On Sunday, April 9, 2017, we mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place during the First World War.
At that point, it was Canada's largest force ever fielded and its four divisions fought together for the first time and achieved a victory on a position previously thought impregnable. It gained Canada international praise and led to greater independence. But it came at a cost.
On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, Canada suffered 10,000 casualties in one day, Canada's greatest single-day loss in a war that spanned four years. At least 156 Toronto Police members fought in the Great War, and four of its 27 members killed in action fell at Vimy Ridge. Their loss remains a poignant reminder of the tragedy of war. This is the story of Toronto Police Constables Robert Cunningham Clarke, William Henry Haynes, Andrew Johnson, and Samuel Henry MacGowan.
In the early 1910s, Toronto was Canada's second largest city, with a population of 380,000 souls. The Toronto Police Force, as it was then called, was responsible for keeping the peace with a strength of about 600 police officers and a handful of civilian employees.
The summer of 1914 would see the world change forever. A complex system of competing alliances and empires throughout Europe resulted in the “July Crisis,” unleashing a chain of events in which, among other declarations of war, Germany invaded Belgium and France. Great Britain, bound by friendship and treaties, in turn declared war on Germany. Canada, a Dominion of the British Empire, was automatically at war.
Many Canadians, including many Toronto Police members sworn and civilian, joined the military, eager to defend their values and “do their bit” for King and Country. Even a contingent of Toronto's police horses were donated for service with the artillery (sadly, only “Bunny” would survive the war).
Service members being remembered for their contribution at Vimy:
- Police Constable No. 274 Samuel Henry MacGowan, an Irish immigrant, joined the Toronto Police Force in 1911 at 23 years old. His post was the downtown No. 1 Police Station, on Court Street near Church Street. “Sam” lived with his brother, Hugh, at 733 Markham Street.
- Police Constable No. 374 Andrew Johnson, also born in Ireland, joined the Force in 1912 when he was just 20 years old. He policed Parkdale from the No. 6 Police Station at Queen Street West and Cowan Avenue.
- Police Constable No. 451 William Henry Haynes, an English immigrant, also joined the Toronto Police Force in 1912, at 25 years old. He policed the west end of the city from No. 9 Police Station at Keele Street, near what is now Dundas Street West. He was married to Lillie Haynes and had two young children.
- Police Constable No. 540 Robert Cunningham Clarke, another young man from Ireland, lived at 129 Alexander Street. He had previous police experience, serving with the Royal Irish Constabulary. At 28 years old, Clarke became a Toronto Police officer. It was now 1914.
The newly formed Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was sent, piece by piece, to the battleground known as the Western Front.
When old-fashioned tactics met new battlefield technologies, such as quick-firing artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire, the front lines devolved into a system of trench warfare (the muddy, miserable trench would become the enduring image of the war), where both sides dug in to defensive positions. The barren area between the two sides became known as No-Man's Land and was littered with shellholes, debris, and corpses. The trench lines ran through Belgium and France, all the way from the North Sea to neutral Switzerland's border. Attacks up and down the line would be repeatedly launched and repelled. Even more barbaric weapons such as poison gas and flamethrowers would be invented to try and dislodge the defenders and break the stalemate, yet the stalemate continued.
In August 1915, Constable Andrew Johnson put his career on hold and joined the 83rd (Queen's Own Rifles of Canada) Battalion. Constable Robert Cunningham Clarke enlisted with the 92nd (48th Highlanders) Battalion in September 1915. Both the Queen's Own Rifles and 48th Highlanders are still active today in Toronto. In the early-winter months of 1916, Constable William Henry Haynes and Constable Samuel Henry MacGowan enlisted in Toronto's 180th (Sportsmen) Battalion, which recruited local amateur athletes. All the men sailed to England to train for battle. The policemen were natural leaders, and all were promoted up the ranks – Clarke to Corporal and the others to Sergeant.
Clarke's unit was broken up for reinforcements and he arrived in France, now with the 42nd (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion, 3rd Canadian Division, and reached the front in August 1916. In November, during the Battle of Ancre Heights, Clarke was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the head.
In the early-winter months of 1917, Allied commanders devised a plan to break the inertia in the Arras sector. Canadian forces, who had been fighting for the past few years in separate units and divisions spread throughout the British army, were to be massed as the Canadian Corps, near the enemy strongpoint on Vimy Ridge. The high ground was held by tough Bavarian units of the German army, and the position withstood years of attacks by British and French forces. Its commanding view of the sector was strategically important.
