September 29, 2013 marks the 95th Anniversary of the death of my great-great uncle, Sergeant Harry Proven. Unfortunately, in the past ninety-five years, much of the history has been lost to time as his younger brother, Ernest Proven, was mortally wounded at Vimy Ridge, and the third brother, my great-grandfather, shared few stories about his older siblings. That being said, I am still in possession of some documents and photographs that provided some light into their military service but it was not until last year’s First World War course that I was actually able to bring his story to light.
I hope to show that even with a few seemingly irrelevant records, there are still the tools and resources out there that can shed some light on Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. For those interested, I will post a follow-up describing some of these resources I used in filling in the gap in my family’s history.
Harry Proven was born on January 2, 1893 to James and Harriet Proven of Clanwilliam, Manitoba. In the years before the outbreak of war, Harry attended school in Clanwilliam but, like many prairie boys, spent most of their time working on the family farm.
On January 30, 1915, at the age of twenty-two, enlisted in the Brandon-based 45th Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel F.J. Clark. Following training at Camp Hughes, the battalion relocated to Winnipeg where it remained before going overseas in March 1916. Harry’s time in England was relatively short as he was transferred to the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMRs) to replace the staggering casualties the battalion had received at Mount Sorrel in June 1916.
Harry’s first night in the trenches likely came in July 18, introducing him to the apparent endless supply of mud, rats, and lice. However, activity in the area was relatively quiet and Harry spent the next few months rotating in and out of the line. Christmas 1915 was spent in the front line but fortunately enemy fire remained minimal.
In early 1917, the battalion spent most of its time behind the lines preparing for the eventual assault on Vimy Ridge. Harry was joined by fellow Clanwilliam boys, including his younger brother, Ernest Proven, who had just been transferred to the unit from the Winnipeg-based 107th Battalion.
In the early hours of April 9, 1917, Harry, Ernie and the rest of the 1st CMRs went “over the top” following a spectacular artillery barrage on the German lines. As part of the first wave, Harry and Ernie were tasked with capturing and clearing the front lines and to then move forward to assist with the rest of the assault. Either in the initial assault or as “D” Company moved forward to assist, Ernie was struck in the shoulder by shrapnel, a wound that would claim his life three days later. Harry, however, remained unscathed and, by the end of the day, found himself fortifying his position in preparation for a counterattack.
The summer of 1917 was relatively uneventful as Harry was assigned to various courses and was also granted leave to Paris in August. While in Paris, Harry received his promotion to Sergeant. Fortunately, Harry was spared the nightmares of Passchendaele as he was transferred to the Canadian Corps School for the next five months, following which he was granted two weeks’ leave in England.
In late September 1918, Harry and the 1st CMRs prepared themselves for the assault on the town of Cambrai. Facing thirteen German divisions and numerous machine gun companies, the Canadian Corps launched its assault in the morning of September 29, 1918.
At 8:00 a.m., the 1st CMRs launched their attack under the cover of a rolling barrage. As they advanced, German machine gunners in and around St. Olle opened fire. Caught advancing across open fields, Harry and his men were prime targets for the enemy fire. While “A” and “C” Companies received the brunt of the casualties, “D” Company was not spared; German machine gun fire struck Harry in the chest.
Evacuated to the Regimental Aid Post, Harry was taken to the 12th Canadian Field Ambulance’s Advanced Dressing Station to have his dressing changed before being taken to the Main Dressing Station at Quéant. While in transport or following his arrival at Quéant, Harry succumbed to his wounds.
Harry was interned in the Quéant cemetery where he remains today. At home in Clanwilliam, the Proven family mourned the loss of another son and a service commemorated his “supreme sacrifice.” In 1922, the village of Clanwilliam erected a monument to its war dead and Harry and Ernest’s names were inscribed along the names of twenty-eight Clanwilliam men who died for King and Country.