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  • Claire Jordan


A spirited face for Canadian Thanksgiving. It belongs to Allan Dunoon, the youngest of ten children; his Scottish father and English mother had themselves come to Canada as children and eventually married there in Owen Sound, Ontario in 1875. When Allan volunteered in December 1915, he had just turned 20; he was a strapping 5’8” tinsmith with a rakish scar under his left eye. After almost a year of training, he sailed for England in November 1916 aboard the SS Olympic and finally, he must have thought, here was the real War coming now, in February 1917 when he was posted to the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles Battalion and sailed for France. His new Battalion were battle-weary, having fought through the Somme the year before, and badly needed fresh legs as the next big push approached. The enormous effort of courage it would take to prise the 8km-long high ground along Vimy Ridge from the enemy was set to launch on 9th April, and the Canadians had been given the job. When you drive across the plain below the Ridge today, it doesn’t seem physically possible that such a thing could be conceived of. The Ridge was heavily fortified and relentlessly defended by the enemy; it commanded a key sector of front line and not so much as a rabbit could peek from a burrow without the snipers knowing about it. How could young men, many just farm boys from close-knit rural communities studding the Canadian prairies, armed with not much more than their own courage and their families’ love to shield them, be asked to fight their way up something which must have resembled fiery Mount Doom, the stuff of nightmares. Like so many impossible tasks during the War, our lads would have to achieve the unachievable if this conflict were ever to end. “Out of the mist exploded a curtain of fire from 983 guns and mortars,” wrote the Adjutant of Allan’s sister Battalion, as at dawn that Easter Monday morning, thousands of gallant Canadians advanced steadily up the lower slopes of the Ridge behind our deafening, blinding wall of flame and smoke. This wall was designed to keep the enemy’s heads down while our lads inched close enough to be able to attack. When the first barrage lifted, their job was to pour through the pre-cut gaps in the barbed wire entanglements, the driving sleet in their faces, into the teeth of the German machine-guns, rifles and revolvers raining down on them from above, some at least at point-blank range. Their Newfoundland brothers-in-arms had fought admirably and died almost wholesale at Beaumont Hamel the previous summer, but this was the first time all four Canadian Divisions in the field had fought together. This time, a superhuman effort of combined training, planning and coordination, intelligence-gathering and sheer determination and pluck carried them through those gaps and up, up the slopes to victory. They actually took the Ridge. On 10th April, the King wrote to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig:

“The whole Empire will rejoice at the news of yesterday’s successful operations. Canada will be proud that the taking of the coveted Vimy Ridge has fallen to the lot of her troops. I heartily congratulate you and all who have taken part in this splendid achievement.” But oh, it cost Canada so dear. When the Battle for Vimy Ridge was over on 12th April, there were 10 602 casualties. Eventually, after the War, eight sites along the Western Front were gifted to the Canadian nation, and it was Vimy which was chosen to commemorate all those who fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the War, especially those who fell.

A competition was launched for designs and eventually won by a Toronto sculptor named Walter Seymour Allward. The two soaring stone towers are placed on the highest point of the Ridge and in front of them, right on the edge overlooking the Douai Plain and the slopes up which Allan Dunoon and his mates had struggled, a shrouded stone lady gazes inscrutably down.

Behind the towers, as you approach the Memorial from the former battlefield to its rear, two gigantic slumped hooded figures guard the steps, perpetually rigid with grief and pride. Our 21 year old tinsmith Allan Dunoon, from Owen Sound, Ontario, fell on the first day of the Battle. He is buried now at La Chaudiere Cemetery, at the foot of the Ridge’s north-eastern slope at a place which had held a camouflaged German gun position. “Son of Daniel & Elizabeth Dunoon,” his proud parents had etched into his headstone. “He Is Not Dead, but Sleepeth.” Above him, for all time, the Vimy Memorial keeps watch, holding all their memories sacred.

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