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Remembering Vimy Ridge
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Remembering Vimy Ridge
This year, in April, Canadians celebrated the 100th year anniversary of one of our most significance victories of WWI.
The battle of Vimy Ridge marked the first time all four divisions of the fledgling Canadian army fought together. For many
the victory became a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice. Remembrance Day was established at the end
of the first World war to remember those who paid the ultimate price in the war. Approximately 37% of the 415,00
Canadians that severed overseas during WWI were wounded and some 14% lost their lives. Many Canadian families made
more than a few sacrifices during the battle for Vimy Ridge and in other battles. Four members of the Cunningham family of
Cape Sable Island found themselves at Vimy Ridge and the following account remembers their stories and the sacrifices they
New England settlers came to Cape Sable Island about 1773 and the first Cunningham arrived
there in 1785. According to the 1911 Canadian census the population of Cape Sable Island totaled
2525 people. Eighty-five of them had the last name Cunningham. Herbert Cunningham born in 1891,
following the premature death of his father John when he just seven, spent most of his life growing
up on Cape Sable Island. Between 1910 and 1912 he worked as the assistant light keeper at the Cape
Sable lighthouse for his uncle Arthur Cunningham. At the outbreak of the war Herbert enlisted in April
1915 into the 40th Battalion, eventually sailing for England in October 1915. After spending nearly a
year in England training troops for the front, Herbert and nine other Sergeants from the 40th all
resigned their ranks so they could join those in the front lines in France as privates. Herb Cunningham
and his friends joined the 60th battalion in the field on 19 March 1916.
Judah and Jessie Cunningham lived in the community of Stony Island on Cape Sable Island. Their son Hubert, a
fisherman, enlisted in November 1915 at age 23. Another son, Zebulon, a year older than his brother Hubert enlisted the
following March 1916. One of their cousins from North East Point on the island was Eleazer Cunningham, the son of Burton
and Elizabeth Cunningham. He was just 19 when he enlisted in April 1916.
In a letter written to his sister Geneva, just before he leaves England for the trenches in February 1916, Herb
Cunningham mentions, “I only wish there were a few more to represent the Cunningham family over here.” It appears that
Herbert was unaware three cousins from Cape Sable Island would soon be joining him. There is no doubt that Hubert and
Zebulon Cunningham knew their younger cousin Eleazer and all three of the young soldiers from Cape Sable Island sailed
together from Halifax on 12 October 1916 aboard the SS Olympic. Zebulon Cunningham went to the front assigned to the
42nd battalion. Cousins Hubert and Eleazer were both assigned to the 13th battalion on the same day, 5 December 1916.
In a letter written to his sister Geneva on 8 April 1917 titled “Just before the
battle” Herbert Cunningham tells his sister “I feel a bit uneasy today, first sensation I
have had of just that sort.” The Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge was in great part due to
the extensive preparations they made before the battle. Months had been spent studying
models of the trench lines and every effort had been made to pinpoint German artillery
positions. The Canadian army achieved a great success at Vimy Ridge but at a great cost,
suffering just over ten thousand casualties, almost 3600 of those were killed in action.
Hubert Cunningham was killed the first day of the battle even though his battalion
the 13th was being held in reserve. According to one account, Hubert was seated on a
stump reading when an artillery shell landed nearby exploding and killing him instantly. Hubert had written his mother just
a few days earlier assuring her that he would be home “when the goose flies”. In remembrance, Hubert Cunningham’s name
is found on the Vimy Memorial.
The same day his brother was killed, Zebulon with the 42nd battalion was wounded by gunshots in his left leg and
shell-shocked. He was sent to England where he recovered and he actually returned to the front lines early in 1918,
remaining there until the end of the war.
As the battle for Vimy Ridge was winding down, on 13 April, Herbert Cunningham found himself
involved in an engagement to secure a couple small villages just behind Vimy Ridge. When an artillery shell
exploded near him, he was wounded badly in the right leg and the concussion of the shell’s explosion
knocked out his hearing. On the 16th of April he is admitted into the No 3 Canadian General Hospital at
Boulogne, France. The shrapnel wound to his right thigh had left a considerable hole and an interesting
sketch made by a doctor of the wound was found in his war record. Herb was transported back to England
on the 20th of April and remained there convalescing until the end of the war.
After losing his cousin Hubert at Vimy, Eleazer Cunningham was still in the action with the 13th
battalion. On 26 April 1917, Eleazer was seriously wounded, getting shot several times in the right thigh, the
stomach and in the neck. Just two days later on 28 April 1917 Eleazer died of his wounds. His remains rest in the Aubigny
Communal Cemetery in France. He was just 20 years old.
Zebulon Cunningham returned to Canada in March 1919, eventually making his way back
to Cape Sable Island where he lived to the ripe old age of 92 before passing away in 1984.
While he was recovering in England Herbert Cunningham met the love of his life, Grace Ayres
and married her there on 2 November 1918. The happy couple returned to Canada where
Herbert became the chief light keeper for 30 years at the Cape Forchu lighthouse in Yarmouth.
Herb Cunningham passed away peacefully in 1982.
There were four Cunningham cousins from Cape Sable Island at Vimy Ridge. Two of these
young men lost their lives in action and the other two were seriously wounded. It is important
for family members to remember the sacrifices these four Cape Islanders Herbert, Zebulon,
Hubert, and Eleazer made at Vimy Ridge. Even more important, all Canadians at this time of
year need to take the time to remember the members of our armed forces that have made the
ultimate sacrifice for our nation.
Sgt Herbert Cunningham
Canadian soldiers on the march
Herbert and Grace Cunningham