Wednesday, March 18, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Local WWI Hall of Fame

World War Wednesdays: Local WWI Hall of Fame
     Use of the term 'World War' is certainly done without exaggeration. In the cases of both global conflicts in our history the entire planet was affected, and every person alive at the time was impacted in some way. Regardless of whether or not active combat took place in every country or if members of every nation were called upon for service, living in a world with such turmoil was a unanimous struggle. For those of us lucky enough to call Canada home, it is often thought that we were perhaps more removed from these conflicts because no battles were fought on Canadian soil. On an even smaller scale, those of us who come from the West Elgin area of Southwestern Ontario may sometimes feel as though our little region was almost sheltered from the peril which was mostly based in Europe. Our vast agricultural area was in high demand by the country mobilized for war, which resulted in farmers being required to forego active duty and remain on hand for food production. Indeed, a number of our fathers and grandfathers were considered crucial components of the war on the home front, and provided food for both the remainder of the country and the boys overseas. If, like myself, you have ever wondered why your male relatives who were of age to fight at the time remained at home, this is probably the explanation. Their contribution was equally valuable and warrants a great deal of pride.
     Of course, our area has its fair share of veterans as well, who we know and honour. Our local legions are fantastic facilities and fixtures of the community which foster a year-round commitment to remembrance. Being such a small area means that the men and women who have served in conflicts are everyday parts of our lives, which gives us an even greater appreciation of their selfless acts.
The remembrance mural at West Lorne Legion Branch 221
     Something that we don't always realize about our humble home is that we do have connections to people who attained a high degree of notoriety during these conflicts, especially during the First World War. In fact, two men who hailed from our area, where their long-ago homes still stand to this day, are forever a major aspect of the war not only in Canada, but from a worldwide perspective. This post will describe the lives of these two local heroes who have made not only Southwestern Ontario but their country as a whole incredibly proud.

Hero #1: Sir Arthur Currie
     One of the most significant Canadian figures during the First World War was Sir Arthur Currie. He was born in 1875 with the original surname "Curry" in the hamlet of Napperton, just west of Strathroy, Ontario. His family home still stands, though it is privately owned and said to be in a state of poor repair. He attended local common schools, and eventually Strathroy District Collegiate Institute before moving to British Columbia to become a teacher in 1894. On 6 May 1897, he joined the 5th Regiment, Canadian Garrison Artillery as a gunner, and by 1900, he had achieved the rank of corporal. At this point, he was offered an officer's commission, which would give him a much higher status in the social circles of Victoria. However, a commission was an expensive proposition, since officers were expected to provide their own set of tailored uniforms and to donate their pay to the officer's mess. Currie took on his role as militia officer seriously, and showed an intense interest in artillery, and especially in marksmanship. He was promoted to captain in 1902, and then to major in 1906.  By September 1909, he had risen to lieutenant-colonel, commanding the 5th Regiment C.G.A.
     When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the Canadian Minister of Militia under Prime Minister Robert Borden, Colonel Sam Hughes, offered Currie command of the 2nd Brigade. He was subsequently promoted to brigadier-general in September of 1914.
Second Battle of Ypres
     In the chaos that followed the release of chlorine gas for the first time in battle, Currie proved his value as a combat officer by calmly issuing commands from his brigade headquarters even as it was gassed and then destroyed by fire.  At one point, he even personally went back to the rear and brought up two regiments of British reinforcements that had been unwilling to move forward. The Second Battle of Ypres proved to be the making of Currie. His superiors noted his natural instinct for tactics and his coolness under fire. He was promoted to major-general, and given command of the entire First Canadian Division. He was also invested as a Companion of the Order of Bath (CB) and as a commander of the Legion d'Honneur.

