laconia from Halifax on September 27th (six months after Bernard).

On reaching England, George secured a commission in the Royal Flying Corps, where he qualified for his observer’s certificate. On April 9th, the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, he joined the 12th Squadron at Avesnes-le-Comte (25 km south of Vimy), and on April 29th was reported missing. The story goes that he was “on artillery observation work over the German lines in the Arras district, and at 4:30 in the afternoon of April 29, he rose from the aerodrome of his squadron, acting as observer and accompanied by another officer as pilot.” Both are presumed to have been shot down near Monchy-le-Preux, France. Although the Rathbone family remained confident that both men had alighted in German territory and were prisoners of war, their bodies were never recovered and are today commemorated in France’s Arras Memorial for the Missing. Hanging on the wall at the Rathbone family cottage are George’s military photo, his “wings” taken from a uniform, and a commemorative scroll from the King, which ends with “Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.”

Nothing further was known about George and his pilot David Davies’ deaths until this past fall. Davies’ family, from South Wales, periodically visits the Arras Memorial and recently came upon a book in a local tea shop near the memorial, Under the Conquests of the Red Baron. They knew the date of their relative’s death and discovered that David and George were shot down by Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron” (so named for his red plane and title of nobility). In von Richthofen’s combat report, as “Victory No. 51,” he noted that “together with my brother, each of us attacked an artillery flyer at low altitude. After a short fight my adversary’s plane lost its wing. When hitting the ground near the trenches, the plane caught fire.” Von Richthofen – considered the “ace-of-aces” of the Great War and perhaps the most widely known fighter pilot of all time, officially credited with 80 air combat victories – was shot down and killed in northern France on April 21, 1918.

Together with our son Jack, who attended St. Andrew’s College and Leaside High School, we are humbled by the sacrifices George and Bernard made to ensure freedom, and we remember them through cherished photographs. Jack was fortunate to visit the Vimy Memorial and other battlefields in France on a school trip in 2010 with St. Andrew’s College.

Today, 100 years later, we remember those who sacrificed so much.

Corey Goldman, Donlea Drive