My grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge and all three of my novels include scenes from this battle. On two other occasions, the British and French tried to capture this ridge losing hundreds of thousands of men in the process. The Canadians were given the third opportunity to wrest the ridge from German hands and on April 9th they were victorious.
Here’s the scene from Lies Told in Silence. By way of background, Helene is eighteen, her brother Jean fifteen. They live in Northern France and have been secretly watching the preparations for Vimy Ridge at night from the vantage point of a hill near Mont St. Eloi.
She always dreamed at night, vivid scenes of unexpected events mixed with familiar and unfamiliar people, rushing towards something indefinable. Since she began watching the soldiers, her dreams were even more urgent and when she woke she would recall glimpses of chaos that faded almost immediately. That night was no different except as she ran, she was surrounded by loud booming that terrified her so much she forced herself to wake up. Uncertainty hovered like a sharp, black crow.
In the groggy moments between sleep and wakefulness, a shattering noise erupted. She pushed herself out of bed and went to the window, alert for further sounds. An answering crash followed splitting the sky directly overhead, penetrating her world like a never-ending drum roll.
It’s started, she thought. All that preparation had to lead to something. But it sounds close, much closer than we’ve ever known. She wondered about the men they had watched. What did it feel like to be in the midst of all that noise? How many would die in this attack?
She moved quickly around her bedroom, extracting clothing from a tall oak dresser, stepping over her hatbox full of letters dog-eared from frequent reading then hanging her dressing gown from a large white hook on the back of the door. Helene put on woollen pants, pulled a thick sweater over her head and pinned her hair into a knot with an urgent twist. She spun around to see Jean waiting at the door.
“Shhh,” she cautioned unnecessarily.
They let themselves out of the house without a sound and ran, fear pounding with every step. As they hurried along familiar paths, leaping across melting streams, clawing their way to the top, the guns grew louder and a sharp, acrid smell filled the air.
Helene’s legs had almost given out when they reached their perch and they stood, with no need to crouch down and hide, for no one could possibly notice them given the furore of action rippling across the battle field. Never in their wildest dreams, could they have imagined such a scene.
Instead of orderly drills or the calm stacking of sandbags and trucks waiting to load or unload, below them was a sea of stirring mud, grey dawn streaking the sky, sharp flashes of red, the roar of airplanes overhead. In the far distance near the ridge, an orange glow hovered like a bulging midnight sun. Shells burst from all directions illuminating soldiers advancing, bayonets flashing with deadly purpose.
Helene looked at Jean, a mix of fear and awe on his face. She said nothing, for what possible words could make sense of the destruction carried out below? In the preceding weeks what they had heard and seen – the bright snap of flares and answering clouds of smoke, the stuttering back and forth of machine guns, the sharp whine as planes breached the horizon, the gentle drift of observation balloons – were only the barest hints of reality. Helene and Jean were silent, standing vigil over an unfolding battle, honouring those who fought for their freedom, men they would never know.
Wherever she looked troops moved forward, less than twenty yards behind exploding bombs launched by their own artillery. This barrage was their shield, a curtain of steel protecting them from German counter-attacks. Yard by yard they advanced, scrambling across uneven ground, thick clumps of earth flying through the air around them.
Gradually the sky lightened bringing the battle into sharper focus. Jean shouted in his sister’s ear.
“Look over there. I think the Germans are retreating.”
In the direction Jean pointed the scene was total confusion, men advancing steadily in tight clumps like waves pounding the shore. A sudden flurry of snow obscured her view and she wondered how the soldiers could possibly find their way. The snow left as quickly as it had appeared and she saw white and black puffs of smoke marking the first line of enemy trenches as German soldiers turned and fled.
She tracked one steel-helmeted soldier. Although he was too far away for her to see his face, she watched him turn, lunge after his comrades, rifle clutched against his chest, one step, two, three, four, his feet struggling for a foothold in the mud. When a bright flash of orange sparked from behind, he flung his arms wide, jerked towards the man on his right and fell, face forward, to the ground. Helene’s stomach heaved with the realization that she had just watched a man die.
