How a Suffolk born farmer became a Canadian Military Medal winner

John Carr MM in Canadian army uniform 1915
click on above image for Johns Attestation Papers

One of my maternal great-grandfathers (my grandfather’s father) was a soldier in the Canadian army during the Great War of 1914 – 1918, like so many other young men of his generation from the allied nations. He joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) as a volunteer on the 21st September 1915 and served with the 1st Canadian Division. Canada did not introduce conscription until 1918 and very few conscripts reached the Western Front before hostilities ended on the 11th November 1918.

Fully 70% of the CEF consisted of British born men when it began to recruit and even by 1918, 50% of its ranks were still British by birth. It had proved particularly difficult to recruit French-speaking Canadians into the CEF, which is surprising to many given the fact that France had been invaded by Germany. Maybe they did not feel that same pull to the ‘old country’ as English-speaking Canadians did? The only French-speaking battalion was the 22nd, who were known by English speakers as the ‘Van Doos’, a corruption of the French pronunciation of Vingt Deux.

My great-grandfather was raised in Woodstock, Ontario and fought at the Somme in 1916 and at the famous battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. This battle formed part of the great battle of Arras in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. Shortly after the battle he was awarded the Military Medal (MM) for outstanding bravery. 

He was severly wounded at the later Battle of Cambrai and was sent back to the UK to recover.  A bullet ripped into his elbow and travelled up his arm before exiting out of his shoulder. The effects of that wound remained with him for the rest of his life but thankfully he survived the horrors of that conflict, one of the lucky few. He returned to Canada after the war with my great-grandmother and my grandfather.

Canadians will know just how significant the battle of Vimy Ridge was and how great was the loss of life within the CEF generally. In April 1917, my great-grandfather along with the other Canadian troops took the ridge at the cost of 10,602 casualties, 3,598 of who were killed in action. My great-grandfather was also at the Somme the previous year, when the Canadians suffered 24,000 casualties, both killed and wounded. The battle of the Somme is infamous for its high attrition rate and brought home the horrors of mechanised warfare.

My great-grandfather wrote an account of his arrival at Vimy Ridge on Christmas day 1916 some months after the actual event, and also drew a map indicating the positions of the Canadian and German forces at the time referred to in the narrative. Many veterans of the Great War found it difficult to talk about their experiences, especially to those who were not in the war and many would commit their thoughts to paper as a form of release and as a way of coming to terms with the grotesqueness of life in the trenches.

Vimy Ridge was a Canadian victory that was bought at great cost in Canadian lives. It has often been said that the battle was the beginning of a real sense of distinct Canadian nationhood. Brigadier-General Alexander Ross DSO, who was in command of the 28th North West Canadian Battalion at Vimy, had this to say in respect of his command.

‘It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation’.

The battle of Vimy Ridge was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had fought together for one objective and the battle became a national symbol of sacrifice for that reason. Altogether, 60,661 Canadians lost their lives during the course of World War One, well over 9% of those who enlisted during the course of the war. Some units were almost wiped out to a man.

English-speaking Canadians had played a major role in pioneering the new territory that became Canada and now they played a major role in fighting for the newly emerging nation. After the Great War, Canada gained a true sense of self as it began to move out of the shadow of Empire and follow its own national path.

My great-grandfather came back to England in 1932 to live in Walton, Suffolk, where he had been born. He, my great-grandmother and my grandfather sailed from the city of Montreal, Quebec and arrived in London on the 7th August aboard the Cunard White Star ship, 'Aurania'. The Carr’s have been backwards and forwards to Canada since the 19th century and the extended family is now equally spread between both countries. My great-grandfather died at his home in Walton, Felixstowe in 1964 at the age of 74, having led an eventful and active life.

Below is a family picture of my great-grandfather, John Carr MM, my great grandmother, my grandfather and his account of that Christmas on Vimy Ridge, in his own words.

John Carr MM, Agnes Carr (nee Knights) and Donald Carr

Christmas Night on Vimy Ridge

'It was Christmas day in 1916 when our battalion received orders to relieve another unit of Canadians on Vimy Ridge. We had just come from the Somme front after some hard fighting and were in dugouts about two miles behind the front lines, at a spot named Hospital Corner.

