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The Pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge

By H.F.P. (RAdm Hugh F. Pullen)

war memorial

The Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.

Seventeen years have gone by since the unveiling [July 26, 1936] of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in honour of those of our countrymen who gave their lives in the First World War.

For the occasion, the Canadian Legion organized a pilgrimage of its members, and the Royal Canadian Navy was asked to share in the ceremonies. HMCS Saguenay was chosen to escort the ships carrying the pilgrims to France and to land a Royal Guard for His Majesty King Edward VIII. From this developed two points of historical interest – the first crossing of the North Atlantic from West to East by one of HMC destroyers and the first mounting of a Royal Guard for the Sovereign in person by the Royal Canadian Navy.

The Saguenay, commanded by Commander W. J. R. Beech, RCN, and the Champlain, under Lieut.-Cdr. R. E. S. Bidwell, RCN, proceeded to Montreal to act as escort for the four liners which would carry the pilgrims to France. The ships were the Montrose, Montcalm, Antonia and Ascania.

The convoy and escort sailed from Montreal on July 16, the Champlain being detached in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and her four charges’ proceeding for France by way of the Strait of Belle Isle.

The Saguenay’s preparations for the journey had, of course, begun long before the sailing date and those preparations involved much hard work and personal sacrifice on the part of the three officers, three petty officers and 59 ratings from the ship’s company who made up the guard. The guard not only underwent vigorous and intensive training, but each officer and man went to considerable expense to provide himself with a new uniform that he might offer a creditable appearance. What this meant has to be measured against the fact that Canada had still to emerge from the great depression of the ’30s and pay and allowances could hardly be compared favourably with those of today.

It was decided to land a White Ensign, which today reposes in the Maritime Museum at Halifax. For the ensign staff, a special brass top piece in the form of a halberd was made by the Mechanical Training Establishment. A white Colour Belt, suitably embellished with a naval crown and maple leaf was also made. Both have since disappeared, although it is still hoped they may return to find the place they deserve in the Maritime Museum as objects of historical interest.

I was personally honoured by being chosen as Officer of the Guard. For the occasion all officers were required to wear No. 3 dress, which, to the uninitiated, consisted of cocked hat, frock coat, epaulettes and sword, the uniform then worn on ceremonial occasions.

My rank at that time was Lieutenant. With me were Lieut. (Now Acting Commodore) M. A. Medland, RCN, who was Colour Officer, and Mr. P. D. Budge. Gunner (T), RCN, Second Officer of the Guard, who is now Chief of Staff to COND and holds the rank of Captain.

The Saguenay took her departure from Belle Isle on July 18 and, after the usual North Atlantic weather, made her landfall off the Bishop Rock on the morning of July 23. That evening she left the convoy, being ordered to show herself off Le Havre the following morning before proceeding to Boulogne.

The ship secured alongside at Boulogne and had as her host ship the French destroyer Orage, which less than four years later was sunk in action with German aircraft during the evacuation of Dunkirk.

The Royal Guard left Boulogne for Arras, the nearest large town to Vimy Ridge, on the morning of July 25, and was met there by Canadian Army representatives. The Army’s representation at the ceremony included the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery band from Kingston, a composite pipe band to which every Highland regiment in Canada had contributed a piper, and the drums of the 48th Highlanders from Toronto. The drum major’s name was Small and he stood a good 6 ft., 6 in. in his stocking feet.

The Royal Guard paraded with bayonets fixed and, led by the two Army bands, marched to the Town Hall where they heard an address of welcome by the Mayor of Arras. The progress of the Canadians through the town aroused considerable enthusiasm among the inhabitants, who had not seen Canadians under arms since the bitter days of the First World War. The Royal Guard, in fact, represented the first Canadians to appear armed on French soil in the years between the wars, and they were to be followed four years later by elements of the First Division, who spent a short time in France after Dunkirk.

With some diffidence, I replied to the Mayor in French. Any awkward feelings were soon allayed, however, by generous glasses of champagne.

Accommodation was found for the officers and men in Arras – the officers at the Hotel du Commerce, the men in the Ecole Normale.

The Royal Guard at Vimy Ridge, the day before the ceremony.

On Saturday morning, July 25, the guard and bands were taken to Vimy Ridge by bus for a dress rehearsal. The traffic was heavy and the buses were late. To top it all, a heavy rain squall washed out all hope of accomplishing much. Or perhaps the day was capped by what then seemed like a tragic event. A seaman mislaid his rifle during a visit we all paid to the old Canadian front line at the foot of the Ridge. A certain officer (as a hint, it can be said he wears four stripes today) went anxiously among the local inhabitants, pleadingly asking in the best French he could muster: “Avvy voo troovay un foozee?”

It was found – but not until the ceremony was over and it had been necessary to drop a whole file from the Royal Guard. I still have a letter in my possession. from the Arras police, which reads:

“Nous avons l'honneur de vous informer, que le fusil du soldat britannique a été retrouvé, et déposé à la mairie de Neuville-Saint-Vaast.”

Sunday, July 26, dawned – the day of the ceremony. The forenoon was spent cleaning equipment and preparing for the event. Dinner was eaten and the Royal Guard and bands were fallen in to march off at 1300.

