#VimyRidgeHeroes: Gavin McDonald

#VimyRidgeHeroes: Gavin McDonald

Posted on March 27 by Ted Barris in Non-fiction
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The last thing Gavin McDonald expected when he joined up in 1915 was participating in a massive covert operation in the Great War. Nor did he enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force anticipating that he would serve his country as far underground as he did.

In fact, McDonald, a twenty-five-year-old farmer from Saskatchewan, volunteered as if it were just another chore on his prairie homestead to-do list:

“We had a good crop that year [1915] … Good prices — over a dollar a bushel — a good time to drill a well closer to the [farm] buildings,” McDonald wrote. “After I had got most of the drilling done, I enlisted and joined the army on Dec. 3, 1915.”

When their British commanders ordered the Canadians to Vimy Ridge at Christmas 1916 to prepare for an Easter offensive against the Germans, however, McDonald and his comrades-in-arms got both secretive and subterranean. The Germans had occupied the strategic heights atop this nine-mile, hump-backed ridge in north-central France for nearly two years. From their side of No Man’s Land, they could see everything their enemies — the French and British troops — were doing for miles and miles. Nothing moved on the Allied side of the lines without the Germans knowing about it.

Until the Canadians arrived. Their elaborate plan to seize the ridge from the Germans involved establishing an underground base of attack. From as far back from the front lines as six miles, the newly arrived four divisions of the Canadian Corps began constructing a network of sunken pathways, narrow-gauge railway track, corduroy roads, subways (tunnels), communications trenches, ditches, and service paths — a spider’s web of transportation lines covering the same geographical area as the downtown area of Vancouver in 1917 — virtually all underground. The troops referred to the process as “the six-foot bury” (burying everything deep enough to remain untouched by incoming German artillery shells). But to make the secretive excavation complete, the Canadians had to do something with the excavated chalk earth they were burrowing through.

“Our job was to work at the face of the tunnels,” McDonald wrote. “As the miners picked the chalk loose, we would put it in sandbags. They started the tunnel about a mile back and dug it underground up to the front line, so men and supplies could be brought in secretly… We worked eight hours on and eight off for meals and sleep.”

Then, at the end of his night shifts, McDonald led work crews out into No Man’s Land. Under cover of darkness they took the sandbags of chalk earth and dumped them into shell holes camouflaging the chalk by covering it with top soil to make the surface look untouched. Sometimes, Canadian machine gunners fired over the heads of McDonald and his work crews to keep the Germans distracted from the elaborate subterfuge.

“By 10 o’clock on the night of April 8, we had to stop digging and burying,” McDonald wrote, “as there wasn’t enough room in the tunnels for troops arriving to begin the attack.”

A member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Cpl. McDonald did not participate in the actual assault up the ridge with the rest of his regiment. As he and his work crew dispensed with the last of the sandbags at Vimy Ridge, he remembered “our heavy guns all firing” at zero hour and the PPCLI being “piped over the top with bagpipes playing.”

The adjutant then directed McDonald to assist the regimental secretary, Mickey Egan, at a transport post behind the lines at Vimy. Alone with the secretary during the massive Canadian artillery barrage that morning, McDonald watched Egan freeze with fear on a bunk in the corner of the outpost. Weeks of tension and stress had suddenly pushed the young secretary over the edge. McDonald sent for an ambulance. But when Egan saw medics coming to take him away, he broke down.

“Don’t let them take me away,” Egan pleaded.

“I’ll look after you,” McDonald said, trying to calm the man. He put an arm around Egan’s shoulders and held him close. Then, he gently rolled the shell-shocked man into a hug.

The ambulance driver looked at McDonald initially in disgust, but then realized the problem and quickly slipped the stretcher under Egan to carry him away. Even as the two men lifted the regimental secretary into the ambulance, Egan called to his friend.

“Mac, don’t let them take me away!”

McDonald watched the ambulance disappear down the corduroy road behind the lines. Shaken, but confident that he had prevented Egan’s condition from worsening, Gavin McDonald sensed he had to take charge in a situation like that.

“That was the last I saw of him,” McDonald wrote.

Perhaps that was another thing Gavin McDonald did not anticipate when he enlisted in the Great War. The loss. Outside the city of Albert, France, his company sergeant major had both legs blown off. In the early days at the Somme, his good friend Jim McLean was paralyzed by shrapnel. And during a barrage along the Western Front, a shell landed on the manned post next to where McDonald was posted.

“I knew a man had been buried by the shell. I grabbed a shovel…and started to dig,” McDonald wrote. “The first shovel full told me it was no good, as it was all blood, torn flesh and mud. We uncovered him. His clothes had been blown off to the belt, but above the armpits there was nothing… There was a fresh shell hold nearby, so we turned it into a grave and buried him there… a young man from Calgary and his first trip to the line.”

At Vimy, 3,598 Canadians died. Between 1914 and 1918, one in six Canadians fell in the Great War. Gavin McDonald wrote in his personal accounts that he survived Ypres, Vimy, and Passchendaele. Then, just as matter of fact, he wrote:

“We got to Regina on a Saturday morning. Father and Katy were there at the station to meet me…and we drove back out to the farm.”

Ted Barris is the author of Victory At Vimy, Canada Comes of Age: April 9-12, 1917, published by Dundurn.

Ted Barris

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014
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Ted Barris

Ted Barris is an award-winning author, journalist, and broadcaster. For more than forty years his writing has appeared in the national press, as well as in history, news, and arts magazines, and he has authored seventeen non-fiction books, including the national bestsellers Victory at Vimy, Juno, and The Great Escape. In 2014, The Great Escape received the national Libris Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award.