The Somme
     Although the Canadians did not take part in the infamous Anglo-French offensive on the Somme on 1 July 1916, they did eventually move into the line in the fall to aid the slow crawl forward. Unlike some of his senior commanders, Currie was under no illusion that a full frontal assault would bring about a breakthrough that would end the stalemate of the trenches. Instead, Currie proved himself to be the master of the set piece assault, designed to take limited objectives and then hold on in the face of inevitable German counterattacks. In a battle where every foot of ground was fiercely contested, Currie's talent at these bite and hold tactics became apparent as did his almost obsessive unwillingness to squander men's lives in costly frontal assaults. When the battle finally ground to a halt in the mud of November, the Canadians had taken every objective ordered of them, although at the cost of 24,000 casualties.
Vimy Ridge
     The commander of the Canadian corps, Sir Julian Byng, sent Currie to examine the Battle of the Somme and interpret what lessons could be learned from it, as well as conduct interviews with the French officers who had been involved. After presenting his research, Currie began the training of his men immediately, and provided them with maps of the battlefield and objectives. Although the overall Battle of Arras was a failure—British regiments on the Canadians' right flank failed to reach their objectives, making a breakthrough impossible—the four Canadian divisions had worked as one unit to score a nation-building victory. Currie was recognised as the architect of this triumph, and was knighted by King George V with his appointment as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in the King's Birthday Honours of 4 June 1917. When Byng was promoted to general in command of the British Third Army in mid-1917, Currie was raised to the temporary rank of lieutenant-general on 9 June]and given command of the entire Canadian Corps.
Currie being knighted in battle
     Currie's planning and leadership would again be relied upon at Passchendaele  and during the Hundred Days Offensive, which continued to prove his immense capability. After the war, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George claimed that he wanted to promote Currie to commander-in-chief of all British and Empire forces on the Western Front in place of Sir Douglas Haig. This and the entirety of Currie's impressive achievements and honours remain a major part of Canadian First World War history, and it all began in a tiny little Ontario area we all know well.


Hero #2: Ellis Wellwood Sifton
     If you're from anywhere around the Elgin County area, you may have noticed the Wallacetown signs which feature poppies and the slogan 'Home of Ellis Wellwood Sifton'. The road at the back end of the Wallacetown fairgrounds by the 4H building is named for him, Sifton St. The home in which he grew up is the large red-brick home with the barn on the right-hand side travelling west on Talbot Line, just outside of Wallacetown, and is still a private residence. Thanks to some persistent and successful efforts, his name has continued to gain prominence in our area in the hopes that his immense sacrifice in WWI will be well-known by the area he once called home.
     Sifton was born into a farming family on 11 October, 1891. On 23 October 1914, having just turned twenty-three, he volunteered for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at St Thomas, Ont. He joined the 18th Infantry Battalion, which eventually became part of the 4th Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Division of the Canadian Corps. He was appointed lance-corporal before embarking for overseas on 18 April 1915.
     Sifton’s experiences in the trenches mirrored those of thousands of other young Canadians of the 2nd Division as his battalion entered the line for the first time in September 1915 (in which month he was promoted corporal) and as it engaged in its first major battle, an attempt to capture one of the craters near Saint-Eloi (Sint-Elooi), Belgium, in April 1916. Trench routine was punctuated by raids in July and August before the unit moved to the Somme front in France, where it captured its objectives in the assault on Courcelette on 15 September. Casualties were heavy, the battalion losing over 50 men killed, or about 1 in 12 of those who had participated in the attack. The following month a failed attempt to take Regina Trench led to another 25 men dying in battle. Sifton’s unit then moved to the base of the ridge near Vimy, where it engaged in trench raids in December 1916 and March 1917. On 14 March 1917 Sifton was promoted lance-sergeant.
     Since late 1916 the Canadian Corps had been preparing to storm German defences on the Vimy ridge. The operation opened on 9 April 1917, the 18th Battalion having been given the task of supporting the 21st Battalion’s attack into the village of Les Tilleuls. The first German defensive line was reached with little or no resistance, but the second proved far more difficult to take, machine-gun nests causing heavy casualties. Sifton saw the barrel of one such gun showing over a parapet and charged immediately into the trench, overturning the weapon. He attacked the crew with his bayonet, and then held off a quick counter-attack by using his rifle as a club. The skirmish ended with Sifton and his comrades (who had just arrived) holding the position, but a wounded German picked up a rifle and shot Sifton dead. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross,  the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories.

Sifton's Victoria Cross
    Some 69 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadians or foreign nationals serving with Canadian units in World War I, an indication not only of the importance of that war to Canada’s military history but also of its brutal nature. Sifton was one of 53,000 Canadians killed in Belgium and France from 1914 to 1918, where the infantry suffered 90 per cent of all losses.
     Following his death at a tragically young age, the award was given to his family. Being Pacifists, the Siftons did not believe in engaging in violence, so his award was packed away in the attic. It was not until new residents of the house discovered the award that Sifton's story became better known and his remarkable accomplishment made available for all to see courtesy of the Elgin County and Elgin Military Museums.

     It can thus be concluded that our little area has played more of a role in WWI than we may have thought. These two great heroes represented Southwestern Ontario with bravery and selflessness, and helped to put the area on the map. It is important that we continue to remember their contributions, along with those of so many others, and demonstrate our pride and appreciation so that we can understand the close connections that the area had to one of the greatest conflicts in human history.

Thanks for reading,

Delany Leitch

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