April 9, 2017, marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Many refer to this as the point in time when Canada became a nation. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a great victory for Canada, but it came at a price. In this battle, there were more than 10,500 casualties and about 3,600 killed. To our knowledge, Herbert Lawless was the only known Yukoner to fall in this battle.
Herbert Lawless was born in Toronto on December 23, 1872, and came to the Yukon in the early 1900s. He had patrolled the creeks of the Klondike as a member of the NWMP, for five years, at one time being the sole member at the Gold Run Creek detachment. When he enlisted on November 7, 1914, in Vancouver, B.C., shortly after the war started, his attestation papers stated his occupation as “prospector.”
Private Herbert Lawless, a recent recipient of the Military Medal, was killed on April 11 by shrapnel from a high-explosive shell. He had been part of the Yukon Motor Machine Gun Battery (Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade) raised by Joseph Boyle. At the time, the Yukon Battery was laying down a machine-gun barrage into areas where the enemy was expected to mass troops for a counterattack.
Last spring, my husband and I travelled to Europe to tour the Canadian battlefields. With the help of the Dawson Legion Branch #1, we had the honour of taking a wreath to be placed on Herbert Lawless’ grave. He was buried at the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery in Pas de Calais, France, along with over 7,000 of his fallen comrades.
On the morning of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, we travelled to the cemetery, arriving there at the break of dawn. In the eerie early-dawn light and on the frost-covered ground, we were able to locate the grave and place the wreath, to honour the sacrifice; to honour the fallen.
To say that we were on a battlefield tour doesn’t capture the essence of the tour. It was, in effect, a tour of cemeteries containing the remains of Canadians who died in two world wars. About 60,000 dead in the First World War and, again, about 45,000 dead in the Second World War—a huge sacrifice for such a small country. And the parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, and children, in each war, also made the sacrifice.
Members of our tour shared family stories at the various battlefields and cemeteries. These stories had a profound and lasting effect on us.
Near the Canada House, at Cours Sur Le Mer, a lovely French woman spoke with a tour member, Hal. When he offered her a Canada flag pin, she began to describe to her two daughters how France was indebted to the Canadians for liberating them. We spoke in broken English and broken French, with tear-stained cheeks. The emotion and gratitude was clearly expressed in the hugs and kisses bestowed upon me by the woman and her daughters—just because I was Canadian. This gratitude is being passed on to each and every new generation by those liberated by Canada.
A gentleman on our tour shared the story of his father, who was 17 years old at the time, teaching fellow soldiers (some who were younger than him) how to survive on the battlefield.
Another woman’s mother was expecting when her husband enlisted in WII, only to give the ultimate sacrifice and die on French soil. The daughter, now in her late 70s, met her father for the first time, as she knelt in front of his headstone, surrounded by tour members.
Two sisters explained how their father fought in the Dieppe raid. One thousand perished on the stony beach, 2,500 were wounded and almost 2,000 were taken prisoner, with a mere seven soldiers reaching the objective at the top of the ridge. The Browns’ father was one of the seven who was captured, escaped under the cover of dark, descended the hill, crossed the beach, and started swimming out into the English Channel. He swam for 15 miles before being pulled out of the sea by a British boat searching for survivors.
A soldier shared with his family that he was lying seriously injured and unable to move. Four medics came to carry him to safety when a bomb exploded, killing the four medics. He was immobilized and laid in the mud, on a stretcher, surrounded by the dead for two days before he was rescued. Each and every story is treasured and shared by the families who remember the sacrifice and who honour their fallen.
Everyday proved to be full of tears and life-changing moments that brought home the sacrifices made by dedicated Canadians. We may be removed by time and space from the world wars, but the haunting, heartfelt stories put faces to the fallen and wake up our collective consciousness.
As we walked past the resting places of teenagers, young men and women, and all those who gave their lives for our freedom in the face of overwhelming odds and personal cost, we are brought to this place of remembrance: “To the fallen, Known Unto God” as the Commonwealth Gravesite headstones read.
Please pause and reflect upon our fallen, our serving, and our future (hopefully marked by peace)—to honour their sacrifice … lest we forget.