I remember waking up with the rain dripping through onto us as we lay under our blanket and greatcoats. Our sergeant came in about then with the news that we were to precede up to the front line right away. Nice cheerful news for Christmas day. 

We were battalion scouts and it was our custom to go in ahead of the battalion so we could locate the different company headquarters, bombing posts, machine gun posts etc and get acquainted with the line so that when it was dark, we could send back scouts and guide the various companies to their posts etc.

Having had a hasty breakfast we started off, about twenty of us scouts going through the communication trenches. About two hours later we arrived at the dugouts that were to be used as battalion headquarters. From there two scouts went back to guide in the battalion to this point.

It was getting along toward midday, when we realised that we had no rations and could not get any till the rest of the scout section arrived with the battalion. We searched around the dugouts but all we found was one small tin of ‘bully beef’ which four or five of the boys divided up as far as it would go. Well, we had had similar experiences before but I guess we noticed it more as it was Christmas day.

Well, we had about another half mile to go to reach the front line so we set off. We started in the rain and ankle deep in mud. We soon came to a valley, which was more or less exposed to the German machine gun fire and had to cross this on duck boards in the open for about 150 yards. We crossed safely, a rather dangerous undertaking in daylight, going over two or three at a time and reached the cover of the trenches on the ridge itself.

Fritz was very quiet and we were hoping that we would have a more or less peaceful trip. We were now nearing the front line and found the scouts of the battalion we were relieving, in a sand bag dugout on the side of the ridge. We learned from them that they had had a quiet trip as wars go. We got out our French maps and they pointed out the places of interest to us, such as observation posts and places in the trenches to beware of snipers etc.

It was getting dark by this time so a party of half a dozen of us went for a tour of the front line, to get the lay of the land with the view of later in the night, making a patrol into no-mans-land.

We found the trenches were knee deep in thick mud and slosh, slosh, slosh we went. In some places it was just water. We found that the Germans were entrenched from about 90 to 140 yards from our front line, divided in places by huge bomb craters where mines had been blown. These were some 50 to 100 feet deep and his troops were holding one side of the shell holes and ours the other.

From our front line was four or five small trenches running straight out and at right angles, called saps, in which we placed machine gun crews. We visited all these in turn and had made up our minds to crawl out from one and have a look around no-mans-land after the relief was complete.

All the time it had been fairly quiet, a few shells sailing over to our back areas and occasionally a burst of machine gun fire from some nervous German gunner. About this time our own battalion men began to arrive, slosh, sloshing along the front line and taking up their positions and posting sentry on the fire steps, the men of the unit we were relieving stepping down and getting ready to trudge out to a well earned rest and a possible dry place to sleep.

Fritz was unusually quiet and we didn’t think it a good omen. It seemed too much like the lull before a storm. All of a sudden we heard a swish, swish through the air, the tell-tale sparks of a launch of ‘minewafers’ which crashed with a deafening noise on our front line about 100 yards to our left, followed shortly after by a terrific bombardment of ‘whiz-bangs’ and machine guns, the sky being alight with vary lights and star shells. The ridge looked like it was afire. An S.O.S was sent up for our artillery, which promptly responded adding to the already deafening noise.

Us scouts went to the end of one of the small trenches nearest the German lines as we knew he would not fire so short, being afraid he would hit his own front line, thereby probably saving our lives as we soon heard cries for stretcher bearers from our front line. The bombardment lasted about an hour and a half then gradually died down till about midnight, when it became quiet again.

Soon afterwards we were relieved by another patrol of scouts and we went slosh, slosh back to our dugout, where we found that the rations had arrived and you can bet we were ready for them, not to mention the shot of rum that was passed around.

We heard the next day we had somewhere between thirty and forty casualties during the strafe, more than we lost when we took the ridge a few months later and our battalion went over the highest part.

Probably the official report would read something like this, ‘troops spent quiet Christmas, no change in the line, all quiet on the Western Front’ – but the Germans sure gave us a warm Christmas greeting at Vimy'.

John Carr MM - Seen here in later life at home in 91 Queen Street, Walton, Suffolk

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