In the winter of 1914/15 a ranger passed his cabin and told him that Britain had been at war with Germany for 6 months. He immediately pulled his traps, greased and packed his tools, left a note on the door that he had gone to war, donned his snow shoes and set out cross country to the nearest railway at Terrace. He took food for 7 days. If he didn’t make it in 7 days he would not make it at all. He travelled at night and slept by day, making the over mountain and cross-country journey in 5 days.
When he arrived in Prince Rupert he went to the recruiting office smelling and looking like a tramp. He was thrown out for ‘being unfit for duty in the Canadian army’. He caught the next boat down to Vancouver, cleaned himself up and on the 26th March 1915 he took the Kings Shilling. He became 116031 Private John MacGregor of the 11th Canadian Mounted Rifles.
Initial training took place in Vancouver and then the 2nd and 11th Mounted rifles travelled by train back across Canada and then by ship over the Atlantic to England. The 11th were barracked at Shorncliffe Camp in Folkstone, Kent. By June 1915 the German advance had been halted and the war became a static affair. Both sides were digging in their trenches and it was found that cavalry were of little value in these conditions so it was decided that the mounted units would combine with the infantry. On the 20th July 1915 John became a trooper with the 2nd Canadian Division. After a short leave with his family in Cawdor they embarked for France on 22nd September 1915. Four days later they were in the front line around Ypres. The Battalion spent the next year in and out of the front line in various locations but the area they were sent to was very flat with the water table close to the surface and as John described it, “We supped, slogged, shit and slept in deep unrelenting mud”.
In August 1916 they were in the line near Albert. The Germans made assault after assault but were driven back each time. The 2nd called for artillery support. When it came it was too late and fell short. (Now known as BLUE ON BLUE). The Germans didn’t bother to attack. They just joined in with their own artillery. The 2nd had so many casualties they were taken out of the line next day. On the 25th September 1916 John was promoted from private, straight to Sergeant. He realised it was dead men’s shoes because the battalion had lost so many officers and NCO’s. On the 16th October 1916 they were pulled out of the Somme area and were sent to what became a byword in Canadian military history…. VIMY RIDGE
The Germans had seized the town in 1914 together with the infamous ridge and all its fortifications. Thousands of British and French troops had died trying to take it but now it was the turn of the Canadians. Prior to the main assault they had built training trenches where John drilled his men and the artillery had perfected the ‘Rolling Barrage’. At 0530 hrs on the 8th April 1917 (Easter Sunday) the attack began. The guns had been blasting away for days then the rolling barrage started. John’s C Company’s objective was the toughest. Cross 700 yards of defensive positions, (from the top of The Brae to the Station Car Park), capture the principal trench known as The Zwischen Stellung, fire 3 white flares to signal it had been taken, reverse the trenches and dig in. Eye witness reports on the attack state:-
When the barrage started, Sgt MacGregor cried out, “What are we waiting Furr”and climbing out of his trench started forward roaring “Follow me boys, follow me”. And follow him we did. Bullets whined, thudded and pinged through our ranks and grenades boomed splattering mud and shrapnel. Lucky for us the blowing snow hindered the snipers. Jock led us up the slopes behind, and sometimes IN the creeping barrage, zigzagging and leaping from crater to hillock to crater, but always forward. He was nearing our objective when a Hun machine gun rata-tat-tatted at his platoon. Yelling at us to lie low, Jock charged the machine gun nest, killed the crew and captured the gun. He saved many of our lives that day. When we reached the Black Line he called for the enemy to surrender. The German troops dropped their weapons and raised their hands”.
They reached their objective in 30 minutes. Of its 23 officers the 2nd CMR had lost 4 killed and 5 wounded. In four days the Canadians had lost 3,598 men killed and over 7,000 wounded. On the 17th May 1917 John was commissioned in the field to Temp Lieutenant and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. This was the highest award short of the Victoria Cross that may be made to a soldier below the rank of Warrant Officer. The official citation reads:-
116031 Sgt MacGregor, John
2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles
Distinguished Conduct Medal
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He single handed captured an enemy machine gun and shot the crew, thereby undoubtedly saving his company from many casualties. London Gazette 30204 26-7-17
Over the next few months the 2nd Battalion moved in and out of the line over a wide front and just before Christmas 1917 were moved into the area of Hill 70.