On November 10, 1917, exactly one hundred years ago today, the Canadian Corps captured the eastern edge of Passchendaele Ridge, bringing an end to a horrific, muddy battle for the Allied forces. To commemorate this achievement, the Government of Alberta has declared November 10, 2017 as Battle of Passchendaele Day in Alberta.
On October 26, 1917, the Canadian Corps entered the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Second Battle of Passchendaele. In 16 days, close to 12,000 Canadians were wounded and more than 4,000 were killed, the number of casualties the commander of the Canadian Corps, Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, had eerily predicted just months before. A year later, the Allies abandoned Passchendaele as the Germans launched another offensive, making the battle a symbol of the madness of war. Despite the hardships and controversy, many see the Canadian Corps victory as significant as Vimy Ridge as it helped solidify new respect for Canada on the international stage.
Among the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Passchendaele were the soldiers of the 10th, 31st, 49th and 50th battalions from Alberta. They came from across the province, keen to fight for their country, yet unaware of horror that lay ahead. We honour the soldiers who fought bravely and with courage through the stories of three Albertans.
Like many eager young men of the time, Cecil Kinross left his family farm in Lougheed, Alberta, to enlist as a private in the 49th Battalion on October 21, 1915. Two years later, he found himself on the battlefield at Passchendaele.
On October 30, the battalion came under heavy artillery fire, losing three quarters of its strength, including most of its junior officers, in a few hours. The D Company, of which Kinross was a member, was held up by an enemy machine gun. Assessing the situation, Kinross stripped off all of his equipment except for his rifle and bandolier. Alone and in broad daylight, he charged across the muddy and trench-ridden field, killed the German troop of six and destroyed their machine gun. This incredible feat of courage helped the company advance a crucial 300 metres.
He sustained severe wounds, but Kinross survived to be one of nine Canadian soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for “gallantry in the face of the enemy” that a Canadian could receive. In 1951, along the Victoria Cross Ranges in Jasper Park, Mount Kinross was named in honor of this valiant war hero.
Alexander Wuttunee “Alex” Decoteau
Another hero of the battle was Alex Decoteau, killed in action by a German sniper.
Decoteau, a Cree from the Red Pheasant Nation, was a champion athlete and trailblazer before entering the war. In 1909, he became Canada’s first Indigenous officer as a constable with the Edmonton Police, and in 1914 he was promoted to sergeant. As an elite track and field champion, he earned a spot to compete in the 5,000-metre race at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Although the won or nearly won almost every race he entered prior to the Olympics, leg cramps slowed him down and he finished in eight place.
A warrior at heart and with his athleticism needed on battlefield, Decoteau, enlisted as a private in Edmonton’s 202nd Sportsman’s Battalion in April 1916. He was later transferred to the 49th Battalion where he joined the fight in Passchendaele and put his running ability to use, serving as a communications trench runner.
Story has it, the German sniper who shot Decoteau stole his gold pocket watch, given to him by King George V for winning a 5-mile race at a military competition in Salisbury. The German soldier was later killed, and Decoteau’s brothers in arms recovered the watch and returned it to his mother, Dora.
Arthur Henry Bell
Another hero who fought in the “No Man’s Land” of Passchendaele, was Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Henry Bell. An Irishman and Boer War veteran, Bell became the commanding officer of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, a cavalry regiment, in Calgary. He led the 31st battalion, also known as “Bell’s Bulldogs,” from the beginning of the Great War through the battles of Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele.
Bell earned the confidence and respect of all the rank and file. His wisdom as a leader is captured in a quote to his medical officer, Captain Harold W. McGill:
“Do not allow any factors to induce you to take an action contrary to the dictates of your own judgment and conscience. In many long years of military life my experience has taught me that a soldier who does so spends the balance of his career in making a series of errors, each in the vain attempt to correct the one immediately preceding, and all resulting from his first violation of sound practice.”
Source: Medicine and Duty, 2007, 21,
Bell climbed up the ranks to Brigadier General of the 6th Brigade on April 23, 1918 and received the Distinguished Service Order, the Croix de Guerre, at the end of the war. Upon his return to Canada, Bell played a crucial role the reorganization of Canadian militia and later became the Adjutant General for the Canadian Army.
These are only three examples of the thousands of heroes that came from Alberta to fight for our country, and the freedoms we cherish today. For another great story of Alberta heroism, check out RETROactive’s Passchendaele blog, which features the story of the Dalton brothers, and their family’s sacrifice during the Great War.
This Remembrance Day, we remember the heroes who are no longer with us, and honour those who fight for us now and into the future. We share these stories so that we may never forget.