War hero returns home

Raiding the Archives returns after an extended hiatus. This column explores historic events in Prince George, as recorded by the more than 100 years of Prince George Citizen archives and other historical sources.

This week in Prince George history, Feb. 25 to March 3:

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Feb. 26, 1919: Capt. W.C. "Bill" Ross received official confirmation from London that he had been awarded a second bar to his Military Cross, The Citizen reported.

Ross, the son of Fort George MLA William R. Ross, visited his father at the Legislature shortly after arriving back in Canada aboard the Carmania the previous week. Ross was tightlipped about his 26 months of active duty in the trenches with the 72nd Battalion (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada).

"I cannot get him to tell anything, even to me," his father told The Citizen. "Perhaps he'll thaw out in time."

Ross fought in the Ypres salient, and the battles of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Amiens and Cambrai. He was awarded the Military Cross for his service at Vimy Ridge, and was wounded twice in the line of duty - the second time at Cambrai.

"For the first several months of his service overseas, Capt. Ross practically lived in No Man's Land. He led many raiding parties and constantly prowled about the enemy's quarters with dangerous patrols," The Citizen reported.

"Of all the splendid officers of the 72nd, I know of none braver or more deserving of a decoration than Bill Ross," a fellow officer of the Seaforth Highlanders said.

The Military Cross was established in December 1914 to honour officers, holding the rank of captain or below, and warrant officers for "distinguished and commendable services in battle," according to Veterans Affairs Canada. Since the medal's inception, a total of 3,727 Canadians have received the Military Cross - including 324 with a first bar and 18 with a second bar. Each bar added to a medal for gallantry indicates the recipient was bestowed the medal an additional time.

While Ross was reluctant to speak about his time at the front, he is mentioned in the book History of the 72nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, written by Bernard McEvoy and Capt. A.H. Finlay, M.C -the former intelligence officer of the 72nd Battalion - and published in 1920.

According to McEvoy and Finlay, as a lieutenant Ross commanded the Seaforth Highlanders' scouts and snipers. Later, after being promoted to captain, he would serve with C Company.

After several training deployments alongside more experienced troops, the Seaforths first deployed into the line alone on Sept. 3, 1916 in front of Kemmel, a village in West Flanders, Belgium.

During this time the Seaforths carried out their first trench raid of the war, with Ross leading the covering party.

"The duty of the covering party was to take up a position halfway across No Man's Land, and cover by fire the advance and retirement of the raiders," McEvoy and Finlay wrote.

The raid was a partial success, capturing two German prisoners, but at the cost of two men killed and three wounded.

However Ross would use the lessons learned for a more successful raid the following year, at a place called Vimy Ridge.

On Christmas Eve, 1916, the Seaforths moved into the front lines at Vimy Ridge, following the grueling, bloody Battle of the Somme. They occupied an 800-yard section of the trenches and a sniper duel between Ross' sniper teams and the Germans marked their time along the front.

"Successively, the 72nd took their turns in the trenches, relieving and being relived by the 38th Battalion and this went on until Feb. 16 (1917), when 'B' Company put over the most successful raid, and as the operation on this particular occasion received the honour of being held up at the army schools of instruction as a model of its kind, some further mention may be in order," McEvoy and Finlay wrote.

The raiding party was made up of Ross, Lt. T. Barrie and 54 soldiers divided into nine squads of one NCO and five privates each. Using aerial photographs and maps, they laid out tapes on the ground near Villers-au-Bois to recreate the German trenches and began training for the raid on Feb. 10, 1917.

"On Feb. 12 the battalion moved into the line from the rest billets to once more garrison the muddy trenches and damp-infested dugout and tunnels that constituted the defensive system on the ridge," McEvoy and Finlay wrote.

"The raiders, however, stayed out of the line, practicing at Villers-au-Bois day after day until each man felt almost competent to perform his task blindfolded. As may be imagined, knowledge - intimate knowledge - of the enemy trenches is sine qua non in all offensive operations, but in none is it more imperative than in night raiding, when men, worked up to the highest pitch of excitement and following the barrage, a leaping line of flame-shot smoke, jump into the enemy works."

On Feb. 16, 1916 the raiders were ready and took up positions in the trenches. At 11:30 p.m. a barrage of mortar fire fell in a box around the position to be raided.

Ross, Lt. Barrie and their men went forward through the maze of shell holes and took up positions 30 yards from the German line.

When the bombardment shifted from the German front line to their secondary line, the raiding parties "in grim silence" raced forward.

"The raiders, splitting into two parties, entered the German front line on both flanks simultaneously," McEvoy and Finlay wrote. "Turning inwards, the men raced along the shallow, evil-smelling ditch towards the prearranged meeting place in the centre of the objective."

One of the raiders heaved a 60-pound explosive charge down into a German dugout. The remaining Germans, stunned by "the fiercely swift action of the kilted figures" surrendered or fled the trenches and were gunned down by machine gun fire.

Ross and Barrie did a quick roll call, found all their men accounted for, and withdrew from the German trenches with their prisoners.

"Seven minutes after entering the German front, the whole raiding party (was) safely back in their own lines," McEvoy and Finlay wrote.

"It goes without saying that in the dugouts set aside for them, the victorious raiders reviewed with considerable excitement the ordeal they had gone through, whilst, overhead, a solitary 5.9 (inch howitzer) battery pounded their front line as if in sorrowful protest."

Ross and Barrie were each presented the Military Cross for their leadership of the successful raid.

In other battles, Ross would distinguish himself as well. At Cambrai, for example, he and Company C encircled and captured a battery of eight German 77 mm field guns, along with four officers and 115 soldiers.

I could find no information about what happened to Ross after the war, although hopefully he was able to leave the horrors of war behind him in France and Belgium.

To explore 100 years of local history yourself, visit the Prince George Citizen archives online at: pgc.cc/PGCarchive. The Prince George Citizen online archives are maintained by the Prince George Public Library.

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