A Letter From a Soldier Who Served During the Vimy Attack: Graphic Description of Vimy Ridge

A letter from Lieutenant Stuart Cameron Kirkland published in the Aylmer Express, May 24,1917 and edited for clarity:



Some of the Sights Encountered

Lieut. Stuart C. Kirkland, who is now in England recovering from a wound in his arm received at the battle of Vimy Ridge, writes the following exceedingly interesting letter to his brother, John Dutton:

“Now that I am laid up in dry dock for repairs, I will have time to write more. Just a week ago yesterday morning I got mine. I had better try and tell you about it as well as I can without violating any of the censorship laws.

Well, we knew of course for some time before that we were going to take part in a big offensive. We had been practicing and rehearsing the details for several days, but didn’t know the hour it was to start till the very night before. Then the officers were informed of the zero hour (the zero hour is the hour at which the attack begins). All watches were synchronized, that is compared and set the same, so that there could be no mistake. [All the battalions] taking part were to be in the front line trenches ready by the appointed hour. Well our battalion moved off from billets early on Sunday evening and marched to our part of the line where we were to go over[i]. It was one o’clock in the morning before I had my platoon in position in their jumping-off trench, and we stood there in mud to our waists all night waiting for the eventful hour. It can never describe my feelings as I stood there waiting for the moment to come. At a certain hour our artillery was all to open on Fritz’s front line and we were to jump out and advance near as possible, ready to rush his front line when our artillery fire raised[ii]. About fifteen minutes before the time set, I took two water bottles of rum[iii] and gave each of the men a good swallow, for it was bitter cold standing in the mud all night. Then I stood with watch in hand, waiting, waiting!

Precisely on the moment the most wonderful artillery barrage ever known in the history of the world started. Hundreds, thousands of big guns, from 18-pounders to 15-inch guns opened at the same second.  Imagine 15-inch guns firing from miles behind the line and throwing each of them about 1,100 pounds of explosives. The very earth rocked, and the noise and thunder was awful and maddening.  Then I jumped over the top and called to the boys to come on. I had gone about 15 yards when I felt a stinging sensation and looking down saw a trickle of blood on my left hand. A Heinie [German] machine gun had got me. At the same time a sergeant just to my right crumpled up in a heap, riddled with machine gun bullets. How lucky I was!  I can never thank God enough for my escape.  It was miraculous. How [I only got] one instead of a dozen, I can never tell, and through the left arm of all places, when it might just as well as not have been through my head.

I dived into a shell hole and got my arm tied up a bit. A wounded man came along and I helped to bandage him up in return for his helping me to tie [my] own up. By that time our company was ahead of me, into Fritz’s front line and following our barrage on to the second line. Our men, you know, were going ahead on a frontage of 12 miles long. Thousands and thousands of men, imagine the scene if you can.

I got up and started ahead again but I found my arm was going to be a bother, so I turned back to go to a dressing station. By this time the German artillery was throwing everything they had at our old front line and on No Man’s Land to harass our support coming up[iv]. It took me a long while to get back the few yards to our front liens [lines]. Heinie shells were dropping all around me. I got into a mine crater[v] with a couple of other wounded men, but a big shell dropped on the other side and then one dropped right in the crater not far from us, and we thought it time to leave those parts. We finally got into a front line, but a long way from where I had gone out a while before. The first thing I saw when I got into the trench was an officer[vi] I knew lying badly wounded and his batman[vii] near him dead. Just then a Heinie came along on his way to the rear. Hundreds of prisoners go back that way without escort. Our boys, when they surrendered, gave them a kick and told them to keep moving toward our rear, where they gathered them in droves and put them in big wired enclosures. The Heinie who came along while I was examining the wounded officer happened to be a Red Cross fellow, so I got him to bandage the wounds. Then we got the officer into a deep dugout out of harm and I continued my way out[viii].

In one place where the trench had been blown in and it was very narrow, I came on a poor fellow lengthwise of the trench and everyone had been tramping right over him till he was almost buried in the mud. Of course he was dead so I suppose it didn’t inconvenience him any. But imagine the sensation of having to tramp on dead bodies. In another place I came on one of my own company lying with both legs blown off at the knees, but still alive and conscious. I stopped and talked to him a few minutes. Scenes like this are not uncommon in war[ix].

After dodging shells for some time and seeing more than one party of men blown to atoms, I finally found a dressing station. The doctor sent me down the line after dressing my arm, and after passing through the field ambulance and then to C.C.S. [Casualty Clearing Station], I was put on a hospital train for Boulogne, where I stayed just one night and was then packed into a hospital ship and ultimately arrived in Dover, thence by rail to Reading and here I am.

I will tell you more of my experiences in next letter. I may say just here that the Canadians “got there” anyway and showed they could fight as well as anyone and a little better than Heinie. We had him beat to a “farewell”.

Well, I must close. My arm is doing nicely and doesn’t pain much. It was a lucky scratch. The bullet went through clean as a dollar

[i] The War Diary for April 8, 1917 relates that the battalion comprised of 12 Companies with 600 men in the Battalion. This is under-strength by almost 50 percent as the nominal roll at full strength to a Canadian battalion was approximately 1,000 to 1,200 men with a most typical complement at 1,100. Even after the experience at the Somme in September 1915 until April 1917 the losses from wastage had not been made up.

[ii] This is a reference to a new technique in combined arms. Previous attack artillery barrages would fire on enemy positions and then, at an appointed time, stop. The Canadians used a “creeping barrage” wherein the artillery would fire at a specific position and the infantry would advance up towards 100 yards behind the barrage. The barrage would then “lift” and proceed to the next target or objective and the infantry would move into the previously shelled area and engage the enemy. This method of combined arms coordination was instrumental in the success of the attack.

[iii] See Tim Cook’s excellent article about the roll of Rum in the Canadian Army during World War 1.

[iv] An interesting contrast to the 18th Battalion’s war diary which described the German artillery: “The enemy barraged “No-man’s-land” for about 15 minutes, after which his Artillery fire became very indiscriminate”

[v] A specific reference to the type of crater he was in. Mine craters were larger than shell craters. Possibly Zivy or Philip crater(s).

[vi] There were 3 other officers wounded that day. Lieutenants W.G. Worth, C.E. Tuck, and W.K. Rooney. It is not known to whom Lt. Kirkland refers.

[vii] Officer’s assistant. Usually a non-commissioned officer or private who attended to the needs of the officer. Also called an “officer’s servant”.

[viii] An interesting reference. The officer was probably too badly wounded to escort out under fire and needed to be evacuated by stretcher bearers.

[ix] This last passage speaks to the horrors of war.


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