By: Bob Turner
April 9th is an important date in Canadian history, and in the history of Red River North. Why? It is the 102nd anniversary of The Battle of Vimy Ridge, a turning point in World War I, and the event that is often referred to as the time when Canada “came of age”. The Battle of Vimy Ridge, was fought between 9 and 12 April 1917 as part of the Battle of Arras in northern France, is widely regarded as a defining moment for Canada. Essentially, the entire Canadian Army that was on the Western Front at that time all went into action together
A news story in February brought the battle close to home for people in the Selkirk area. The owner of a Steinbach antique shop purchased some old papers in which there was a letter sent from a soldier in a military hospital – Earl Sorel – to a Miss P. Rochford in Selkirk whose brother – Gordon Rochford – had apparently saved his life at Vimy Ridge. The two men, who grew up in Selkirk, had been friends for a long time.
This story brought to life, and to the local area, an event that unfortunately has becomes less significant to most of us as years passed. However, the importance of the sacrifices made by ordinary men and women across Canada should never be overlooked or forgotten. And if we are looking for reasons to visit various parts of Red River North, we need look no further than some of the war memorials and cemeteries in the region.
We only need to visit to the Selkirk War Memorial Park on Eveline Street to find records of the human sacrifices made so that we might be tourists in a free country. The names of 156 residents of the area who made “the supreme sacrifice” in WW I are engraved on the plaque, along with those who died in WW II and the Korean conflict.
This is not the only place where we find tribute paid to Canadian military history. The graves of residents of the area who served in the forces are plentiful in cemeteries at St. Clements, St. Andrews, Little Britain, and St. Peter Dynevor.
There is a perennial garden and a memorial plaque at Edstan Place just east of Eveline Street to commemorate the site of a former chicken farm, Red Feather Farm, which was used as a marshalling barracks for the 108th Battalion during the First World War to provide replacements for various units overseas.
Our military history is also filled with the proud accomplishments of Indigenous people, and World War I statistics show that about one third of First Nations people in Canada age 18 to 45 enlisted during the war. Métis and Inuit soldiers also enlisted; however, only “status Indians” were officially recorded by the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Aboriginal soldiers served in units with other Canadians throughout the CEF. They served in every major theatre of the war and participated in all of the major battles in which Canadian troops fought. Hundreds were wounded or lost their lives on foreign battlefields. Many Aboriginal people distinguished themselves as talented and capable soldiers and at least 50 were awarded medals for bravery and heroism.
Government records show at least 4,000 Indigenous people served in the First World War. About 12,000 served in all major Canadian military efforts in the 20th century.
Aboriginal soldiers held a variety of roles, including snipers and scouts, but also served as “code talkers,” translating sensitive radio messages into Aboriginal languages so they couldn’t be understood if intercepted by the enemy.
Vimy Ridge is important for many reasons. It was the first time that Canadians fought as a distinct national army, with all four divisions of the Canadian Corps entering the battle together. Their determined walk across no man’s land, behind a creeping artillery barrage — the largest in history up to that point — called for almost unimaginable courage. The risk of death was extreme, and the losses were horrendous: more than 10,000 casualties, including 3,598 killed. Yet it ended in a historic victory.
Canadian soldiers captured a strategic high ground, a fortified German position that French and British troops had repeatedly attacked over two years but failed to win. Not only did the victory at Vimy Ridge, along with other great Canadian sacrifices at the Somme and Passchendaele, help to turn the tide against Germany in the First World War, but also laid the groundwork for Canadian independence, resulting in Canada becoming a separate signatory to the Treaty of Versailles.
Back to Private Earl Sorel and Sergeant Gordon Rochford:
Apparently, Earl and his widowed mother lived on Eaton Ave. Earl was just 19, when he enlisted with the Winnipeg Grenadiers on August 2, 1915. His occupation was listed as “teamster”. He was shipped to England with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) May 20, 1916 and became part of the 78th Battalion as a Private.
Earl was admitted to hospital twice – once, in 1917 on the second day of the attack on Vimy Ridge, with gunshot wounds in the back and arm, and once in 1918 after being gassed and shelled. Both times, he rejoined his unit afterwards. He was demobilized in June of 1919, returning to his mother’s home, which was now in Winnipeg. He was 22.
Gordon Rochford, the subject of the letters referred to at the beginning of this piece, was the son of Isabella and Clarence Rochford who lived on Manitoba Avenue in Selkirk.
He was 20 when he enlisted with the Winnipeg Grenadiers on August 2, 1915. He shipped to England on the same voyage as Earl. He was promoted to Corporal on March 3, 1917 and then to his highest rank achieved, that of Lance Sergeant, on March 31, 1917.
Rochford was killed in action on April 9th, 1917, the first day of the battle, and was awarded a medal for bravery in the field posthumously (likely for the acts that Earl mentioned in his letter).
Gordon was buried, as were most of the 3600 dead, in the cemeteries at Vimy. Many of the 7000 others wounded at Vimy returned to action and were killed on other battlefields, some never recovered and were sent home as amputees, maimed or as nervous wrecks, (perhaps suffering from shell shock), and were eventually buried in cemeteries across Canada.
In spite of its military and historic importance to Canada, Vimy Ridge, and for that matter, Canada’s involvement in World War 1, are not well known by the average Canadian. In recent years, efforts have been made to recognize this historic event by making students more aware of the battle. In 2017, students from across the country made up nearly half of the Canadians joining Prime Minister Trudeau and other dignitaries in France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event.
Personally, I need look no further than my family history/photo album to be reminded of Vimy Ridge. I have a picture of my dad and some of his unit, posing at the impressive Vimy Monument after liberating France during the Second World War.
I said in an earlier blog that I was very interested in history, and that was one of the many reasons I found Red River North an appealing place to visit and live.
Although there is still snow on the ground, I invite you to visit the Selkirk War Memorial Park on Eveline Street on or before April 9th. The sacrifices made by people like Gordon Rochford and Earl Sorel are reasons to remember.