Bernard A. Drew: Vimy Ridge battle from US perspective

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This story has been modified to correct the year that the memorial was installed.

GREAT BARRINGTON >> Memorable American wartime battles resonate with each generation. With no more surviving members of World War I, and our number of World War II veterans diminishing, we lose connections that keep the horror and courage and sacrifice alive.

For Canadians, the four-day assault on Vimy Ridge in northeast France on April 12, 1917, stands out. Some 3,600 Canadian soldiers died, 7,000 were wounded, in fighting the German Sixth Army for control of an escarpment. Thanks to careful technical and tactical planning, the Canadians prevailed.

As Brian Bethune recounted in McLean's magazine, "For the first time, all four divisions of the Corps, men from every part of Canada, fought together — and accomplished something other Allied armies could not. Vimy Ridge was hailed by observers then, and by historians ever since, as Canada's giant step on the road from colony to nation."

A memorial to the Canadian military effort was installed at Vimy Ridge in 1936. It's a sculpture by Walter Allward.

The United States had joined its British, French and Russian Allies on April 6, 1917, and 2 million soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing would soon enter the war. The U.S. solders did not participate in Vimy Ridge. Except for those who crossed the border to join the Canadian forces.

Someone from the Berkshires witnessed the event firsthand. Clyde Peterson was there with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, Canadian Expeditionary Force. His name was listed on the memorial "Erected November 11th 1936 By the School Children Of Great Barrington and Housatonic in Honor of the 359 Men and Women Who Served Their Country in the World War," originally placed in front of Searles High School, now on the Town Hall side lawn.

Peterson's parents, Benjamin and Isabel Peterson, were from Nova Scotia, of Swedish and Scottish ancestry. The family moved to Bridge Street, Great Barrington, where two of Clyde's siblings were born. Benjamin Peterson was an engineer for the Great Barrington Fire District for 40 years.

Clyde Peterson served with a medical unit from McGill University of Montreal. "I suppose you read of the big fight on Vimy," he wrote his father in May 1917. The letter was reprinted in The Berkshire Courier. "Well, our bunch has been through most of it and came out yesterday, a 14 days' stay in the front line. The battery I am with has been very lucky and has had only three slight casualties, so I have had little work to do in the medical line. I have been along with the battery all the time and we had some trying experiences. In the first affair, which started Easter Monday, it was really a walk-over and our artillery literally blew Fritzie off the ridge. It was surprising in going over the ground that the Germans would lose such a fortress without more of a fight, but as it was, prisoners came in wholesale and our casualties were about half that which were expected

"At one stop," he continued, "the light guns of ours fired 22,000 rounds at one place in Vimy, and at one scrap the other day they fired 35,000 rounds in three hours We got a lot of his [the German soldiers'] guns of all sizes and many of them are being used by us. I saw two of his eight-inch guns being used by our men and there was nearly 500 rounds of ammunition left at each gun...In some of his big-gun positions, he has them covered by concrete from six to eight feet in thickness, reinforced with steel. I was in one the other day when he was shelling it because we were using his gun on him, and he made a direct hit on top of the concrete with an eight-inch shell and it didn't even dent the concrete

"Although we made great success in taking Vimy, bad weather set in after the second day and we had such a snow storm as I never experienced before in France. For two days it snowed and rained... This last trip brought on good weather and it is real warm. Now the roads that were deep in mud three weeks ago are now deep with dust. Fighting is more severe now and local scraps are being carried out to consolidate that which has been taken

"I see the United States is going into the war in a well prepared way, and no doubt we shall see some of her troops over here before long."

That prediction, as we know, came true.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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