Remembering Our Vimy Fallen
One hundred years ago, on the cold, overcast morning of April 9th, 1917, over 100,000 Canadian soldiers were massed in the trenches opposite the German-held high-point of Vimy Ridge. Among them were four constables from the Toronto Police Force.
· Samuel Henry MacGowan, PC#274, a young Irish immigrant, joined the TPF in 1911 at 23 years old, and was posted at downtown's No. 1 Station.
· Andrew Johnson, PC#374, also born in Ireland, joined the TPF in 1912 when he was just 20 years old. He policed Toronto's west-end Parkdale neighbourhood from No. 6 Station.
· Robert Cunningham Clarke, PC#540, also from Ireland, joined the TPF in 1914. He was 28 years old and had previous police experience with the Royal Irish Constabulary.
· William Henry Haynes, PC#451, came from England and joined the TPF in 1912 at the age of 25 years old. Haynes was stationed in the city's west end at No. 9 Station on Keele Street. He was married and he and his wife Lillie had two young children.
(From left to right: Samuel MacGowan, Andrew Johnson, William Haynes, Robert Clarke)
After years of public service as police officers, these men traded in their police blue for army khaki and answered the call to arms.
A great offensive was about to kick off, and after more than two years of the deadliest war the world had ever seen, four Canadian divisions would fight as one for the first time in history. They were up against a position that had withstood years of French and British assaults and caused tens of thousands of deaths.
Clarke recently returned to the trenches after surviving being shot in the head five months earlier. MacGowan, Johnson, and Haynes had also survived a brush with death on March 1st, when their side's own poisonous chlorine gas blew back in their direction and the alert enemy decimated their struggling forces with artillery and machine gun fire.
At 5:30am on April 9th, 1917, a flare went up, the infantry officers blew their whistles, and the men surged “over the top”, advancing forward and uphill. They gripped their rifles and tucked their chins into their collars as if the flying shrapnel were a rainstorm. Clarke was in this first wave of attacking troops. His battalion reached and captured its first objectives by 7:00am, and paused to regroup.
Further north, Johnson, Haynes and MacGowan’s 75th Battalion was following lead elements of the push towards Hill 145 (the high point of the ridge), while the lead elements were taking heavy casualties. By 8:00am, they had advanced further uphill, but their brigade was in trouble – the lead battalions were decimated and the 75th were now in the front line, pinned-down and taking heavy machine gun fire.
Meanwhile, Clarke's unit was further south and forward, and therefore exposed. They started taking increasingly heavy fire, and were ordered to dig in to protect their brigade’s flank. Over the next four hours they suffered 200 casualties.
The battle raged on throughout the day and Clarke's 3rd Division would be the first to hold their section of the ridge and look out to the plains beyond. Johnson, Haynes, and MacGowan's 4th Division fought for Hill 145 into the following day where it ultimately succeeded.
By the end of the day, “Sam” MacGowan, Andrew Johnson, William Haynes, and Robert C. Clarke were among Canada's over 3,000 dead.
News of the victory spread throughout the world, and many historians argue it was at this point that Canada came of age. The Canadian Corps went on to achieve many more great victories, and when the war was over, Canada had its own seat at the League of Nations (the precursor to today's United Nations).
Lest we forget
This April 9th, let us remember the bravery and ultimate sacrifice of those Canadian soldiers, one hundred years ago, who helped make Canadian history and end the Great War. Canadian Police officers continue to serve our country overseas on International Peace Operations.
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(This article appears in the April 2017 edition of Blue Line Magazine.)
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