Pte. Ernest Albert Proven, 1895-1917
Today marks the 97th anniversary of the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. Among the thousands of Canadian soldiers who went “over-the-top” that fateful morning were two of my great-great uncles, Harry and Ernest Proven. While Harry survived the attack (read more about him here), his younger brother was not so lucky.
On December 13, 1895, James and Harriet Proven of Clanwilliam, Manitoba, welcomed the birth of their son, Ernest Albert Proven. Ernest, or Ernie, was eventually one of three children; his older brother, Harry, was born two years previous, and his younger brother, Sidney, was born in 1896.
Shortly before war broke out in 1914, Ernie and Sid purchased land in the Alonsa area and started working on homesteads there. I do not know where the Proven brothers were war was declared but like the many prairie farming families, they were likely more concerned with their crops than war in Europe. This, however, would soon change as his older brother, Harry, enlisted in January 1915 with the 45th Battalion.
On March 18, 1916, Ernie and a number of the Clanwilliam boys not yet in uniform attended a recruiting rally. There, alongside fourteen of his comrades, twenty-one year old Ernest Proven volunteered his services for Lt. Col. Glen Campbell’s 107th Battalion.
Following a brief stay in Winnipeg, Ernie and the 107th Battalion relocated to Camp Hughes for summer training. Here, the men of the 107th Battalion trained in the mock trench system, practiced marksmanship, learned how to throw grenades, and prepared for life at the front.
On September 13, 1916, Ernie and the 107th Battalion left Camp Hughes and began their journey East. Stopping briefly in Winnipeg for a final send-off, the Manitoba Free Press remarked the “…platforms were quickly converted into one mass of humanity.” Some ten thousand people had gathered to send off the 107th and two other local battalions. Allowed to detrain for half an hour, the battalion’s men did their best to find their friends and family and spend some final time with them before heading overseas. As the paper reported, the men of the three battalions, “with bronzed faces and stout hearts took a farewell of their relatives and friends…” who had gathered at the station.
The battalion arrived in Halifax a few days later and was quickly loaded upon the S.S. Olympic, the sister ship of the RMS Titanic. With 6,000 men on board, the Olympic left Halifax on September 19, 1916 and arrived in England without incident on September 24.
Ernie’s time in England was brief, spent mostly at Camp Witley in Surrey. In December 1916, Ernie recieved notice that he was to proceed to France for service with Harry’s battalion, the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMRs). Upon arrival in France, Ernie spent the next two months at a depot camp training and preparing for the rigors of trench warfare.
Ernie finally joined the 1st CMRs on February 14, 1917. Assigned to “D” Company with his brother Harry, Ernie was also joined by some of the Clanwilliam boys he had enlisted with almost a year previous. Soon after, Ernie and Harry and their Clanwilliam friends Fred Minns, Herman Klemet, Nelson Graham, and Hugh Sanderson got together to take a souvenir photograph. As the sender of the photograph, Herman Klemet noted, they expected to return to the trenches soon. He was not wrong.
In mid-February, the Canadian Expeditionary Force began training for the eventual assault of Vimy Ridge. On March 21, 1917, the unit moved into the front lines but Ernie’s here, however, was fortunately uneventful.
On April 5, Ernie, Harry, and the rest of “D” and “C” Companies, moved into the front lines in preparation for the assault.
In the early hours April 9, 1917, the twenty-four officers and 890 other ranks of the 1st CMRs moved from the dugouts to the jumping-off trenches (highlighted in blue on the map below), from which they would begin the assault. The battalion was assigned to take three objectives: the German Front line (red), the Swischen Stellung Trench (green), and a Sunken Road (yellow). Harry, Ernie, and the rest of “D” Company was assigned the first enemy trench systems (red) and clean up any resistance as the rest of the battalion pushed forward. Once this was completed, the company was told to move forward and help capture the other objectives.
At 5:30 am, friendly artillery opened fire on the German lines and, three minutes later, the whistle blew.
Ernie, Harry, and the rest of “D” Company climbed out of the trenches and led the assault. The company kept close to the creeping barrage and the men struggled over the shell-torn ground as shrapnel and machine gun fire filled the air. The Germans who were fortunate to survive the bombardment quickly recovered and opened fire upon the advancing Canadians.
At some point during the assault, an artillery shell landed close to Ernie as he advanced across no man’s land. Shrapnel tore into his right shoulder, leaving him seriously injured. As a comrade stopped to provide aid, Ernie reporteldy told him, “Go on, I’ll manage.” These were to be Ernie’s last words to him.
Harry and the rest of the company pressed forward and left Ernie behind to wait for aid. Ernie was eventually picked up by stretcher-bearers and taken to a nearby Regimental Aid Post. From here, men of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance transported Ernie to the advanced dressing station at Neuville St. Vaast, where his wounds were once again treated.
On April 11, 1917, Ernie arrived at the No. 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Outreau, near Boloulogne. A message was dispatched to the Proven family notifying that Ernie was “dangerously ill.” The following day, on April 12, 1917, Ernie succumbed to his wounds.
His body was buried in the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery and news of his death was published in the April 19, 1917 edition of the Minnedosa Tribune. On May 10, the paper published a short obituary, noting that he had died “somewhere in France.”
In 1922, the village of Clanwilliam erected a monument to its war dead. Ernest Proven’s name, along with his brother, Harry Proven, are inscribed alongside the the names of the area’s twenty-seven men who died for King and Country.