Before she could say anything to Jean, a plane, trailing black streamers, emerged from the far left and flew low over the scene, its klaxon sounding like an ancient battle cry.
While they watched, Helene thought of Guy. Had he grown accustomed to these mind-numbing sounds mixed with exploding bursts of earth and war material? Was this what it had been like when he was wounded? Was he brave or did he fear for his life. Did he lead his men with care? Did he shout at death as it whirled around him? How could he face battle again and again, her wonderful brother who laughed and teased, enjoyed the give and take of argument, took pride in his studies, loved his family. How could any of them?
Overwhelmed, she tugged at her brother’s arm. “We should go home.”
She thought at first he might refuse but then she saw the fear in his eyes. He swallowed before agreeing in a trembling voice.
And here’s a scene from Unravelled. Edward Jamieson is in the Signal corps responsible for a group of soldiers taking vital messages back and forth across the battle field. It’s the afternoon of April 9th.
Pushing through a knot of soldiers, Edward was breathing hard as he approached Lieutenant Burke.
“Jamieson. Why aren’t you at your post?” Burke lifted his head from the communications grid-map and shouted to be heard over the machine gun firing to his left.
“Vital communication from HQ, sir.” Unable to find a runner to take the message to Burke, Edward had abandoned his post to take it himself. He would experience serious consequences if Burke disagreed with that decision. “There was no one else to bring this to you.”
Burke scanned the message. “Bloody hell. How’ll we alert them in time?”
“I’ve tried wireless and airlines. Can’t reach them.”
“Someone will have to go on foot.” The Lieutenant gripped his forehead as if that would help him focus. “I’ll find Andrews. He’s back.”
Edward checked his watch. “There isn’t time, sir. You take over my post while I run the message forward.” Burke nodded; after all, a lance corporal was the more dispensable man.
The message announced a delay to Z-hour. The Eighty-Seventh Battalion, along with two other battalions, were to take the highest point of the ridge called Hill 145, which was critical to destroying Germany’s stranglehold in the northeast. By now, the Eighty-Fifth would also be in position and all would be waiting for Z-hour before commencing action. If the battalions advanced at the old Z-hour without artillery cover they would be destroyed by enemy fire. Edward had less than thirty minutes to reach them.
Wasting no time saluting, he put on a red armband, tucked the message in his tunic pocket and immediately headed east, his destination five hundred yards away but more than three times that distance using the trenches. Going above ground would be suicide.
Unlike their own trenches, which he could navigate in his sleep, Edward knew only the general layout of newly won German trenches; information gleaned from training diagrams and captured soldiers. He would have to work his way through fighting trenches, communication trenches and finally the resistance trenches. Once he got there, he could follow the resistance trench to find the Eighty-Seventh.
To avoid snipers, Edward moved in a crouched position as he scrambled over a ledge of fallen sandbags where a recent barrage had weakened the retaining wall and destroyed the fire step. He passed by a Maxim gun still on its sledge mount, an unused roll of ammunition hanging out one end. On his right, several stocks of stick grenades remained intact on a dirt shelf. A dead German soldier lay only a few feet away, his helmet off, the left side of his face missing.
Despite the cold, Edward sweated in his greatcoat. Mud oozed with each step, slowing his pace. His foot slipped. He grabbed at a section of chicken wire attached to the retaining wall to steady himself. A few yards ahead, a pool of water lay in front of a tunnel entrance. While slogging through the water, an explosion ripped the sky, spraying earth and shrapnel. Large clods of dirt struck his helmet.
Just inside the tunnel the ground wobbled beneath his feet. Struggling to keep his balance, he realized he was standing on two dead soldiers. He shuddered but kept going, barely able to see in the tunnel’s gloom. Panting, he slowed his pace to avoid falling; not one second could be wasted. Outside, the bursting curtain of steel continued its deadly assault.