The buses again were late. They did not arrive until 1330 and we had to march right into position at Vimy Ridge. without time even for a brushup.

The area around the memorial was covered with pilgrims and other visitors from near and far. Facing the guard were a French military band and a guard of Spahis (Algerian cavalry) on white horses.

At 1415, His Majesty the King was received by a Royal Salute, the band playing “God Save the King” and “O Canada”. His Majesty then inspected the guard.

This was a very proud moment in our lives, as we had the honour of providing the first Royal Guard in the Royal Canadian Navy’s history in the presence of the Sovereign.

The President of France M. Albert LeBrun arrived and the guard presented arms while “La Marseillaise” was played.

The guard was also brought to the order when Rear-Admiral Walter Hose, our former Chief of Naval Staff, passed on his way to the memorial.

His Majesty King Edward VIII is seen with Hon. Ernest Lapointe, Minister of Justice, and two other Canadian cabinet ministers at the dedication of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. At the left is Hon. lan MacKenzie, Minister of National Defence, and behind him is Hon. C. G. Power, Minister of Pensions and National Health. The officer of the guard is Lieut. Hugh F. Pullen, now a Rear-Admiral and Chief of Naval Personnel.

Arrangements had been made for the guard to have its photograph taken in front of the memorial and to lay a wreath there. The extent of the crowd made both impossible. Instead, the guard marched off at 1630 to a British cemetery on the western slope of Vimy Ridge for a short, unrehearsed ceremony. The Royal Guard presented arms and the bands played. The “Last Post” and “Réveille’” were sounded by AB Henry B. Bayley. A wreath was laid by an able seaman and a stoker, supported by an ordinary seaman and ordinary stoker, and led by myself.

At 1745 we marched to the main road to await the buses which were to carry us back to Arras.

After our two previous experiences, we should have known better. An hour and a half later they hadn’t appeared and we decided to march the eight miles from Vimy Ridge to Arras. The decision wasn’t made lightly, for we had been without food, water or tobacco since 1300.

As we marched off the ridge, we passed wooden tables where the local inhabitants were selling bread and cake. The tables were bare by the time the rear section of fours had passed the last of them.

I have contrasting memories of that march back to Arras, through the villages of Neuville Saint Vaast and La Torquette.

One memory is of the setting sun and the lengthening shadows and the two pylons of the memorial gleaming white and tall on the crest of Vimy Ridge.

Another is of a colonel trying to scrounge a cigarette – the only one among all of us – which had mysteriously appeared in the possession of a certain famous three-badge able seaman.

At Neuville Saint Vaast we halted while the villagers gave us. water. Others gave us water further along the way.

Then we came to the crest of the hill leading down into Arras. The pipe band struck up "The Road to the Isles" and we marched into the town, heads up, arms swinging and as proud as Punch. Not a man had fallen out along the way. Not a man had fallen out during the two-and-a-half hour ceremony at Vimy Ridge.

We had missed the last train for Boulogne by a handsome margin and had to spend the night in Arras. The train journey the next day to Boulogne was more than somewhat relaxed. Sailors and Highlanders traded caps and bonnets and danced to the pipes on the railway platform. The effect on the local inhabitants was somewhat startling.

At the railroad platform at Boulogne, the guard formed up and. with bayonets fixed, drums beating, and colours flying, we marched through the town led by the brass and pipe bands and arrived alongside the Saguenay at 1100.

But we did not immediately say good-bye to the soldiers. The First Lieutenant (the late Commodore G. R. Miles, OBE) with a great deal of forethought, had taken care to embark a suitable stock of Canadian beer. We were thus able to entertain our Army brothers in an appropriate fashion before they left to catch the cross-Channel steamer for England.

Those of us who are left (and most of us are) recall the scene alongside the Saguenay as the pipe band wheeled and marched off to "The Cock o’ the North", while the ship was manned by cheering sailors.

The guard from the Saguenay was paraded once again before we sailed for Canada. That was on July 30 at Dover, when the Marquess of Willingdon, former Governor-General of Canada, was installed as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an honorary position which has been held for some years past by another famous Englishman, Sir Winston Churchill.

Although this all happened 17 years ago, the memory is still fresh and vivid in my mind. It may be of interest to the modern Navy as an example of what those of us who had the honour to serve in the pre-war Navy had to contend with and were able to accomplish.

