by Paula Simons
Historians often say that Canada was born at Vimy Ridge. It was there, on the cold, sleeting morning of April 9, 1917, that four divisions of Canadian troops charged the German positions, fighting, and winning, their first major victory as a united Canadian army, forging, in the blood and the mud, a true sense of Canadian identity.
Percy Taylor, I suspect, became a Canadian on Vimy Ridge. He was my husband's grandfather, but he died long before his grandson and I ever met.
I only know him through the memoir he wrote in his retirement, a story that took on a whole new significance for me when our daughter was born.
Suddenly, Percy wasn't just a dead stranger. He was my daughter's great-grandfather. He and I shared a blood connection. Suddenly, his story, and his war, felt personal to me, in a way they hadn't before.
Percy Taylor was born in England, in the Norfolk Fens, into poverty as bleak as Dickens or Hardy ever imagined.
The seventh of nine children, his illiterate labourer father died when Percy was nine. The family survived on what his mother earned, digging potatoes and cutting cabbages in a local market garden.
At 13, Percy quit school and went to work as a farm hand. In 1913, at age 16, he left England for Canada, and the chance to work as a farm labourer in Alameda, Sask. He was 17 when the war began, 18 when he enlisted in the 152nd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
In the autumn of 1916, 19-year-old Percy Taylor arrived in France with the 4th Division of the Canadian Corps.
"The battle of the Somme was ending and we were sent to replace the casualties suffered there," he later wrote.
"We came under fire for the first time on this job; enemy machine guns had been trained on spots we had to cross where the trenches had been pretty well levelled.
"Sometimes we had to crawl in the mud if we got part way across and the machine guns opened up. We went out after dark and tried to be back before daylight. We were fed once during the night and when the rations came along we found some old dugout to eat in safely; the hot tea was very acceptable."
At least 1,284,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on the Somme, including 24,713 Canadians. Percy survived, but his war wasn't over. He and his fellows spent the winter training for their next assignment: Vimy Ridge.
"On the night of April 8, we were taken out by sections and shown where to dig ourselves a hole to get into and wait for the attack to begin. We had to be as quiet as possible until the barrage started, then wait for our officer to blow the whistle and wave us on," he later wrote.
"At daylight, I happened to be doing the watching and could see Major McHaffey a few yards straight in front, looking steadily at his wristwatch.
"And then all hell broke loose. You couldn't hear anything but the steady roar of the guns and the shriek of the shells going overhead.
"I saw the major climb out of his hole, blow his whistle, wave us on, and everyone jumped out and went forward. As far as you could see, in any direction, there were men with rifles heading for that dreadful column of smoke and exploding earth ahead where the shells were falling."
History books say the 4th Division had the least distance to cover, but through the most treacherous, bomb-cratered terrain.
"We knew we were on the Germans' side of No Man's Land, but hadn't seen anyone and their trenches had been obliterated by the barrage," Percy later wrote.
"I remember feeling like I was all alone in a terrible storm, and just then, a piece of shrapnel struck my head, and I went out."
When he came to, dizzy and disoriented, his section-mates were gone, and his head was bleeding badly. He bandaged himself as best he could and staggered off, through the mud and the shelling, until he made his way to a dressing-station. He spent the next six weeks recuperating in a military hospital.
"I was the only Canadian in the ward," he writes.
That's a fascinating transformation. Until that point in the memoir, Percy refers to England, to Norfolk, as "home."
But in the aftermath of Vimy, his language changes. He went to war an Englishman, fighting for God, King and empire. He finished the war a Canadian, and an atheist, transformed forever by the horror of that war, and by the company of the men he shared it with.
The victory at Vimy came at a price: 10,602 Canadian casualties, 3,598 Canadian deaths.
The war changed Percy in other ways. It gave him an education, training as a junior officer, and later as a pilot flying Sopwith Camels.
When the war ended, he apparently gave no thought to staying in England. He headed back to Saskatchewan, as fast as he could. He farmed his own homestead, and later became the manager and accountant at a coal mine, and played a minor role in the creation of the CCF.
He and his wife, Catherine, raised five children: a doctor, a journalist, two nurses and a university professor. In one generation, they'd travelled a long way from the cabbage fields of the Norfolk Fens.
I never met Percy, so perhaps it's easier for me to see him as a scared, cold teenager charging up Vimy Ridge than it is for his grandchildren, who remember him as a gruff old man.
I don't want to romanticize his story. For me, there's no special heroism, no gallantry in his tale, just the terrible, touching humanity of a lonely boy at war, a boy who came back to the Prairies a man, and a Canadian.
His name was Percy Taylor, and some day, I'll tell my daughter he was your great-grandfather.