He emerged from the tunnel and hurried along an empty trench as snow swirled in a sudden flurry, biting his face and limiting his sight. A low-flying aircraft swooped overhead looking for flag wavers reporting on objectives achieved. Edward heard the blaring of its klaxon. His legs pounded up and down, pleading for rest.
He lifted his eyes from the footpath, searching for a communication trench to take him forward. There it was. He could see the junction ahead. He turned left to follow its zigzag pattern. After a few minutes he found another fighting trench, then fifty feet later a second communication trench. Glancing up, he cursed, ducking quickly to avoid a roll of barbed wire. The second communication trench would be longer than the first as it bridged the gap between fighting trenches and resistance trenches. In the distance he heard the sound of howitzers launching another offensive.
Scrambling over piles of rubble and fallen support beams, Edward thought he could see another T-junction ahead. If that were the case, he would be at the first resistance trench. When he reached the junction, he cursed again and stopped, his path completely blocked. He retraced his steps to a scaling ladder and climbed out of the trench to proceed above ground beyond the blockage. The sudden buzz of a whizbang warned him of danger and he threw himself to the ground as a shell exploded no more than twenty feet away. He got to his feet and ran forward a short distance before jumping back into the communication trench beyond the blocked area. The sharp tang of cordite hung in the air.
Stark flashes of red lit the clouds as he rounded another corner and saw stretcher-bearers coming towards him followed by a stumbling line of German prisoners, one of them dressed in pyjamas. On the stretcher lay a grey-faced soldier bleeding from wounds in the arm and leg. Edward squeezed past the smells of blood and fear.
A few steps later he entered the first of three resistance trenches. He had to reach the third, most forward trench. Edward looked at his watch; unless he went above ground, he wouldn’t make it. Around the next bend he found another ladder, slung his rifle off his shoulder and scrambled out.
As he emerged from the trench, sunshine broke the gloom, flaming against a distant spire. Wreckage surrounded him: barbed wire, torn sandbags, abandoned artillery, stinking shell holes. Wounded men littered the field, begging for help. Dusk would soon close in; he stopped for no one.
Machine-gun fire crackled on his far right as German gunners emerged from a dugout desperate to inflict pain and damage on those who would soon force them out. Edward dodged to the left. He was almost there. Keeping low to the ground, he hurried on with only one purpose—reaching the Eighty-Seventh.
When the sniper’s bullet hit him, all thought of the message tucked in his pocket disappeared. He crumpled to the ground like a rag doll.
I’m working on a third novel, a split-time story about Grace who is tracing her grandfather’s WWI experience through his diaries and Martin (Grace’s grandfather) who is experiencing the war first hand.
April 9th was a cloudy morning. From three a.m. onwards, light mist and rain so cold it was almost snow helped conceal the Canadian army as they assembled in jumping off zones. Earlier in the day, Martin and his men were in Zivy Cave, a vast space where brigade and battalion staff along with hundreds of soldiers waited. Equipped with electric lights, running water, tables, kitchens and telephones, the cave had been a hub for the 19th Battalion, its spokes connected with all other battalions through a maze of trenches and tunnels. With so much snow and rain, the roof dribbled coating the floor with grey-white slime. The air smelled of tobacco, sweat, food, cordite, mud, latrines, and rot.
At four a.m. they moved into Zivy Tunnel, where they remained jammed shoulder to shoulder for the last ninety minutes before attack. Martin watched Butler moving around the tunnel, checking his men, clasping a shoulder here and there, his voice jolly as though the day’s objective was nothing unusual. He thought the Captain looked tired.
“Remember men,” Butler said, looking at his soldiers one by one, “we’ve practiced hard. You all know your parts and how to step in for others. Remember the artillery conquers and it’s our job to occupy. You’ll do well. I know you will. I’m proud of you all.”
