Vimy Ridge, Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres and Hill 70.
Sgt. Walter MacKenzie fought at these and other major battles on the Western Front — and survived.
After the First World War, he returned to farm in Central Alberta. His son Craig, now age 81, mostly remembers his late father as a loyal husband and good dad.
“He only thrashed me once,” recalls Craig — and that was for disrespecting his mother by complaining about supper not being on time.
Walter MacKenzie, who died at age 67 in 1962, was “thoughtful, caring, patriotic… He wanted to do the right thing.”
Most importantly, Craig believes his dad was “the right kind of person at the right time — who could do what he had to do” — which was to lead soldiers through some of grimmest battles of The Great War that ended 100 years ago on Nov. 11.
Walter was born in 1895 in Greenock, Scotland. With nine brothers and a sister at home, he set out for Canada in 1912 to help his older brother Jim on his farm near Wimborne, Alta. His life was an adventure before reaching Canadian shores, says Craig. His dad’s ship was diverted on the Atlantic by a distress call from the Titanic (no survivors were found).
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Walter immediately signed up to fight, riding his horse to the CPR station in Red Deer. He trained in Quebec before being sent overseas, assigned to the First Canadian Division out of Red Deer.
Craig believes his dad’s calm sense of leadership impressed the higher ups, who advanced him quickly through the ranks.
“He was smart,” says Craig, who believes his dad realized some battles, including Passchendaele, were “ill conceived, ill planned… and he was very careful to advance…”
He remembers his father describing leading his troops on their bellies, “low, so they didn’t get shot.”
Walter called Passchendaele “the most questionable thing he ever did… After a couple of months, they gained just 400 yards,” says Craig.
By contrast, Vimy Ridge was plotted with careful strategy. Craig explains, “They took four days to get ready for the attack.”
By sneaking up on the German pillboxes, Canadian soldiers from many different divisions managed to push back the enemy and gain glory.
Some historians consider the Vimy Ridge victory the pivotal moment when Canada truly gelled as a nation.
Walter didn’t talk much about the war after returning home to Alberta to farm in the Knee Hill Valley in 1920, after spending a year helping France rebuild, says Craig.
He married Grace, whom he met at a farm dance, and they raised two sons.
But sometimes, Craig would hear snippets of his father’s wartime experiences — such as the time Walter walked to the bottom of a hill for a cigarette, surprising three German soldiers.
“He said two of them took off right away, and one of them never made it home.”
Craig remembers his father had tears in his eyes at the memory of having shot this startled soldier.
He also remembers his dad recounting the first time he saw poisonous gas. Walter told him he wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but advised his men (who had no gas masks yet) to hold wet handkerchiefs over their faces.
If they couldn’t find water, he told them to urinate on their handkerchiefs. One soldier scoffed at these instructions and later died of mustard gas in his lungs, says Craig.
Another time, his father told him of how he and a fellow soldier were getting a couple of pails of water from the river, when a bullet whizzed by between their heads.
“They looked up and (across on the opposite bank) stood a German sharpshooter. He just saluted them… as if to say, ‘I could have killed you both, but I decided to scare the living daylights out of you instead.’”
Craig recalls his father never portrayed war as heroic, but as a no-win situation for both sides — a global conflict that extinguished hundreds of thousands of lives unnecessarily.
Every year, he attends Remembrance services to honour his late dad and other soldiers. Many weren’t lucky enough to have made it home.