Friday 3 April 2015

A Family From Buckingham

It's difficult to choose a story that most captured my attention as I gradually peeled back layers hidden in the archives, but certainly this was one. Like so many, it started as a random picture of two headstones, obviously brothers, their deaths recorded on the same day - the first day of the battle of Vimy Ridge.  But behind these headstones was a story of a family pulled towards the War. 

On Good Friday, 1917, Canadian troops began taking up forward positions in anticipation of the attack on Vimy Ridge. Here is the story of the boys of one family from Buckingham, Quebec. who took part in the attack.

The Cheniers

Which is more poignant, hearing of brothers who have fought together and have both been killed, or to hear of one who has been killed while the other has survived? There must surely have been a special bond between siblings who signed up to fight alongside one another. Perhaps none was more tragic than Jim and Tom Mills; Tom was killed in the Canadian attack on Mons on 10th November, 1918, within hours of the signing of the Armistice.  

“Wheeeesh - crash! A slamming explosion, a shell had burst just beyond the building about fifteen feet in the air. . .  there was a despairing cry behind me. I swung around to see Tom Mills falling. His brother caught him but had to let him down. “I’m hit” Tom said, and held out his arm. His wrist was almost severed. But as he sank back on the floor I saw he had a fearful wound in the stomach. He died as we looked at him.”  And while Jim held his brother and begged a friend to get a stretcher bearer, “agony in his voice” he died. 
Will Bird, Black Watch of Montreal

While many of the letters written home after the capture of Vimy Ridge recount the “wonderful job of the Canadian boys” and the “thrilling experience”, cemeteries like Cabaret Rouge tell of the cost to many small towns across Canada where a sizable portion of the population knew each other, as friends or relatives.

The Chenier brothers, Wilfred and Olivier, showed up at the recruiting office in Ottawa, on a cold March morning, the temperature hovering around -15oC. They were accompanied by their cousin, Lowell, all three traveling from Buckingham on the other side of the river. In answer to the Government’s drive for fresh troops in the winter of 1915, the County of Northumberland established the 139th Battalion. While centred in Cobourg and recruiting heavily from the surrounding counties, it also opened recruiting offices in other parts of Eastern Ontario and West Quebec, and four officers were station in Ottawa in the first three months of 1916. It eventually enlisted 162 men from Ottawa, Hull, Labelle and Pontiac. 

The S.S. Northland - returning troops in December 1918,
complaining bitterly of conditions onboard, sparked
a Commission of Inquiry into basic conditions on troopships.
A week after Wilfred and Olivier enlisted, their younger brother, Isidore, also signed up, and one week later they were joined by Lowell’s younger brother, Emilier. But in his eagerness to join his brother, Emilier lied on his enlistment papers, recording his birth date as August 28th, 1897, three years earlier than it actually was. It was a deception that wasn’t uncovered until a month after he had arrived in England, in November 1916; he was transferred to the Boy’s Battalion. Emilier returned to Canada on the ill-fated SS. Northland in December 1918, never having seen action.

The training and discipline that summer at Valcartier was difficult for many of the men, and their CO, Lt. Col Floyd, was not well liked. Despite their early enthusiasm, not all of the Cheniers were suited to the army. Wilfred and Olivier’s younger brother, Isidore, deserted the Battalion shortly after arriving in Valcartier, and Wilfred also ran off while convalescing in the hospital, although he was quickly caught and returned to duty.

Verdict of the Court of Enquiry on the shooting
of Lowell Chenier
Their cousin’s introduction to the army was just as eventful. Before he even embarked for England Lowell was wounded while the Battalion was encamped at Barriefield outside of Kingston; shot in the leg in a fit of drunken rage by another member of the Battalion, Private Richard Gallagher.  Gallagher was eventually found guilty of “shooting with intent to do grevious bodily harm” and was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary.     

The SS Southland
The brothers finally set sail for England in late September, aboard the S.S. Southland, arriving in Liverpool seven days later. They made their way through rain and mud to West Sandling Camp, in Kent, where they spent the next three months training. But they were no longer with the battalion in which they had enlisted. As was often the case, it was broken up on arrival, initially absorbed into the 36th Battalion, and later into the 3rd Reserve Battalion that was used to feed units depleted in the heavy fighting around the Somme.  Lowell went his separate way in late March, in the build-up to the attack on Vimy Ridge, joining the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion, while Wilfred and Olivier headed off at the same time to the Royal Canadian Regiment.

Arriving in the last week of March, the Cheniers joined with the rest of the battalion in work duties to prepare for the upcoming operation: a new battalion HQ was built closer to the front lines, jumping off trenches were fixed up, supply and bomb dumps were constructed, and ammunition and bombs were hauled up from La Targette. A small group of pioneers was also tasked with painting the regimental badge, a green circle on a black square, on signs that would guide runners on the day of the attack from their final objective back to the headquarters. And in a last ditch effort to deal with the shortage of bomb buckets from ordnance, the regimental tailor, along with eleven other tailors, had started improvising ones made from canvas. The miserable spring weather, cold and more often than not raining or snowing, was the one obstacle in their preparations.

