A defining chapter of Canadian history began 100 years ago Sunday: the battle of Vimy Ridge.
Percy Leland Kingsley’s journey through the First World War began in 1914.
He was a young man in his late 20’s, riding freight trains across the Canada and the US, looking for work in a tough economy.
When war broke out overseas, he was one of the first to volunteer. It didn’t take long before he found himself on the front lines.
“His first serious battle was the second battle of Ypres where the German’s had them outgunned and the Canadians and the British had to retreat. The Germans also gassed them,” said Patricia Thomas, Kingley’s granddaughter. “He saw a lot of soldiers die from gas poisoning.”
Thomas has been a curator of Kingely’s story.
She said Kingsley was wounded in his next battle in Festubert, where a shell explosion hurt his arm and leg.
Undeterred, Thomas said her grandfather was eager to get back into battle.
But he wanted to serve his country in a different way.
“He and one of his old-time buddies decided if they stayed as privates on the front lines, they would just be killed. They decided that would be like a sitting duck, so they joined the Scout Service,” Thomas said.
As a scout, Kingsley was commissioned to draw maps while dodging bullets.
“So he was always mapping the trenches and sneaking around out there and running messages between trenches. A lot of scouts died,” Thomas said.
Kingsley pressed on, eventually landing in Vimy in 1916, about a year before the battle.
“He was crossing into no man’s land, patrolling for Germans and then going back and mapping things,” Thomas said. “He continued to do that until the April battle.”
The military would use that intelligence to train the soldiers and to plan a well-organized attack.
“And because they had all these maps, they actually knew where they were on the battlefield, which was often not the case,” Thomas said. “So many people tried to take Vimy Ridge, the British and the French and of course the Canadians managed to capture the hill (which) was so important.”
Nearly 3,300 died in the attack and more than 10,000 were wounded.
Some were Kingsley’s close friends.
“He basically inoculated himself to see people die continuously,” Thomas said. “He became impervious to somebody blowing up right next to him. Otherwise, you know of all the cases of shell shock.”
Thomas talked about one story, in particular, her grandfather wrote about after the war.
“He talks about a new guy who had come in and he was with one of his best friends. They were with grandpa, scouting,” Thomas said. “A shell came in and blew up the new guy’s friend, right beside him, and he says how the guy just fell apart and he couldn’t function. And he talks about how those guys haven’t inoculated themselves to the horror that they live with.”
Thomas said the war was constantly on Kingsley’s mind after he came home.
She said he lived and breathed the war the rest of his life, often talking to his family about it.
“They were teenage girls and they didn’t want to hear about all this stuff, so he started writing his book,” Thomas said. “It’s very well-written. He had a great memory for detail and description.”
That book, “The First World War as I Saw It,” was eventually published, but Thomas has yet to decide what to do with the original manuscript.
“The Saskatchewan regiment here, they want this original book because they want to keep it here in Saskatchewan, because he was a Humboldt boy.”
Kingsley lived to be 95 years old.