Place names: The story behind the naming of Ypres Valley
Special thanks to Dave Drader and Bonnie Ferguson for their contributions to this article
If hearing the name Ypres Valley conjures up images of faraway Europe, you’re on the right track.
In the early 1900s in Strathcona County (then named the Municipal District of Clover Bar No. 517), the area north of Highway 16 was sparsely populated. As settlement increased and families grew came the need to establish schools. North of Highway 16 on Range Road 214, a simple edifice was built in 1921 and a few of the pioneers came together to name the new school. Local residents Mr. and Mrs. Harry White suggested the name Ypres (pronounced ee-pra), as David Gunn had recently moved to the district after returning from the front lines of the Great War and the Battle of Ypres1.
The Battle of Ypres was actually a series of pitched engagements fought between Allied and German forces throughout the course of the First World War (1914- 1918). Atop the ridges located near the town of Ypres in northwest Belgium, Allied forces fought to disrupt German supply lines. The strategy was controversial and the protracted back and forth between armies left it with dubious strategic significance. David Gunn was one of many men from the Clover Bar-Strathcona area who fought in these battles that claimed the lives, bodies and minds of thousands of Canadians.
Other combatants from here included three brothers — Eugene, Bert and Will Drader — who were part of the 49th Battalion (Edmonton Regiment), also known as the Loyal Eddies2. A fourth brother, Earl, fought in 47th Battalion and survived the Battle of Vimy Ridge; he was wounded just north of there on May 7, 1917. Two of Earl’s brothers-in-law, Bert and Sammy Ball, were killed — Bert, on the last day of the Somme Battle, November 18, 1916, and Sammy at Avion (after surviving Vimy), June 26, 1917. They were in the 38th Battalion. There were also several Ball cousins from the community who died in action.
The 49th Battalion was initially commanded by former Edmonton mayor Lt.-Col. William Griesbach; the thousand-strong force left Canada in June 1916. Within a few weeks of landing, Drader brothers Bert and Will were wounded, and then treated before returning to the front.
Tragically, the third brother, Eugene, was killed September 15, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme in France, alongside over a million other men, in one of the bloodiest, prolonged battles in human history.
Members of the battalion pushed on, culminating in their involvement in the Battle of Passchendaele (the third battle of Ypres). In late 1917, most of Belgium lay in the hands of the German empire. The Allied Forces had managed to hold the town of Ypres when the Canadians arrived to relieve the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC) with the goal of retaking the nearby ruined village of Passchendaele3.
Conditions were hellish: the drainage system had failed and the Canadians found themselves in a quagmire of mud and rain. The offensive was launched October 26 and over the course of the next two weeks, over 4,000 Canadians would die in the effort to retake the village. Lt. Bert Drader was wounded here for the second time, October 30, 1917.
Passchendaele was especially costly for the 49th; the Loyal Eddies lost three quarters of their strength on the morning of October 30 alone4. Among the dead was Alex Decoteau, the first Aboriginal police officer in Alberta and an Olympian athlete, who was killed by sniper fire. In his war diary dated October 30, F.R. Hasse, who was stationed near Ypres, recorded:
In the early morning we hear that all is going well. But about noon we get the disastrous news; Battalion all but wiped out in a desperate effort to gain objectives. Seven officers reported killed and thirteen wounded. As black a day for the 49th as the 3rd of June last year. The jubilation we felt when the first rumours reached us this morning is now turned to depression and faces everywhere are sad and lifeless5.
The Allies fought through and took Passchendaele on November 6 with Winnipeg’s 27th Battalion having the distinction of capturing the village. Throughout the campaign, the Canadians demonstrated exceptional bravery and determination in their engagement: nine men earned the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour awarded for valour in the face of the enemy, including 49th Battalion Private Cecil Kinross6.
It was from this ruined, fractured landscape that David Gunn arrived in Alberta with his family. Even before the war, Gunn had distinguished himself as a fighter, albeit in the ring. In San Francisco he fought as a pugilist going toe-to-toe with the likes of celebrated American boxer Jack Jeffries in a 15-round bout7.
Done with boxing, he moved his wife and infant son to Alberta before joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force as part of the 151st Battalion. When the conflict in Europe ended, David returned to Canada, and after a short time in California, eventually settled east of Fort Saskatchewan in what is now Strathcona County. He was present when his neighbours recommended naming their new school in reference to his wartime service. Looking out the window to the valley below, Gunn himself suggested adding Valley to the title, and thus Ypres Valley was born.
Today, our ability to stand atop this picturesque landscape, on the edge of the newly designated Beaver Hills Biosphere, and gaze into the distance in peaceful contemplation is something we can easily take for granted. We remember and honour the sacrifice of the soldiers and their families in the service of our country, not only in the past but in today’s conflicts as well.
We will not forget
Courtesy of Bonnie Ferguson
Approximately 320 individuals from the area now known as Strathcona County served in World War I. In 1917, many men from the districts in and around Clover Bar and Strathcona fought in the third battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele; this also encompasses Vimy. Here’s a listing of those men from this area who died at Vimy and Passchendaele 100 years ago:
• Thomas Atkinson (April 13) • Joseph Austin (April 10) • John Loudon Baird (October 30) • James Balcarras (June 20) • Charles Ball (August 15) • Samuel Ball (June 26) • William Burke (March 31) • Alexander Campbell (April 4) • John Coleman (August 15) • Alexander Gladu (April 28) • J. Eddie Haley (April 9) • Thomas Hanlan (April 9) • Robert Humphreys (August 21) • Jack McCloskey (April 28) • Roy McDowell (September 27) • Lloyd McGhan (April 9) • Lawrence Webb (August 25)
We remember them.
1 Cherished Memories. Pp. 262
2 Bacon, P. Loyal Eddies were truly a band of brothers. Edmonton Journal. July 18, 2014
3 [Electronic resource]. The Battle of Passchendaele. Veteran Affairs Canada. URL: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/first-world-war/fact_sheets/passchendaele. Last Modified: March 3, 2015. Accessed: October 8, 2015
4 Bacon, P. 2014
5 Brief Notes of First World War Diary Vol. 2. 49th Battalion (Edmonton Regiment) CEF, 21 April 1917 – 1919. Loyal Edmonton Regiment Military Museum
6 The Battle of Passchendaele
7 Cherished Memories. Pp. 261