#VimyRidgeHeroes: Ellis Sifton

#VimyRidgeHeroes: Ellis Sifton

Posted on April 6 by Ted Barris in Non-fiction
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While the future of the world weighed on his mind, a corporal in the middle of the Great War noted that life goes on.

In the spring of 1917, as he and the entire Canadian Corps prepared for the greatest battle of their lives, Ellis Sifton, a twenty-five-year-old farm boy from Wallacetown, Ontario, stopped to notice familiar activity in the French countryside. Despite the approaching Easter offensive against German armies entrenched on Vimy Ridge, he noted in letters home that the planting season in France would go ahead no matter what.

“The end of this struggle seems as far off as ever. Germany’s peace offer is only considered a bluff,” Sifton wrote to his sisters Ella and Millie that spring. “Meanwhile, the farmers are at their hay over here, which will not take very long to handle, as the fields are so small.”

Nearly three years before — right after Britain and the Empire had declared war on Germany in August 1914 — Sifton had enlisted, left his two sisters on the farm in southwestern Ontario and shipped off to train at the Wolseley Barracks in London, Ontario. As soon as he arrived he began writing letters home, providing one of the most complete and revealing accounts of a volunteer’s life in the Canadian Expeditionary Force en route to the bloody battlefields of Europe during the Great War.

“Our work has been of a new character this week,” Sifton wrote that fall of 1914. “Sham battles after dark and in the daytime also lectures and shooting. My last score was 26 out of 35 at 200 yards on the small target. Stood 3rd place in our company.”

Sifton dashed off fourteen letters and six postcards during the battalion’s transatlantic crossing, posting them when he arrived at Sandling Camp. During training in England, the young student of history lamented the fact that Britons were bearing the brunt of the war and he chafed at Canada’s prime minister, Robert Borden, not passing conscription laws quickly enough to bolster Canada’s commitment to the war effort.

Once he and his 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion had crossed the English Channel and moved inland to the Western Front, Sifton began addressing his letters “Somewhere in Belgium” or “In France” according to strict rules imposed by army censors. By 1916, wearing a corporal’s stripes, Sifton began to report in his correspondence the impact of front-line life. Most of his letters began the same way, with his familiar “I’m fine and dandy” greeting, even when the cold, mud, lice and rats in reality made life more a war for survival than a battle against the Germans. He even sugar-coated his references to battalion casualties by writing, “but we must expect that.”

In the run up to the battle at Vimy Ridge, Sifton wrote about his good fortune. Most often during that period, he and his ‘C’ Company trained for the coming offensive, but most of his assignments seemed to be rather harmless — helping with the transport of horses, wash wagon detail, handling ammunition and running rations to the forward battalions — what he called “bomb proof” jobs. Consequently, Sifton found enough time to anticipate the coming big push and to wonder about his own physical and psychological mettle.

“I wonder if I will recognize the old farm, if it is my fate to ever see it again,” he wrote his sisters. “I hope that the courage will be mind at the right moment, if I am called upon to stare death in the face.”

Suddenly, in March 1917, all leave was cancelled. The 18th Battalion, which had served eighteen months in Europe, was about to get its baptism of fire on the Western Front. Ella and Millie’s brother Ellis was about to go over the top for the first time against the enemy atop Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday. In a letter he wrote home that first week of April 1917, Sifton lamented that he had not received mail lately. He and his battalion were assembling in the Zivy Subway, where thousands of Canadian Corps troops made final preparations for the Vimy assault. Sifton signed off his letter with the best news he had.

“Don’t be anxious if you do not receive any news, as it is not always convenient to write. This is a very short scribble… Good night. Love to all from your loving brother Ellis W. Sifton.” And he added, “P.S. They have promoted me to sergeant.”

At 5:30 a.m. April 9, 1917, the 18th’s sister battalion, the 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion proceeded into No Man’s Land behind a protective wall of friendly fire, a well-rehearsed creeping barrage of Canadian artillery shells exploding in front of the infantrymen. The first hour things went well. The 21st had taken a lot of ground up the ridge and many German prisoners, but it had also sustained heavy casualties. It would need Sifton’s battalion to help reach and capture the Germans’ next line of defence. Sifton’s ‘C’ Company caught up with its sister battalion near the village of Les Tilleuls. But even the fresh troops of the 18th began taking casualties from German strongpoints. Just a hundred yards from the objective, a hidden machine gun pinned down ‘C’ Company, inflicting more casualties and jeopardizing the forward momentum of the Canadian advance in the sector.

Between gun bursts, Sgt. Sifton decided to act alone. He suddenly dashed forward into the enemy trench and overthrew the gun, before its German crew could react. He turned on the gunners with his bayonet, killing or wounding the entire gun crew. Then, when a neighbouring German platoon charged him from another trench, Sifton fended his enemies off by wielding his rifle as a club. He beat back the whole counter-attack until his ‘C’ Company comrades could arrive with support. In the hand-to-hand fighting that resulted, however, a wounded German found an errant rifle, aimed at Sifton and killed him with a single shot.

Later that afternoon, as the dust and noise settled from the first day’s Canadian successes on Vimy Ridge, members of the 18th Battalion retrieved the body of their heroic sergeant. They carried him back to a bomb crater — Lichfield — that had been designated an impromptu cemetery. And they buried Ellis Sifton, the young farmer who had brooded over his own fate in letters home wondering if “courage will be mine.” He had found the courage, and, in the words of the Victoria Cross citation, “saved many lives and contributed largely to the success of the operation.”

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.