The British and the French had tried to dislodge them, losing thousands of men in the process. On April 8, 1917, it was the Canadians’ turn under Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng.
The force of about 97,000 Canadians positioned themselves near the German outposts and synchronized their watches. At exactly 5:30 AM on April 9 (Easter Monday), they pounded the ridge with 983 heavy guns, howitzers, and mortars. People in England (over 100 miles away) could hear it.
After exactly three minutes, the men advanced – all while the firing continued. They had rehearsed this back in Britain but, even so, those marching knew some of them would be hit by friendly fire.
MacDowell’s battalion was deployed to take Hill 145 – also called “The Pimple.” It was not easy. With firing coming from both sides, he reached the first enemy trench just before dawn… 50 yards to the right of his target. Meaning he had missed.
Separated from the rest, there was only MacDowell and his two runners – Privates James T. Kobus and Arthur James Hay. An ambitious man, MacDowell wanted the dugout for his headquarters, so he took out two machine gun nests with well-aimed grenades.
They secured the area, but the dugout went deep underground, complete with a ladder. He yelled down, ordering the Germans to surrender. No response.
He climbed down the 52 steps, rounded a corner, and came face-to-face with Prussian guards. There were more behind them, but the tunnel curved so he could not see them all. They made their move.
So did MacDowell, “Surrender now or die!”
They blinked. MacDowell yelled back up the tunnel, ordering his troops to blast the tunnel with everything they had. Convinced that a vast horde of angry Canadians was up there, the Germans surrendered.
“How many!?” MacDowell barked. Seventy-eight. Great. MacDowell only had two up there. What to do?
“Climb!” he ordered. “But only in groups of 12. Or else…”
The first group did so. Reaching the top, they saw only two men – game over. One lunged for a rifle on the ground, but it was the last thing he ever did. That took the fight out of the rest.
Fortunately, the killing shot echoed into the tunnel below. Grinning, MacDowell motioned the next 12 forward.
A group of 15 Canadians found them. True, their rifles were so clogged with mud they were virtually useless, but the Canadians wisely kept their mouths shut.
MacDowell became a major for his services and received a Victoria Cross. As for Canada, it gained battle-hardened veterans and the confidence to think of a future without Britain.