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Veterans 1914-1918

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Graphical element: Rendering first aid to a wounded Canadian soldier

Vimy Ridge

In this section:

Interview with E.S. Russenholt: 44th Battalion
Transcript Excerpt, 16 minutes, 26 seconds

A. Oh, my, on Vimy I don't know how anything could have stopped us at Vimy but remember this wasn't only the training over the tapes, it wasn't only morale, it was that we had mastered our job.

Q. It takes some time to make an amateur army professional-minded.

A. It certainly does. Oh yes.

Q. Don't you think that's the root of it?

A. Oh, yes, I think that's the basis of the whole show. This is a job (yeah) and before you can turn out skilled workmen they've got to do a lot of training. Here again, I spoke of Colonel Davis, here was one of the things that he knew. We appreciated that. And he drummed it into us all the time. Training, training, training, training. Now, not right turn, left turn, shining buttons and son, although he was death on that too, but training, training, master that gun, master that gun. And I remember every time that we were out from the line, as I was gun sergeant, I had classes going all the time, on those guns, even with a bunch of old-timers. We used to say that our gunners got so good, you know, that if they could dissemble a gun, put it in a scoop shovel and throw it in the air, it'd come down assembled and shoot.

Q. Well, all this did pay off, did it not? When it came to Vimy Ridge?

A. Vimy was an entirely different story. We were an entirely [different] army, than at the Somme. And I suppose, I suppose that some of the terrible things that happened at the Somme were of some benefit. You know, in turning out the type of army that we had at Vimy. Oh yes, oh my yes. Vimy was, I think Vimy was the high day for the Canadian Corps and I'm not overlooking the 100 days either. … was achieved then, but this was the first great victory.

Q. Yes, and furthermore it was the first time that the entire operated as a corps…

A. There was one thing I was saying a little while ago, about the training of our unit and also its morale. You see, at Vimy, yes at Vimy, we were to go over on the very left of the front from the Pimple to the right but a unit or two had been run into tremendously heavy opposition to the south of us on the morning of the 9th. I think my dates are right, and so we were pulled out from our front. We went back, went south to that front, jumped off the following morning and went over at Hill 145. And the training was so - had reached such a high pitch that we were able to go over on that strange ground and I'm sure there was very short briefing by the OC officers, sometime during the night. And I can remember him, he was a true soldier, we got out from the music hall trenches and went over some stubble field, was way behind the Ridge. In artillery formation and you could see to the left of us another outfit and the OC was walking out in front with his cane, you know, and his head up and his shoulders back and so on. And then we started to go up the slope and broke into extended order and it was all done just like on parade ground. The training was just perfect. And we went over and took that Hill 145 and down the other side, and then we were relieved and came back reorganized. We had some casualties, but this, again is the result of tremendously good training. Casualties don't hurt as much as they did, for instance at the Somme. So we reorganized again and the next morning in a snowstorm went over at our original front. We had gone over the tapes for that and knew it like the back of our hand. But what I'm getting at is that with such superb training we were able to go over on that strange front and do the job that was required and then come back and go over on our own front as well. This is true. Now, there is one thing I think I should mention, I have stressed training because this is the very basis of success in war. First, appreciation of the job, and then second, training to do it. But at Vimy, mind you, there has been a tremendously thorough preparations over a long, long time. I can remember on a sunny spring day, very, very - oh it must have been the end of March - first day or two in April - I can remember somehow or other breaking from whatever it was we were doing that afternoon and going over a little valley to Nordian Ridge and the sun was fairly warm and there was a little corner of a stone fence that was still standing and I sat down with my back against the stone that the sun was warming and beating on me, you know. Watching to the south the fire of the artillery and I remember very well counting the number of seconds that a shell took to go. When the gun boomed and I could see it land on the Ridge. Now this was a, now this was a continual persistent process. It was going on all the time. Then the lads in the tenth machine gun company, at that time we were machine gun companies, latter battalions, told me that they were firing up to a hundred thousand per night per gun, (rounds) using two or three barrels, in a single gun, a maxim gun. And that they were covering all roads, they were firing by vacuum… and covering all roads, junctions and so on, and this was during the 24 hours, not continuously but at intervals, at frequent intervals, covering all those road junctures. The prisoners who were taken at the Pimple, on the second of retire, said that they hadn't had, these were Prussian guards, the very cream of the German Army, said that they hadn't had food come up for a couple days. And we always attributed that to very effective coverage of our machine gun. … artillery machine gun fire on the first slope of the Ridge. So that there was preparation as well as training.

Q. Yes, well-prepared, I guess, the wire was quite well cut.

A. The wire was cut and we went over on the Ridge on Hill 145, and I saw something that I wouldn't have believed. The machine gun fire had been so persistent and so heavy that I saw barbed wire that being blown up by the heavies, the heavies go into the ground and tear it up and go up loose and then fall loose on the ground and the machine gun fire was so thick and heavy and so persistent that I saw balls of it rolled up as thick and big as that chair and beaten as hard as iron. Just rolled up with machine gun fire like that. Now, this is incredible. But it's true nevertheless. I saw it on Hill 145. (Isn't that amazing) So this had been going on for a long time and it was very thorough.

