VIMY RIDGE: Family in France to honour Kamloops war hero
By Jessica Wallace - April 7, 2017 | Kamloops This week (KTW)
The ground to be covered was pockmarked by shell holes from three months of systematic artillery fire. The result was a vast expanse of small lakes linked up by the rims of shell craters. The 72nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were given the left flank of the attack, a most dangerous position where they would be exposed to enfilade fire. Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, found the 72nd settled down in Gobron Tunnell near the front where they were supplied with hot soup and sandwiches just prior to the attack.
At 5:00 a.m., they filed from the tunnel and into the waiting trenches. The weather was bad, a combination of sleet and snow which fortunately blew toward the enemy lines. At 5:30 a.m., protected by a tremendous artillery barrage, the Canadians, with the 72nd on the left, moved out, weaving their way through a maze of shell holes, some 20 to 30 feet across and six to seven feet deep. On the 72nd Battalion front, two heavy mines were blown under the first German line and this was taken before the enemy could recover.
Meanwhile, Lt. Desmond Vicars left with a small hand of men on special mission to outflank the German’s’ second line. Even though most of his men had become casualties, Lt. Vicars, Sgt. J. McWhinney and Cpl. H. Matthews proceeded to attack the 400-yard length of German trench.
— Vicars’ family records
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Desmond Vicars didn’t talk much about the war. His boys knew he was a good shot from their hunting excursions together and they knew his caved-in chest was the result of a battle wound that nearly killed him — but otherwise, it was largely a “no-go subject.”
“On the other hand, us kids didn’t ask,” said Tom Vicars, the 67-year-old son of the First World War hero. “We just didn’t pay attention. Simple and easy. Now, at this point in life, I’d like to pepper him with all sorts of stuff. It doesn’t mean he would say a lot. Think of it. At 19, you go through those things, you see all that, I’m sure you’re somewhat scarred. He didn’t show it. But I’m sure there’s times where you’d wake up in the middle of the night and think, you know, how lucky I am to even be alive. Let alone everything else that came with it.”
About 3,600 Canadians died a century ago during the battle of Vimy Ridge, including 12 men from Kamloops. The iconic battle during the First World War is a point of national pride, marking the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought as one formation.
Then-19-year-old Desmond was among the lucky to return home to Kamloops. On Nov. 17, 1917, he became the youngest officer to receive the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.), an honour rarely seen among his rank and second only to the Victoria Cross.
“He would have had to do something very, very special,” local war historian Jeff Lodge told KTW.
The D.S.O. medal is behind glass in Desmond’s former house, which is on a street bearing his family’s name in Valleyview. The home at 167 Vicars Rd. now belongs to Tom and his wife Val, who moved in after Tom’s parents died.
While Desmond may not have revealed many details about Vimy Ridge and what led to him being presented a medal by King George V, his boys — son Patrick, 64, also lives in the city — have compiled numerous records over the years and KTW dug into newspaper articles at the Kamloops Museum and Archives, with help from archivist Scott Owens and Lodge, to help tell the story.
The news arrived in Kamloops on June 15, 1917, buried on page eight of the Kamloops Daily Standard-Sentinel:
A cable from Col. Vicars received this week by Mrs. Vicars, conveys the gratifying news that her son, Lieut. Desmond Vicars, has been awarded the D.S.O. by King George. Lieut. Vicars is at present in hospital at Calais, but his many friends and admirers are pleased to know that he is on the road to recovery.
Having grown up in a military family — the Rocky Mountain Rangers eventually named their armoury on McGill Road in honour of Desmond’s father, John — Desmond was active and keen for experience at a young age. He enlisted at 17, joined the 172nd battalion of which his father was commander and was eventually drafted overseas with the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in Vancouver to join the battle of Vimy Ridge.
The Highlanders were part of the 4th Canadian Infantry Division. Its goal was to capture Hill 145, the highest point. A book on the regiment, compiled by Bernard McEvoy and Capt. A. H. Finlay and published in 1920, recounts Desmond’s heroism:
The battle in which the Battalion was now bearing its part, facing the long and sinister slope of Vimy Ridge was a very comprehensive and tremendous assault in which there were roughly 120,000 men in the storming line with 40,000 advancing behind them. But it will be worth while just here to record the gallant exploit of Lieut. D. O. Vicars, D.S.O., and Pte. McWhinney . . .
Vicars and McWhinney together with a mere handful of men worked around to the right flank of Clutch trench. Almost all of Lieut. Vicars’ men were casualties by the time he reached the trench, but Vicars, accompanied by McWhinney and Cpl. “Hat” Matthews began what was one of the most memorable flats in the Battalion’s history. Armed chiefly with bombs which they manipulated with unerring efficiency, the three proceeded to take, unaided, about 400 yards of the strongly held German support line.
