The Wallaces of Wainwright and the Battle of Vimy Ridge

July 14, 2017

Dr. Harry C. Wallace served in the World War I Battle of Vimy Ridge and later became Wainwright Alberta's solo doctor for decades.

Contributed by: J. Robert Lampard, MD

The 100th anniversary of the World War I Battle of Vimy Ridge occurred from April 9 to 12. Many Canadian historians believe Canada came of age on that cold, muddy, snowy, Easter weekend in 1917, when our army forced the entrenched German army to retreat. Both the British and French armies had previously failed to take the ridge.

The Canadian success proved that a united, well led army of volunteers could achieve what others had failed to do at 10 times the cost. Of the 100,000 Canadian troops, 10,000 were killed or injured. An estimated 10% were Albertans in the 10th, 31st, 49th and 50th Battalions, as well as the 8th and 11th field ambulances that supported the 3rd and 4th divisions. Dr. Harry Wallace was the regimental medical officer for the 49th. Dr. Ashley Cooper-Johnson covered the 50th.

The battle started with an unprecedented rolling barrage at 5 a.m. Most of the Canadian troops reached their objectives by 8 a.m. Casualties (Canadian and German) began arriving at Dr. Wallace’s regimental first aid station at 7 a.m. They were triaged to the nearest advanced dressing station for assessment, analgesics, transfusions and transfer, if necessary, to the casualty clearing station behind the lines, as it had an operating room.

By 3 p.m. the 8th Field Ambulance alone had triaged 2,000 casualties. The greatest bottleneck was the lack of stretchers. The German stretcher-bearers had not been ordered to return them. So everyone improvised using corrugated iron and blankets; 2x4s and canvas; bed rolls with poles; and blanket hammocks.

So intense was the fighting, with everyone isolated from the news, it wasn’t until the third day that the front line troops learned of the brilliant success that had been achieved – from the London Daily Mail.

Recently, the notes Dr. Wallace wrote on April 29, 1917, while he was recovering from his injuries, have surfaced. They include the period from the Battle of Vimy Ridge until April 24, 1917, when he was seriously injured and evacuated to England. Dr. Wallace vividly describes the event.

Shortly after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Dr. Wallace’s unit was given a short respite. On April 24, the unit was ordered back into the line, which was then located three miles over the ridge. With three others from his battalion, he was guided forward under the cover of darkness, until halted by a sergeant. The sergeant indicated the Germans had moved an artillery battery up into position. Suddenly there was a flare that lit up the sky, followed by intense shelling from both sides.

Shells began landing nearby. Dr. Wallace dove into a small, water-filled shell hole with one of his colleagues. The shelling kept getting closer. “I’m getting down into the water to get my head undercover,” Dr. Wallace said, with water now up to his lips. “That’s not a bad idea, doc. I am go …” his colleague responded. A 5.9 shell exploded eight feet away.

Dr. Wallace’s account continues: “I could feel a weight on me, then a cold stream of water on my back. I’m tired but I feel no pain. Then I hear voices. My batman pulls me out. I hear the splash, splash, splash and know it’s blood. I’ve only a few seconds to live. Then a change comes over me. My mind clears. I say to my bearers ‘it’s no use boys, I’m finished – beat it out of here.’ I think of my wife and little son. Hoping they will not grieve too much. I wish I could tell them how easy this thing is.”

“The splash, splash ceases although the warm blood trickles down my back. Time passes. I feel stronger. My pulse is racy but steady. Shells are bursting nearby again. Another concussion. My wound is painful. At the station I see the major’s wounds are dressed. They tell me my colleague is dead. Never knew what hit him. One second late getting down. That explains the splash, splash … it was his life blood not mine.”

Evacuated and recovered, Dr. Wallace worked in British hospitals until 1919. Eventually, he heard from a fellow officer that Wainwright was short of doctors, so that’s where he headed. He became the Alberta town’s solo physician for decades.

His young son, Douglas, didn’t have to read his father’s “in case I don’t come back” letter. It was to have been given to him on his 15th birthday. It read, in part:

“My dear son Douglas: Always let your dear mother be your first thought. Go to her for guidance and sympathy. Follow her example – always do what you know to be your duty.

I would consider myself a coward if I did not do what I know to be my duty. The greatest test of bravery is in always doing what you know to be right, for it is better to have a good name and be honorable than it is to be rich. Let your aim in life be – to be a man. Goodbye. Your father, H. Wallace.”

Doug Wallace, like his father, entered medicine and became a World War II Royal Canadian Air Force Medical Officer. After the war he joined his father in medical practice and became the mayor of Wainwright. Moving into medical management, Doug became Alberta’s acting deputy minister of health, CEO of the University of Alberta Hospital and CEO of the Toronto General Hospital before becoming the general secretary of the Canadian Medical Association in 1970.

All of us have been saved from having to write such a war-time letter or to receive one. We have much to be thankful for because our forefathers fought in both world wars. It has become too easy to forget that the freedom from conflict has been passed down to us – at a price.

References available upon request.

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