April 24, 2017
Chronicle Journal (A2)

Thousands of men and women from Port Arthur, Fort William and the region served in the armed forces during the First World War. The poppy was adopted as a national symbol of remembrance in Port Arthur in 1921.This monthly column will share stories and photos about life here in Thunder Bay and overseas during World War One.

In April 1917, the Canadian military participated in its most celebrated battle of the entire war – the battle of Vimy Ridge. During this battle, Canadian troops distinguished themselves as a formidable fighting force with numerous soldiers from Port Arthur, Fort William and the surrounding area contributing to this decisive victory. In the early morning on Easter Monday, April 9th, troops began their offensive, battling their way to capture Vimy. While a majority of the military goals were completed the first day of fighting, the battle ended three days later with German troops in retreat and many lives lost on all sides.

Days after the battle, newspapers reported captured German soldiers stating the loss at Vimy was the greatest German defeat since the war commenced. In May 1917, the Fort William Daily Times Journal and the Port Arthur News Chronicle printed letters from local soldiers describing their account of the battle (which will be available next month via the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project). The casualty list would be heavy from the battle, and local citizens wouldn’t know just how serious and devastating the combat was until later in April and into May as newspapers published the official casualty lists, featuring many soldiers from Fort William and Port Arthur. Early reports included the names of three men to be confirmed dead as a result of the battle of Vimy Ridge. Lieutenant James M. MacArthur was the brother of Mr. J. A. MacArthur, manager of the Royal Bank in Port Arthur. James was 25 or 26 years old, unmarried, and had worked with the Sterling Bank in Toronto prior to enlisting. Lieutenant Lisle Craddock Ramsay was in the Port Arthur branch of the Bank of Montreal prior to enlisting. He was 25 years old when killed in action at Vimy. Private Albert J. Servais was killed on April 10 1917 and was well known in Port Arthur, having lived there most of his thirty years. His father and two of his brothers were also well known in the local hockey community.

A short while later in April, Canadian soldiers again were in the thick of fighting in the attack on the Arleux Loop. Included in this fight were the Little Black Devils, a military unit comprised of Winnipeg, Port Arthur, and Fort William soldiers from the 8th Battalion and 90th Winnipeg Rifles.

With the regular delays in communication during this time, none of the soldiers’ letters published in local newspapers throughout April 1917 make direct reference to the battle at Vimy Ridge and had likely been written and posted before it began. This creates an odd perspective as a modern day reader of those letters. We know what was happening to these individuals at the time their letters were being received and read at home but the content of those letters shows no connection to the bloody days ahead. An excerpt from a letter written by Corporal Clarence Auld and received by his mother in late April indicates:

“A week ago we played and won our first game of football in a series got up among about twenty or twenty-five columns. There are some medals for the two teams finishing the series, and you can bet we are out after them.”

This article runs on the fourth Monday of each month. Jesse Roberts is a member of the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project committee. Please visit www.tbayworldwarone.com for more information about this project or to contribute personal stories and photos.