It’s known as the defining moment of Canada.
One hundred years ago – on April 9, 1917 – soldiers from four Canadian divisions united and attacked Vimy Ridge during the Great War.
It was a victory over German forces, but one that cost the lives of nearly 3,600 Canadians while injuring thousands of others.
Despite the many lives lost, Vimy Ridge is often cited as the beginning of Canada’s evolution from under Britain’s shadow to an independent country.
Countless Saskatchewan people were part of the fight at Vimy. They sent letters describing missed birthdays and celebrations, concerns about things at home and gratitude for care packages that came from afar.
These letters are now memorialized as part of the Canadian Letter & Images Project.
These are their stories from the frontline.
Charles Douglas Richardson
Charles Douglas Richardson was born in Grenfell, Sask. in December 1891. He enlisted in Regina in October 1915 and served with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry until his death at Vimy Ridge on April 9 or 10, 1917. He was 25 years old.
Just one month prior to the fight at Vimy, during a seemingly peaceful time, Richardson wrote his sister Cora, who just got married:
Since writing you last, I have been out of the trenches for quite a long rest, and am still enjoying the change that comes from living in a private house again. I don’t know when we shall be going back, but it will probably not be long now.
First allow me to offer my heartiest congratulations to you and Bill. I know you are very happy in your new home and I wish you a long lifetime of the best that life has to offer. I am sorry I could not have been at the happy event, but I am figuring on spending the anniversary of the day with you. I think I shall be safe in sampling the efforts of Madam cook after a year’s experiment.
I have written home pretty regularly so you may know all the news I am allowed to give you from here. We are comfortably situated among very hospitable people, and quite content to stay the extent of our allowed time here.
As I write I am in the kitchen of Madame Breant listening to or rather hearing the excited clatter of half a dozen lady friends of mine hostess, but my lack of knowledge of the language spares me the full appreciation of it.
I am anxiously waiting to hear all about the wedding and the new home so am just writing to remind you that I still receive mail when it chances to come.
I hope the 232nd will not be needed to finish the war. If you look for good war news this summer, you will not be disappointed.
With fondest love and the best of everything good as my wish,
I am your affectionate brother,
Upon Richardson’s death, a letter was sent home to his mother from a man, Frank J. Whiting, who recalled his final moments:
No doubt the authorities will have notified you long ere of the death of your son. I would have written sooner, but it was not until this morning that I could get the few details I wanted. At this late date, I would hesitate to write, did I not know that there is always a certain amount of doubt about an official notification of death.
Unfortunately in this case, there is not the slightest doubt as I saw the man who was with him at the end, and later buried him.
“Dick”, as we called him at College and in the regiment was with his company when they made their heroic charge on Vimy Ridge on April 9th. They took the first three lines of trenches, and had got as far as the Fotie Wood on the crest of the Ridge when a German shell landed, killing two outright, and mortally wounding Dick.
Two pieces passed into his abdomen, one piercing the bladder. Though badly hit, he walked part way to the dressing station, but was unable to complete the journey, and had to be carried on a stretcher. There he was laid in a partial shelter from flying fragments. He seemed in great pain for a time, though he said little, and only asked for a doctor.
Unfortunately, a medical doctor could not be brought just then, but it would have been useless as he was dying even then. Half an hour later or so, the pain went away, and he seemed to fall asleep. This gently passed into unconsciousness, in which state he died.
As far as I can gather from questioning the stretcher bearers, he gave no final message when he knew he was dying, but if I can see anyone in the future whom he spoke to, I will send it on to you. That night he was buried in the wood and a white cross with his name and regiment marks the spot.
To me, Dick (I never learned his Christian name) was something more than my senior at College, or comrade-in-arms. He always typified everything that was straight and clean and worthwhile. I am a better man through having known him and many others can say the same.
He was pure gold right through and possessed an intelligence that lifted him far above the petty things of life. When I welcomed him back to Company after his period in England, I chided him on coming out so soon after he was convalescent from his wound.
But apparently he thought he had not done quite his bit and could not hang around hospitals longer than he was absolutely obliged to.
In writing these feeble lines, I have tried to convey to you the place your son held in the hearts of all who knew him. You, his mother, will appreciate him best, I know, and grieve the most, but there are many of us who claim the honour to share the feeling.
If it should be that I am spared to return to Canada, I should deem it a high privilege to meet and grasp the hand of the mother of “Dick” – Prince of men.
Believe me, I remain
Yours in deepest sympathy,
Frank J. Whiting
George Albert Charles Broome
English-born George Albert Charles Broome moved to Melfort before the war, enlisting in March 1915. He was wounded at the battle of the Somme and paralyzed at Vimy Ridge.
Broome was sent to a military hospital in England, where he’d die in the fall at 20 years old.
He wrote back to his local paper in January 1917:
Just a line to you and my old friends to let you know that I am still alive and among the shells yet.
How is everything around Melfort? I get very little news these days and forgotten what a paper looks like. I should very much like to hear all the news from somebody.
I suppose you know I was wounded on Sept. 26 last at the Somme. I had quite a hole in my right arm, but I am pretty healthy and was back in six weeks. I also had a few cuts last March from a rifle grenade and was away eight or ten days.
There are very few of the fellows left that I came out with. Jack Pyett, Alf Mitchell, Jesse James and myself are about all of the Melfort boys.
I have been a machine gunner since last June. I was in the battalion section until a few days ago and I am with a company section now. It is interesting work and rather exciting at times.
We are a pretty lucky bunch. We came out for a rest before Christmas and are out yet and we are certainly enjoying it. The machine gun section had a banquet a few days before New Year’s and we had a great time.
Well I suppose everything is froze up now and skating is in full swing. I wish I was back among the ice and snow. We have nothing but rain and mud here and it gets pretty cold at times and makes everything miserable in general. I hope the war will end soon and let us all get out of France.
Well I think I will close now, so good-bye, wishing you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year.
Editor’s Note: Some letters were edited for clarity.