Butler often said ‘artillery conquers, infantry occupies’ as though imbuing their role with grand purpose. Once Martin and Pete had discussed the validity of that phrase, trying to decide whether it somehow demeaned the infantry or whether their captain would have preferred the artillery to leading foot soldiers like them. Pete had observed the contradiction between a culture slavishly adhering to command and control and the chaotic disorder of battle.
“We need to work differently,” Pete had said, walking back from yet another battle briefing.
“You’re right. What’s more important, initiative or obedience? They want us to follow orders blindly without thinking like we’re playing parts in some symphony and can’t ever stray from the score.”
“Yeah, and they’re still using techniques from two hundred years ago.”
“Well, at least they disbanded the cavalry.”
Pete would have approved of how we’re operating today, Martin thought, stretching his back for a moment to ease the strain of standing so long. He shook his head and pushed the distraction of Pete from his mind. He needed all his powers of concentration and more for what was coming.
At exactly five-thirty the 19th battalion rushed forward, artillery crashing like a thousand thunderstorms. Every stage and every move had been practiced a hundred times and the men executed the opening ballet with precision. Within three minutes they gained their first target and by five fifty-one crossed the German front lines. Exhilarated, the battalion pressed forward into Balloon Trench in preparation for taking their next objective.
The artillery barrage paused allowing reserve units to move up and for a few minutes Martin could hear himself think. So far enemy retaliation had been weak and Sergeant Nully confirmed with a quick nod that their platoon was intact. Looking right to check that Bill remained on his flank, Martin caught a glimpse of his friend’s hefty shoulders but as he turned left to look for Simon, German machine gun fire erupted forcing Martin and his men to take cover. When the guns fell silent, Butler motioned them forward towards Furze trench.
Across the half-dark sky red signal flares marked Allied advances while double green rockets indicated German panic. Crouching low, stretcher-bearers fanned out to search for casualties and through the mist Martin saw a small cluster of prisoners straggle past.
“Bavarians,” Nully shouted to be heard above the barrage.
Worried that decreasing visibility would hamper their efforts, Martin merely nodded in reply. German barrage still concentrated on the Canadian front line, positions they had left more than an hour ago, but surely it would not be long before they adjusted their sights putting the 19th in danger. Continued movement was critical.
“Not much opposition,” Martin said.
“Can’t last, sir. Have to get on with consolidating our position.”
Martin heard the rumble of tanks advancing on their left and checked his watch. Beyond these hulking machines he could see the vague outline of soldiers from another brigade advancing. These men would leapfrog the 19th and continue the push forward leaving German forces almost no time to exit their deep dugouts and defend against the infantry advance. Once again the sky filled with howling madness.
“Dig in. Over here, dig in.” Martin shouted to be heard. “Bernstein, get your machine gun working. Hurry. I need it now.”
Ten feet away Bernstein knelt on the ground and flipped open the front legs that steadied the gun. Kirby stretched beside him and readied a belt of ammunition. The rest of Martin’s platoon fanned out along a low ledge of sandbags. Nully crouched nearby waiting for orders. A group of signallers began to dig a cable trench, two of them carried a huge roll of cable wire. Shells burst to their left.
“How are we supposed to know whether it’s clear up ahead?” Nully’s mouth was only an inch from Martin’s ear.
“I don’t fucking know. Kendal!” Martin called to his signals corporal and the man wiggled close. “Can you reach Butler?”
“No, sir. Our lines aren’t working yet.”
The unfolding scene looked anything but orderly as clumps of men, scattered over a wide swath, made their way up the ridge. Martin and Nully looked at one another. Martin dipped his head only once. They would proceed.
With a sudden spit of rifle fire, Kirby toppled over. Bernstein’s gun fired in return spraying shells in a narrow arc at the source of German attack. Lawson took up Kirby’s post while Martin motioned for three of his platoon to go forward and destroy the enemy’s position. Martin watched as they crawled forward. When he heard their grenades explode followed by the sound of screaming he twisted his mouth into something resembling a smile.
Imagine what it was like. Just imagine.