SIFTON, ELLIS WELLWOOD, farmer and soldier; b. 11 Oct. 1891 in Wallacetown, Ont., one of at least three children of John James Sifton, a farmer, and Amelia Bobier; d. unmarried 9 April 1917 near Les Tilleuls (Vert-Tilleul), France.
Of Irish and Anglican background, Ellis Wellwood Sifton was a farmer when he volunteered for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 23 Oct. 1914 at St Thomas, Ont. He joined the 18th Infantry Battalion, which eventually became part of the 4th Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Division of the Canadian Corps. He was appointed lance-corporal before embarking for overseas on 18 April 1915.
Sifton’s experiences in the trenches mirrored those of thousands of other young Canadians of the 2nd Division as his battalion entered the line for the first time in September 1915 (in which month he was promoted corporal) and as it engaged in its first major battle, an attempt to capture one of the craters near Saint-Eloi (Sint-Elooi), Belgium, in April 1916. Trench routine was punctuated by raids in July and August before the unit moved to the Somme front in France, where it captured its objectives in the assault on Courcelette on 15 September. Casualties were heavy, the battalion losing over 50 men killed, or about 1 in 12 of those who had participated in the attack. The following month a failed attempt to take Regina Trench led to another 25 men dying in battle. Sifton’s unit then moved to the base of the ridge near Vimy, where it engaged in trench raids in December 1916 and March 1917. On 14 March 1917 Sifton was promoted lance-sergeant.
Since late 1916 the Canadian Corps had been preparing to storm German defences on the Vimy ridge. The operation opened on 9 April 1917, the 18th Battalion having been given the task of supporting the 21st Battalion’s attack into the village of Les Tilleuls. The first German defensive line was reached with little or no resistance, but the second proved far more difficult to take, machine-gun nests causing heavy casualties. Sifton saw the barrel of one such gun showing over a parapet and charged immediately into the trench, overturning the weapon. He attacked the crew with his bayonet, and then held off a quick counter-attack by using his rifle as a club. The skirmish ended with Sifton and his comrades (who had just arrived) holding the position, but a wounded German picked up a rifle and shot Sifton dead. The Canadian was later awarded the Victoria Cross.
Some 69 vcs were awarded to Canadians or foreign nationals serving with Canadian units in World War I, an indication not only of the importance of that war to Canada’s military history but also of its brutal nature. Sifton was one of 53,000 Canadians killed in Belgium and France from 1914 to 1918, where the infantry suffered 90 per cent of all losses.
AO, RG 22-322, no.714; RG 80-2-0-338, no.011166. NA, RG 9, III, 4692, folder 15, file 4; RG 31, C1, Dunwich Township, Ont., 1871: 29; 1891, div.2: 94; RG 150, Acc. 1992–93/166, file 53730. Pierre Berton, Vimy (Toronto, 1986). Can., Dept. of Militia and Defence, Canadian Expeditionary Force: nominal rolls (13v., Ottawa, 1915–18), 1, 18th Battalion. Nicholson, CEF Valiant men: Canada’s Victoria Cross and George Cross winners, ed. John Swettenham (Toronto, 1973) (includes photo).