Slipping from traverse to traverse along the trench, the dauntless trio advanced, clearing or partially clearing each bay by throwing bombs into it before entering and finishing the job with revolver and cold steel. Time after time Boches [German soldiers] braver and more cunning than the rest attempted to waylay them by lying in wait in the doorways of their dugouts, only to be met by a courage and resource more dealing than their own.
Pushing the now thoroughly demoralized Boches before them, the three continued their advance until practically the whole trench on the Battalion front was cleared. Aided by the arrival of the frontal attacking troops, they drove the completely routed Bavarians to their destruction in the heavy ‘standing barrage,’ which was protecting the left flank of the attack. This is but an example of what was done on that glorious and eventful day. Of the heroic work of the rest of the Battalion, no praise can be too laudatory.
Desmond was wounded on May 1, 1917, when shrapnel from an airburst caught him, injuring his left arm, chest and upper back. His sons debunked a report indicating his injuries were due to gunshot wounds. Apparently left for dead at the casualty-clearing station, Desmond endured a long recovery before returning to Kamloops in December 1917.
“And he still had some shrapnel left in him until the day he died,” Tom said.
Back at the hospital, Edmonton Journal foreign correspondent Anne Merrill interviewed Desmond. Her article was published in the Standard-Sentinel on Nov. 23, 1917, before he returned to Kamloops, and included the following excerpt:
“How old are you?”
“Twenty . . . according to the militia.”
But really, I insisted.
Shyly, he confessed to 19.
“As far as the army knew, he was 20, but realistically? No,” Tom said. “Very young when you think about it.”
Questioned about the D.S.O., Desmond told the Journal he had “nothing to say.”
. . . all the particulars I can give you are the few meagre lines from the Gazette, Merrill wrote. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion in operations. On reaching the objective only two of his platoon remained, but with the greatest coolness he attacked about 50 of the enemy, bayoneting several himself causing numerous casualties and taking eight prisoners, driving the rest away. His conduct was magnificent throughout.
Another piece of information you won’t find in the papers was Desmond’s regard for First Nations soldiers, Patrick said.
“Dad held them in high regard as soldiers and he said they never really got — they were treated as equals when they were there, but when they came back, it was never the same thing,” Patrick said.
Upon return, Desmond followed in his father’s footsteps, eventually taking charge of the Rocky Mountain Rangers. He trained soldiers in England during the Second World War. Desmond married twice. His first wife, Katherine Johnstone, died of tuberculosis, then he married Constance Clark and, while in his 50s, fathered Tom and Patrick. Desmond went on to live out the rest of his life in Kamloops before dying in 1985, in his late 80s, “primarily of old age,” Tom said.
“When you look back on it, for his injuries, he was lucky to make it that long,” he said.
Generations have passed and Desmond’s descendants, including great grandchildren, remain in the area.
“We’d be one of the very few direct descendants,” Patrick said.
“Not many people have kids at 50,” Tom added.
Vicars’ family in France
Desmond’s sons will be among thousands of Canadians travelling to Vimy Ridge for a memorial service on Sunday, April 9, to mark 100 years since the historic battle. The Canadian government is leading a delegation to France, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of the Royal Family.
“We all thought, well, it’s dad’s one big highlight in life, one accomplishment, great accomplishment at that time,” Tom said. “We thought, well why not?”
They plan to retrace their dad’s footsteps, having learned the memorial service will be six kilometres from where Desmond was wounded.
“When we go to Vimy, I’d like to know exactly where he was,” Tom said. “Because where they were fighting, it was the fourth division, is right where the Vimy Ridge Memorial is. It’s right in there.”
Desmond returned to the site in 1968, among the youngest in a group of about 50.
“There’s a bit of a funny story with that one,” Patrick said. “He applied for his passport and they wouldn’t give him one. They said, we have no record of you being born in Canada. Len Marchand was the MP for local area. He went and looked after it for dad. Dad says, you know, I was in both wars for them and everything else, but I guess [back then] they didn’t do any birth certificates, so there wasn’t anything official.”
While Tom’s never been to the site of the battle, Patrick has visited Vimy Ridge and discussed it with his father before he died.
“One of dad’s comments when he was there in the ‘60s was he didn’t realize how close they were to each other in the trenches . . . how little the distance was,” Patrick said. “I noticed that.”
The family was required to apply through the Canadian government to attend the ceremony.