Issei were fighting at Vimy Ridge in World War 1 with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Among them were a number of American residents…
A route to citizenship
During the First World War, Japan allied itself with the Entente Cordiale, an agreement between the UK and France. Safeguarding the sea lanes in the West Pacific and Indian Oceans in exchange for German-held territories was part of the accord.
In spite of the Japanese alignment, anti-Asian sentiment in the coastal states of both the US and Canada was strong. Yet a number of Japanese in Canada – and even a few in the USA – saw volunteering for military service as a potential path to citizenship.
More than 150 paid for their own training, but were still refused by recruiters in British Columbia. The Alberta recruiters had no such qualms. By spring 1916 the shortage of volunteers was such that the first Japanese-born volunteers were accepted. By June 1916, 42 of them were on their way to Europe where they ended up in the 10th and 50th Battalion. Eventually, 222 Japanese Canadians joined, of whom 54 were killed and 92 wounded in battle.
Battle for Vimy Ridge
The following spring, they would see one of the biggest battles of WW1: the Battle of Vimy Ridge. For the first time all 4 Canadian Divisions got to fight side by side under their own command. The battle is therefore often seen as a coming-of-age point for Canada as a nation. The German controlled ridge guarded the Douai Plains, rich in coal and crossed by railways serving as supply lines for the occupying troops.
On the morning of April 9th, 1917, amidst relentless artillery fire, the 50th Bn advanced towards the heavily fortified German positions on Vimy Ridge. Capturing the ridge had eluded the Allied on previous attempts.
The 50th Bn – part of the 4th Division – found itself assigned to the northern end of the ridge. The battle started at 2 a.m. with a heavy barrage. The subsequent rolling barrage provided cover for the advancing Canadians. The effect of 1.6 million shells on the ground is still visible today.
The objective of the 50th Bn on the northern flank was the taking the highest point on the ridge, Hill 145 and the fortified knoll known as the Pimple. After 3 days of heavy fighting, the Germans – low on food and high on casualties – finally retreated from the ridge and Allied troops took possession of the high ground.
The battle’s success came from a combination of meticulous preparation, in-depth reconnaissance, innovative tactics and artillery support. Nevertheless, victory came at a great cost. Over the 4 days of battle for the ridge, from 9 to 12 April 1917, 3,598 Canadian soldiers were killed and another estimated 7,000 wounded. On the German side, the estimated casualties total around 20,000.
Remembering the Issei
The monument at Vimy Ridge lists the names of over 11,000 Canadian soldiers who died in France during World War 1 and have no known grave. The tunnel system that provided cover during the approach to the ridge is a visual reminder of the dangers. The monument stands as a constant reminder for us to reflect on the cost of war.
Less than 3 decades later, the Nisei followed in the footsteps of their fathers. By joining up, they hoped to show their loyalty. And like their fathers, they hoped it would help with securing their civil rights…
Our tour in October 2023 will visit Vimy Ridge and pay homage to the Issei soldiers who fought here.