Q. Do you remember the prisoners that day? I gather you took quite a few.

A. I've forgotten the number but there were a considerable number, yes. I remember going up to have a look at my guns after the show quietened down a little bit, you know, go along the line, meeting a chap by the name of Marrow, we called him Frowsy Marrow, he was a great lad. And he was in command of a whole bunch of these prisoners coming back and they naturally looked beaten up, but they were pretty fine troops. They were pretty fine troops. This was particularly true on the second attack. These men were good soldiers, good troops. But our fellows… both talking…

Q. Well, did you stay in there that night or did you come out?

A. No, we went down the far side of the Ridge on the second day of attack and came out that same night. An Imperial division came, took over from us, went through us and went on to attack, I believe the next morning, and ran into some very stiff opposition and this was on a very level plain there and was down ahead and we didn't take the ground for quite a long time afterward. But we were relieved that night and came back and peculiarly enough we came back to Winnipeg Hut on Rhonelle Ridge, on Notre Dame de Lorette, pardon me, and we were there the next morning and a peculiar thing was that I was sleeping, we were all tired and just flopped down in a great big shed there and … who was our adjutant came along to me and said "Good morning, Mr. Russenholt", so I said, "Thank you very much". He said "Get the Sam Brown and come into the mess" and this was the notification that I had that my promotion…

Q. Oh, that's very nice. You were commissioned right on the field, then. What do you recall of the actual attack on the Pimple?

A. Oh, it was a very ordered attack. Now here again there had been tremendous preparation, immediately behind us an entire battalion, I think, 152nd were as a carrying and working party, and I know after I had gone over my guns that was coming back to find some company HQ or something already, right behind here were established great dumps of loose -- Lewis gun pans and Mills grenades were right up behind us. So again there was very, very thorough preparation. And very fine support, very fine support. About the attack itself, I remember - oh I can remember, go to the morning of the 9th first - I remember when we were in some dugouts on our side of the Ridge and in the morning, you'd always look at your watch, and in the morning before the barrage would start we'd go out and have a look at a barrage and we ourselves were not involved and it was just like a continuous sheet of lightning, it was just like a prairie fire, as it were, behind us and it was utterly dark still, pitch black, and you could hear this tremendous switch of the shells overhead and then the explosion out front. Just a continuous crash along the line, this was the most spectacular fireworks ever saw or hope to see, if I go to heaven. I will never see anything like it. That was the morning of the 9th. We were in a very favoured position for it because we were some distance up on the slope of the Ridge, you see. And could look back over Zouave Valley and then the guns were up on higher ground, away to the rear again. You see, and we were in a very favoured position. And when those shells started to crash in line on the enemy positions, it was just like fireworks, with of course tremendous noise back of the Somme. Well, on that we went over the Pimple, the Pimple was just a little raise of ground, on the very left of our positions, on Vimy Ridge (both talking) … on the very left of our position, now there was one battalion position further to the left, but it was the very left of our position, on Vimy Ridge. It was to the left of a long string of mine craters which had been blown up, been blown up over the years and so on. It was a little bit to the left of that, from our position we used to watch it very carefully. We always had a couple of guns, Lewis guns, trained on it from our front line and at times a bunch of our fellows would get a little, this old initiative you know, they would get a little enthusiastic and they would creep out through the wire and go down to the edge of quite a deep hole that was there, I guess an old mine crater and the Pimple was right there, just over to the left in front of us, and once in a while for some reason you'd find Germans parties down in this hole and on two or three occasions, at least, maybe more, certainly two or three, my chaps would creep over there and take a Lewis gun with them and wait until they saw somebody and then they'd let fly and then of course they'd beat back to the front line because immediately the trench mortars'd start coming over, you see. But, so, the Pimple was this raise of ground, and this is the raise of ground on which the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice is raised, at the very north end of Vimy Ridge.

Q. This is the tailing-off of the Ridge too.

A. [both talking] … the very tailing, … … the very northern flank.

Q. Could you see Givenchy over the Ridge, or was that on the other side --- [both talking].

A. Not in our defensive position, no, you see he, the German always occupied the upper slope. This is where he chose to site his defensive positions. And we were down on our slope but a little lower, and it wasn't until that morning that morning of the 12th that we could see Givenchy away in the distance and away in the distance Lens. But this was the first time we'd seen it and as our fellows went ahead you could see the roads leading out of La Culloute. … and these towns and we actually could see the German limbers, galloping down these roads to the rear, the attack, I don't think they thought we were going to make it that day because they seemed to be caught unprepared. We actually saw them, and this of course, was a great sight, a great lift… great lift. I spoke, I spoke about Frowsy Marrow bringing the prisoners back and when I spoke to him I said, well how's she going Frowsy and he said, oh, if they gave us twenty degrees of frost and a good barrage we'd go right through to Berlin.

Q. The twenty degrees of frost, that was to harden the ground, I presume.

A. To harden the mud. The going was fairly slow, mind you, on the attack, on the Ridge but this had been provided for. There were no impossible schedules to keep up, you see. (Yes) I think it was three minutes to a hundred yards or something like this, or five minutes. There was ample time to make it.

Q. Your artillery support on this occasion, unlike the Somme, was superb.

A. Superb. And this again, I think we had the Lahore division behind us, along with others at that time. We, during that winter, developed tremendous confidence and reliance on the Lahore division of artillery, because they supported us in the raids that went over, you see, it helped to build up the morale. And we have a very soft spot in our heart for that artillery division.