We’re headed to Vimy in France this week for the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Before the centenary, I wanted to take an opportunity to write about an often-forgotten story of the fighting around Vimy before the Canadian Corps attack on 9 April – Major-General David Watson’s raid on 1 March, 1917. Image: Paul Nash, “We are Making a New World”, 1918. Oil on canvas. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1146)
Raiding had become part of the Canadian Corps doctrine since 1916, and they were known to be very good at it. Constant trench raiding had two purposes; the first was to remove any sense of safety the enemy felt when on duty in a so-called “quiet” area and to establish dominance over No Mans Land. The second was to train companies and platoons to work together, reinforcing skills that would be invaluable during larger attacks.
Before the battle on 9 April, the Canadians had been in place for several months and in February a raid on Hill 145 was proposed by Watson. His 4th Division, the greenest division of the four, was to form the raiding party, which would be over 1 700 soldiers. This was a very large force for a raid. The most successful Canadian raid to that date, on 17 January 1917, had used a force of 870 and required artillery back-up. Watson’s raid would use gas shells instead.
Two of the soldiers who took part in that raid were featured last week on our podcast “Dear Bessie”. Harry White and Francis Atkinson originally joined the 65th Battalion in Saskatchewan before being transferred to the 72nd Battalion (Seaforth Highlanders) in 1916. The 72nd Battalion was part of the 4th Division, which arrived in France in August 1916.
Harry and Francis had survived the fighting on the Somme, the raid was the first fighting engagement they had all winter. The troops selected for the raid spent two days on alert as it was delayed due to bad winds that made it impossible to successfully deploy the division’s gas shells. Finally, on 1 March the winds were announced to be right, and the raid began with the release of the first gas wave at 5 am that morning.
The first wave of gas passed into the German lines, whose response was to immediately shell the Canadian front lines, breaking the waiting canisters of gas and soaking the soldiers waiting to jump off in a cloud of phosgene. Miscommunication behind the lines resulted in a second wave of gas being released, despite unfavourable winds which blew that too into the faces of the waiting Canadians.
At this point, at 5:45am, the 4th Division went over the top and into heavy German artillery and machine gun fire. According to historian Tim Cook, the chaos was absolute as, “The surviving Canadians, jumbled together from the four battalions, were forced into a running battle within the German trenches”. During this running battle, Harry and Francis were separated, and at some point Francis was killed. Due to the situation and need to get out quickly, Francis’ body was never retrieved.
Francis Atkinson is named on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, one of the over 11 000 Canadian soldiers listed as missing in France. This week, we will be looking for his name.
 Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918, 69.