On late Thursday, and in the early hours of Good Friday, the RCR began moving up to their trenches, taking over the line across from LaFolie Ridge that would form their jump off point three days later. A 100 yards separated each company as they left their billets at Villers Camp, the PPCLI moving forward at the same time, 500 yards in front. Equipped with bombs and extra iron rations, the men entered the Grange Tunnel on the evening of the 6th, squeezing in a last cigarette before the order against smoking went in to effect at 8 p.m..

The preliminary barrage had been going on for two weeks, crushing the enemy’s dug-outs, machine gun emplacements, supply dumps and lines of communication. Towns that could give the enemy coverage, Thélus, Farbus, and Givenchy across from the RCR, had been levelled. A few days earlier the barrage had entered the final phase and shells poured over the men’s heads “like water from a hose, thousands and thousands a day”

The next two days in the lines were given over to last minute preparations: sandbags, tools and more wire cutters were issued, and the men in D company picked up an extra 50 shovels from the neighbouring  P.P.C.L.I. to complete their tool issue. The problem with bomb buckets continued to plague the battalion and each company distributed more sand bags as a last resort.

Entries for the morning of April 9th from the
Operations Summary of the Royal Canadian Regiment:
"All Happy and Co. in Assembly trenches"
The night before the attack was long, cold and wet - it rained steadily.  They’d arrived in the assembly trenches almost an hour after midnight, kitted out in battle order: they were all wearing leather jerkins and were carrying waterproof sheets; they had ammunition pouches with their haversacks on shoulder straps, and there were at least two mills bombs in them, along with wire cutters, a ground flare so they could communicate with aircraft, a very light, 170 rounds of ammunition, and S.O.S. rockets.  They also carried one day's ration two Iron rations (for use in emergencies that generally consisted of a can of bully beef, a few biscuits and tea and sugar); and they each had a full water bottle.

Their chatter made it seem like they were happy - hiding their nerves. They’d had a hot meal at the last possible moment, and would be given a shot of rum just a few minutes before they attacked.  

The four and a half hour wait came to an end promptly at 5:30 a.m. when the rolling barrage started. The three companies of the RCR headed out towards La Folie Ridge, and within four hours they had captured Ecole Commune, their final objective for the day. 

Two miles south of the RCR, opposite Farbus Wood, Lowell and the 4th Battalion were waiting to attack in the second wave - they would head out at 10 a.m. . Lowell was kitted out in much the same way as his cousins, but he was given a little more direction; his greatcoat was rolled and attached to the waist belt under his haversack, he was told that he would have no need to carry his waterproof sheet and, as ordered, he’d attached his mess tin and cover to the outside of the haversack.

The 4th Battalion had started towards their assembly area two hours after the attack on Vimy Ridge had begun. They started a steady advance towards their objective just before 10 a.m. .  By mid afternoon they had  achieved their objective, and had set up a defensible outpost line along the western edge of Farbus Wood.  

There was no easy way for the Cheniers to stay in touch once they had deployed to their battalions - this was usually achieved through letters from family, or by a chance meeting with someone they knew who could pass on word. It was not until November that Wilfred and Olivier Chenier were officially posted as having been killed, and it was possibly many weeks after the attack on Vimy Ridge that Lowell found out about their fate. While notification of casualties was sent promptly to the next of kin, the Casualty Lists could often be quite old by the time they were seen at the front. 

Lowell would move on from Vimy Ridge in May, taking part in the battle for Hill 70 later that summer, and then to to Flanders in November, where the 4th Battalion would participate in the final assault on Passchendaele Village. For him it would be a long war that continued through the 4th Battalion's involvement in the Last Hundred Day, that started with the Battle of Amiens, where the 4th Battalion saw "many gallant acts performed by all ranks in the face of extremely severe machine gun fire", and ended at the Canal du Nord where Lowell was shot, ironically, in the leg.

Lowell Chenier was invalided to Canada in May 1919, the recent recipient of a Military Medal for his actions in those last days of  the war. He returned to Buckingham where he lived until his death in late April, 1956 and was survived by his wife, his son, two daughters and four grandchildren.


  1. Do you know to what specific battalions both Chenier belonged on that 9th of April 1917 ?

  2. Hi Frank,
    Apologies for not having seen this earlier. Both Cheniers served in the Royal Canadian Regiment. Their complete service records are actually available and downloadable from the Library and Archives website. W. Chenier's Regimental Number is 814913 and Oliver Chenier's Regimental number is 814814. Hope this helps.