Meanwhile, in England, Johnson, Haynes, and MacGowan were all eager to join the fight and reverted to the rank of Private in order to be sent to France as replacements. Upon arrival, they became members of the 75th (Mississauga) Battalion – today known as the Toronto Scottish Regiment – in the 4th Canadian Division. They reached the front lines in February 1917, where the battalion was positioned near Vimy. On March 1, they withstood some of the worst horrors of the war, when their unit took part in a disastrous reconnaissance raid where, during the attack, Canadian chlorine gas blew back in their own direction while the enemy unleashed devastating fire on the struggling troops.
Clarke, now discharged from hospital, rejoined his 42nd Battalion which was also positioned near Vimy.
Leading up to the anticipated offensive, the Canadian General Arthur Currie, aside from the reconnaissance raids, employed innovative new strategy in which his troops would conduct realistic battle rehearsals. In between stints in the trenches, the men drilled constantly on their roles and objectives. Secret mines and subways were built under No Man's Land to get troops through some of the killing fields, and, for the final week leading up to the attack, Canada unleashed its largest-ever artillery bombardment on the defenders of Vimy Ridge. Once the attack was launched, the artillery would switch to a “creeping barrage” which moved ahead of the advancing infantry.
In the cold early-morning hours of April 9, the day now at hand, the men were given rum rations and mugs of tea as they nervously waited for zero hour.
At 5:30 a.m., a flare went up, infantry officers blew their whistles, and the men surged “over the top,” advancing forward and uphill. They gripped their rifles and tucked their chins into their collars as if the flying shrapnel were a rainstorm. Constable Clarke was in this first wave of attacking troops. His 42nd Battalion reached and captured its first objectives by 7 a.m., where they paused to regroup.
Further north, Constables Johnson, Haynes and MacGowan's 75th Battalion was following lead elements of the push towards Hill 145 (the high point of the ridge), who were taking heavy casualties. By 8 a.m., they had advanced further uphill but their brigade was in trouble – the lead battalions were decimated and the 75th were now in the front line pinned down taking heavy machine-gun fire.
While they were held up, Clarke's unit further south was further forward, and therefore exposed. They started taking increasingly heavy fire, and were ordered to dig in to protect their brigade’s flank. Over the next four hours, they suffered 200 casualties.
The battle raged on throughout the day. Clarke's 3rd Division would be the first to hold their section of the ridge and look out to the plains beyond. Johnson, Haynes, and MacGowan's 4th Division fought for Hill 145 into the following day, where it ultimately succeeded.
It is not known at which point the four men fell that day, or if any of them even knew the battle was won.
News of the victory spread throughout the world, and many historians argue it was at this point that Canada came of age – Canadians ceased to think of themselves as a collection of former colonies but a unified nation, capable of achieving great things. The Canadian Corps went on to achieve many more great victories and, when the war was over, Canada had its own seat at the League of Nations (the precursor to today's United Nations). Canada's political and diplomatic independence grew from there into the system we are proud of today.
This April 9, remember the Toronto Police officers whose bravery and ultimate sacrifice, one hundred years ago, helped make Canadian history and end the Great War. Sadly, the “War to End All Wars” was not the last, and Toronto Police members continue to serve our country overseas pursuing a better world.
Lest We Forget.
- H. Grasett – Annual Report of the Chief Constable of the City of Toronto, Nominal and Descriptive Roll of the Toronto Police Force. (1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917 editions).
- Library and Archives Canada – Personnel Records of the First World War; War Diaries of the 42nd Battalion; War Diaries of the 75th Battalion; Circumstances of Death Registers.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Casualty Details.
- Toronto Public Library – Historical Newspapers Database.
- A. Turner – Vimy Ridge 1917: Byng's Canadians Triumph at Arras. Osprey Publishing 2005.
- J.L. Granatstein – Hell's Corner: An Illustrated History of Canada's Great War 1914-1918. Douglas & McIntyre 2004; Victory at Vimy Ridge. The Vimy Foundation 2017.
- Veterans Affairs Canada – Historical Fact Sheets – Battle of Vimy Ridge.
- D. Morton – Significance of Vimy Ridge. The Vimy Foundation 2017