Family Ties to Vimy Ridge
"This is a Canadian family story" remarked one woman in attendance at last Sunday's moving ceremony at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9 to 12, 1917. Hearing descendants tell stories of family members that participated in the battle was an emotional part of the day, and a reminder that thousands of Canadians have a personal connection to Vimy Ridge.
My personal connection with the Battle of Vimy Ridge is through my husband, whose grandfather, John William (Jack) Morris (1891-1959), was there in April 1917 with the 2nd Canadian Division, 6th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery.
Jack Morris was born at Sheffield, England on July 14, 1891, and came to Canada in 1912. He had taught school here for four years and was married with a baby on the way when at age 24 he volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Winnipeg on April 15, 1916. As an English-speaking Presbyterian and a recent British immigrant who had lived in both Manitoba (Stoney Mountain) and Ontario (Kenora), Jack was in a demographic with a high rate of enlistment.
Jack's attestation (enlistment) paper records many personal details. His height (5 feet 5½ inches), weight (125 lbs.) and chest measurement (minimum 32 inches, with maximum expansion, 34 inches), although small by today’s standards, were well above the minimum physical qualifications.
Jack was placed with the 190th Battalion on May 8, 1916, but in July he transferred to the recently-organized 76th Depot Battery CFA (Canadian Field Artillery). Although he had a lieutenant's certificate and had trained cadets in England, Jack was assigned the rank of gunner, the lowest in the artillery.
Gunner Morris arrived in England in August 1916, and was sent to France in late October. He was taken on strength as a reinforcement to the 2nd Canadian Division, 6th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery on October 27, 1916, the same day that his first child, Helena Vaughn (my mother-in-law), was born back in Kenora.
The Canadian artillery played a vital role in the outcome of the First World War. Canadian troops used artillery to defend against attack, prepare for assault, destroy trenches, and protect soldiers as they advanced toward enemy trenches. At the outset of the war, artillery was used as a mobile weapon but, as the war progressed and both sides became entrenched, it was increasingly used as a means of bombarding enemy trenches from fixed positions.
Jack was immediately thrown into battle at the Somme, October-November 1916, followed by participation at Arras and Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Artillery was the "key to victory" at Vimy Ridge, claims Canadian historian Tim Cook. A devastating artillery barrage not only isolated enemy trenches, but provided a moving wall of high explosives and shrapnel to force the Germans to stay in their deep dugouts and away from their machine-guns.
For more information on the Battle of Vimy Ridge, see our post, The Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917--One Hundred Years of Memory and Myth
At his request, Jack was transferred on June 7, 1917 to the 2nd Division Signal Company, which was attached to the 6th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery. In this capacity, Jack saw action at Hill 70, August 1917 and Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres), October-November, 1917.
In January 1918, after 15 months along the Western Front in France and Belgium, Jack fulfilled the one small dream that front-line soldiers allowed themselves: a “Blighty.” “This was the honourable wound,” historian Desmond Morton explains in When your numbers up, “that would release them from the squalor and terror of the trenches to a bed, sheets, regular meals, and the sight of a nursing sister.”
According to a biographical sketch published in Pioneers and Prominent People of Manitoba (1925) Jack was "wounded and gassed, 1918, Arras, invalided to England." However his war record indicates that his injury was a sprained ankle, which occurred when a horse fell on him. The incident was categorized as an “accident” rather than a “casualty,” and it had not been self inflicted.
Whatever the cause, Jack was sent back to England, where he spent the remainder of the war. In January 1919, he returned to Canada aboard the Empress of Britain to be reunited with his wife, Helena Ritchie, and meet his 28-month-old daughter for the first time. He was officially demobilized in Winnipeg on February 18, 1919.
Jack Morris was one of the lucky ones - he survived the war with only minor injuries and lived for another 40 years. The war's most lasting effects may have been his fondness for tobacco (my husband has strong memories of watching his grandfather roll his weekly supply of cigarettes) and his antithesis to Methodists, probably believing that they had not "done their bit" during the war.
Jack retained a strong belief in serving your country, and made no objection when his only son, John Alexander Morris (1923-2013), enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy as a teenager during the Second World War. (John rose to the rank of lieutenant and patrolled the North Atlantic in corvettes.)
Jack never returned to Europe, but some of his descendants have visited the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France in his honour, most recently great-grandson Rob Myrvold, who was there on April 7, 2017, a few days before the centennial ceremony.
First World War resources on Toronto Public Library's Digital Archive
Toronto Public Library's Special Collections Centre collects pictures, broadsides and printed ephemera, maps and manuscripts - letters, diaries and other unpublished documents - about the First World War. Click the preceding links to view items that are available on our Digital Archive. Some library materials specifically about Vimy were added recently to the Digital Archive for the 100th anniversary.
Selected items from the Library's collections have been featured in exhibits about the war, notably Doing our bit; Canadians and the Great War; Four families; one war; and Leonard L. Youell's war diary.
The following excerpt from Lieutenant Youell's diary records his observations on April 9, 1917, the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He was mentioned in despatches and awarded his first Military Cross (MC) for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the battle.
Toronto Public Library provides several helpful online databases for its customers to learn more about their family's contribution to the First World War. Ancestry Library Edition is a good place to start. Also useful are Early Canadiana Online, Globe and Mail Newspaper Archive and Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive .
Personnel Records of the First World War digitized by Library and Archives Canada is an invaluable source.
If you would like to share your family records about the experiences of Torontonians in the First World War, contact staff in Toronto Public Library's Special Collections Centre by phone (416-393-7156) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Finally, we encourage you to record your family's connection to the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the comments section below.