Following is a list of the men in the Royal Guard, with their latest rank, awards and in the case of those still serving, their present ship. PO Robert Brownings, right guide, released 1938 to return to RN, and AB Henry B. Bayley, bugler, released 1946 were not formally on either watch:

A/Ldg. Sea. Gérard Normandin, pensioned 1948, A/Electrical Technician, LSGCM.PO Frederick W. Saunders, now RCN(R), at HMCS Niobe, CPO, GM, DSM.
Ldg.-Sea. Ralph E. Gregory, pensioned 1946, CPO (TY), LSGCM.Ldg. Sea. Charles L. McDerby, now at HMCS Stadacona, Lieutenant, CD.
A/Ldg.-Sea. John G. Ross, now at HMCS Cornwallis, CPO, CD.Ldg. Sea. Jonathan Carswell, now at HMCS Stadacona, Lieutenant (Star), LSGCM.
AB George J. Corp, now at HMCS Naden, CPO, LSGCM.AB Albert E, Veal, pensioned 1940.
AB Walter B. Nichol, now in RCN(R) at HMCS Carleton, CPO, LSGCM.AB Leslie J. Parry, now in HMCS Granby, Lieutenant (Star), LSGCM.
AB Alex T. Kirker, released 1945, PO(TY). LSGCM.AB Nelson D. Rutt, pensioned 1948, CPO, now manager of the ship’s company canteen at HMCS Stadacona.
AB Aubrey F. McGee, pensioned 1952, CPO, CD. MiD.AB Albert J. B. Wolfe, now at HMCS Stadacona, CPO, LSGCM.
AB Charles W. Ponder, released 1939.AB Frank E. Aves, demobilized 1945, CPO, BEM.
AB Jack Marcus, released 1937.PO Charles J. Kelly, pensioned 1946.
AB Frank L. Gervais. pensioned 1951, CPO.AB Stanley A. Ireland, drowned July 29, 1936, during visit of Saguenay to the Channel Islands.
AB James C. Harris, pensioned 1947, PO(TY), LSGCM,AB Fred J. Granger, released 1939.
AB Dosithé Desjardins, Pensioned 1950; CPO.AB Robert L. Ellis, now in command of HMCS New Liskeard, Lieutenant-Commander (TAS), CD.
AB Lorenzo J. Lafreniére, now at HMCS Stadacona, CPO, LSGCM.AB Ernest E. Pinter, now at HMCS Stadacona, CPO, LSGCM.
AB Albert Clarke, released 1946, Ldg. Sea.AB Sydney C. Hancock, died in HMCS Margaree 1940, Acting PO.
AB Frederick E. Ross, released 1942, A/PO(TY).AB James R. Trow, now in RCN(R) at HMCS Malahat, PO.
AB Reginald E. Leal, pensioned 1950, A/Gunner, LSGCM.AB Herbert S. Lentz, now in RCN(R) at HMCS Discovery, Lieutenant (L) (Star), LSGCM.
AB Daniel W. Gearing, now at HMCS Donnacona, CPO, DSM, LSGCM.Ord. Sea. James W. Paddon, died in HMCS Fraser, 1940.
Ord.-Sea. Renfred C. Heale, died in HMCS Margaree, 1940.AB Delbert K. Dorrington, now in HMCS Quebec, CPO, LSGCM.
Ord.-Sea. Dominic R. Hill, now in HMCS Quebec, CD, Gunner, LSGCM.AB Jack W. Johnson, demobilized 1945, A/Ldg. Sea.
Ord. Sea. Robert E. Middleton, now at Stadacona, Lieutenant (Star), CD.Ord. Sea. William H. Roberts, now at HMCS Donnaconna, CPO, LSGCM, U.S. Legion of Merit.
Ord. Sea. Lenn Speight, now at HMCS Niobe, Lieutenant (TAS), CD.Ord. Sea. Ellis McP. Parker, now at HMCS Stadacona, CPO, LSGCM.
AB Jean Arsenault, released 1945, A/Bos’n.Ord. Sea. Helge Pohjola, released 1937.
Ord. Sea. Douglas A. Kershaw, released 1937.Tel. Donald McGee, now at HMCS Cornwallis, A/Commissioned Officer, LSGCM.
Ord. Sea. Douglas R. Clarke, now at HMCS Stadacona, CPO, LSGCM.Ldg. Sto. Ernest Racine, pensioned 1952, CPO, LSGCM.
Sig. Franklin M. Macklin, died in HMCS Fraser, 1940, A/Ldg. Sig.Sto. James F. Mackintosh now in HMCS Cape Breton, Lieutenant (E), CD.
Stoker PO Weldon P. Bryson, pensioned 1946, Chief Stoker PO (TY).Sto. Angus I. MacMillan, now in RCN(R) at HMCS Star, CPO, LSGCM.
A/Stoker PO Weldon P. Bryson, pensioned 1949, CPO, LSGCM.Sto. Mitchel E. Perrin, died December 7, 1936.
Sto. Terrance D. Riordan, released 1949, ERA.Sto. Edward Glover, now at HMCS Naden, CPO, LSGCM.
Sto. Arthur F. Carter, released 1948, Sto. PO Mech., LSGCM.A/Ldg. Sto. Frederick H. Watt, pensioned 1951, CPO, LSGCM.
Sto. Georges H. Soubliére, now in HMCS Portage. Ldg. Sea., CD.Sto. Harry L. Priske, now in HMCS New Waterford, CPO, CD.

On the 26th of July 1936, just a few days after his thirty-first birthday, a young Lieutenant Pullen, RCN, commanded the first Royal Guard in the Royal Canadian Navy’s history in the presence of the Sovereign. RAdm Pullen later embodied his recollections of the Vimy Ridge ceremony in this article, which is adapted from The Crowsnest, v. 5, no.11, September 1953.

See also a brief biography, and details of the sword he carried (now in our collections).


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