By Jim Windle / w notes, photos and excerpts COURTESY OF authors JOHN MOSES and TIMOTHY WINEGARD AND OTHERS
FRANCE — Canada will soon celebrate the victory at Vimy Ridge as well as honour those brave Canadians who fought and died taking an important ridge in France during WWI. But many of the reports and TV specials forgot about the Onkwehonwe Warriors who fought alongside British, Australian, American and Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge was a watershed battle that turned the tide of the War in favour of the Allied forces breaking a stagnant quagmire of death, disease, and destruction the allied forces and German soldiers were locked in.
“The largest influx (of volunteers) came from the Six Nations and the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte,” writes historian Timothy Winegard. “Those who stayed home also lent a hand; the Six Nations Women’s Patriotic League of 1914 crafted items and stocked care packages to be sent overseas to help their men. First Nations women gained more jobs as a result of the war, but in 1917 they were not granted the vote alongside non-Aboriginal women.”
The Canadian Corps, which included several Aboriginal warriors, was ordered to seize Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Situated in northern France, the heavily-fortified seven-kilometer ridge held a commanding view over the Allied lines. The Canadians would be moving over an open graveyard. Previous French attacks had failed costing them over 100,000 casualties.
The 107th “Timber Wolf” Battalion was a unit largely made up of Indigenous people from Manitoba and Ontario, including Lieutenant James Moses, of the Delaware band from Six Nations of the Grand River.
“Though many people on Bear Island were nominally Christian by the First World War, some of the women invited a shaman to perform a shaking tent ceremony to let them know how the boys going off to war would fare,” wrote veteran Steve Turner of Aurora in his memoirs. “After he came out from the tent, he told the people that all the boys going to war would be injured, except for one who wouldn’t suffer an injury, but all would return home alive.”
“Donald McKenzie, a relative involved in Vimy – returned without suffering a wound. All the other men from Bear Island were wounded overseas, wrote Steve Turner, Aurora, Ont.
In all, more than 500 status Indian servicemen lost their lives on foreign battlefields during the world wars, and the number of casualties – including those injured – was much higher. Their notable contributions to the war effort became a source of inspiration and self-confidence to themselves, to their communities and to Canadians in general. In fact, some reserves saw every eligible man sign up to fight.
Some reserves were nearly depleted of young men. For example, only three men of the Algonquin of Golden Lake Band who were fit and who were of age to serve remained on their reserve. Roughly half of the eligible Micmac and Maliseet men of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia signed up, and, although small, Saskatchewan’s File Hills community offered practically all of its eligible men. In British Columbia, the Head of the Lake Band saw every single man between the ages of 20 and 35 volunteer.
Support from Native communities for the Allied war effort was by no means unanimous. For example, some band councils refused to help the Allied war effort unless Great Britain acknowledged their bands’ status as independent nations. Such recognition was not granted.
Although its council opposed reserve enlistment, the Iroquois Six Nations of the Grand River provided more soldiers than any other Canadian Indian band. Approximately 300 went to the front. In addition, members of this reserve, the most populous in Canada, donated hundreds of dollars to help war orphans in Britain and for other war-relief purposes.
Many of the Six Nations volunteers were originally members of the 37th Haldimand Rifles, a regiment in the non-permanent active militia based on the reserve. It provided most of the members of the 114th Canadian Infantry Battalion, which had recruited throughout the area. Joining the Grand River volunteers in this battalion were 50 Mohawks from Kahnawake, Quebec, and several Mohawks from Akwesasne. Some Natives from Western Ontario and Manitoba also became members. In the end, two of its companies, officers included, were composed entirely of Indians. In recognition of its large Indian make-up, the battalion adopted a crest featuring two crossed tomahawks below the motto, “For King and Country”. As well, members of the Six Nations Women’s Patriotic League embroidered a 114th flag, which they adorned with Iroquoian symbols.
We owe it to our veterans to keep the memory of their service alive. To this end, members of Canada’s Native community began forming veterans organizations and recording their wartime experiences in newsletters, books, and films. In the introduction to We Were There, a collection of war-related memories produced by the Saskatchewan Indian Veterans Association, the editor explains, “I wanted to publish … to let Indian children know that their fathers and grandfathers fought for the freedom we now cherish. Many of the Indian veterans who fought for this freedom did not come back.” This book was meant to honour those who could still tell their stories and those who were left behind.
“When I was at Rossport, on Lake Superior, in 1914, some of us landed from our vessel to gather blueberries near an Ojibwa camp. An old Indian recognized me and gave me a tiny medicine-bag to protect me, saying that I would shortly go into great danger. The bag was of skin, tightly bound with a leather thong. Sometimes it seemed to be as hard as a rock, at other times it appeared to contain nothing. What really was inside it I do not know. I wore it in the trenches, but lost it when I was wounded and taken to a hospital.”