Saturday, 8 October 2016

The First Night

Despite all of the information available, researching events of the first world war presents many challenges; after a hundred years both the facts and the feel are easily blurred. One diligent officer's entries in the battalion's war diary during an uneventful week might include descriptions of working parties, church parades and baseball games, deployments of companies and platoons, intelligence reports with time and grid references, and listings of casualties; but this detail could be easily replaced with one-liners by someone less inclined to prose.

Example of a typical battalion diary entry for the
16th Canadian Infantry Battalion during their deployment
at the front lines, July 1916
Such is the case with the 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion - the Canadian Scottish. The daily entries from the first week of September 1915, when the battalion was holding the Ploegsteert front in the Salient, contain intimate accounts of their activities. But entries a year later, in the last weeks of their deployment in the Salient, offer little more than basic deployment detail.  Fortunately, diaries of supporting battalions, ones that relieved the Canadian Scottish, were relieved by them, or for whom they provided support, often fill in the gaps about supporting movements. Such is the case with the 13th Battalion, which went so far as to list out each individual casualty, regardless of rank - a very unusual practise; while not Shakespeare, it offers remarkable historical context.

In the two months that followed his arrival in France, Forbes was introduced to the routine danger of trench life, the monotony of life behind the lines, and the terror of sudden, unexpected and relentless enemy bombardments. Since the Canadian Scottish were serving in support to the 13th Battalion Canadian Highlanders and the 15th Battalion 48th Highlanders in the period immediately after his arrival, he had a soft transition to the War. But on the front lines, the two highland regiments were subjected to heavy enemy shelling and mortars - and in the case of the Canadian Highlanders, a local German attack on their trenches by three individual squads of seventy men; the casualty details in their Battalion diary attest to the ferocity of the brief encounter.

But for much of July Forbes remained in the relative safety of Corps and Divisional Reserve with the exception of five days, from the 15th to the 20th, when the Canadian Scottish relieved the 48th Highlanders and deployed to the infamous Hill 60. Again, their battalion diaries reveal little of the intensity of activity at the front during this brief period.  On the day after their arrival, trench mortars killed two men and wounded a third. The shelling and trench mortars was tame by the standards of the Salient, nothing atypical and far from the scale of the battle they had endured in the Spring, in Mount Sorrel, that decimated their ranks. But the shelling would have been enough to shock and terrify someone who'd arrived from England less than a month before and had yet to serve in the front lines.

"We have had with us a young lad (only 17 years old) since last night. He was going to the trenches with the 13th Battalion last night, and he opened our gun pit door and asked for a drink of water. He was just able to stumble in and I thought he was going to faint - he looked so white and sick. We asked him if he was a wounded and he said, 'No, just all in."    
Norman Macintosh, CEF June 1916
Two days later the Germans again bombarded the Canadian Scottish lines, this time for two hours, killing four more and wounding twelve.

Printed in the Vancouver Daily World
 August 4, 1916
One of the four was Private Monatgue Capon Victor Wix, an 18 year old from British Columbia: a young farmer from Fernridge BC, a member of A Company of the 72nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders who enlisted two weeks after Forbes and came to France with him in the First Draft in June. His passing was noted simply in the August 4th edition of the Vancouver Daily World, in the fashion of so many others:
"Son of Fernridge Resident Falls in Action:  Mr David Wix, of Fernridge, yesterday received the sad news that his son, Private Capon Victor Wix, had been killed in action on July 19th."
A two week break for the Canadian Scottish, following their July stint at the front, was an opportunity to refresh their knowledge and training: they attended aviation lectures, gas school (where they got a sample "taste" of gas) and performed general battalion work - as well as competing in baseball and soccer matches against neighbouring teams from the 29th Battalion and the Glasgow Yeomanry.
"I saw a grand football match this afternoon between two famous Canadian regiments. It did seem strange how everybody there forgot the blooming War and the thumping of the distant guns and were wholly taken up with the progress of the old game, so associated with peace times of old. The enthusiasm all through was tremendous, especially as the regiment that has the biggest name got beaten."   
John Pritchard Sudbury, 458189, 9th Cdn Brigade Machine Gun Company 
At the beginning of August their rest in the Dominion Lines would came to an end and the Canadian Scottish would be back in the front lines around Hill 60, in what would be their last engagement in the Salient, and Forbes's true Baptism of Fire.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The First Draft

The Kilt Apron bearing the names of the First Draft
from the Seaforth Highlanders to the 16th Battalion.
It bears the signature and regimental number of each man.
I wanted to write and post this today as this past week was an auspicious anniversary; one that until a few months ago I would not have noticed. But having connected with artifacts linked to my Great Uncle, Arthur Forbes Ruddock, I've taken a much keener interest in his past and specifically, piecing together the story of the months that led up to his death at Vimy Ridge. There's much more to tell in this story, even around this event, but this will come in due course. For now, let's simply recount the days a hundred years ago that he left England for France in the first draft from the 72nd Battalion to the Canadian Scottish, joining that famed Battalion on the 21st of June.

My grandmother used to describe her brother, ten years older, as a quiet, sweet boy; a comment echoed in his obituary that described him as having "a bright and kindly disposition". He was a lad who Colonel Cy Peck, V.C., D.S.O. and Bar, Commander of the 16th Battalion Canadian Scottish and member of Parliament, remembered fondly when, as she recounted it, he visited the family in Vancouver upon the return of the Battalion in 1919, and delivered a copy of a small red book, A Remembrance, dedicated to the men of the Canadian Scottish Regiment from the survivors of the 16th Battalion, CEF.

A tribute from the men of the 16th Battalion
presented to Forbes parents after the return of
the Battalion from France in 1919
The 72nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders had arrived in England in late April, disembarking in Liverpool on the morning of May 5th after a nine day crossing of the Atlantic on H.M. Transport Empress of Britain.  In the month that followed Forbes and the men of the 72nd spent most of their time in routine preparation for war, stationed at Bramshott Camp in Hampshire: bayonet fighting, bombing, entrenching, wiring, and fine tuning their skills at musketry - something at which Forbes had demonstrated no particular prowess in the past.

It was not unusual for battalions upon arrival in England to be broken up or parcelled out to units already in France. In fact, the 72nd Battalion was one of the original Highland regiments from which men were drawn to create the Canadian Scottish.  But there would no doubt have been some disappointment on being selected as part of that first draft, comprised of men drawn evenly from Company A and Company B. He would be leaving those to whom he'd grown close, or at least gotten accustomed to, in the nine months since he had enlisted.

Nevertheless, he was joined by many others from his own company - men like Johnny Dewar, the "Kamloops Thunderbolt", who'd made a mark for himself in the boxing ring before they left Vancouver;  Lance Corporal Finlayson, a stalwart member of the Battalion soccer team, who some claimed was a bit of a grand-stander on the field but also known never to waste a kick; the 31 year old, Five Acre Mac" McGuire who was said to be able to do more with two acres than most men can with four - though it was a nickname he didn't take kindly to; and Louis Walker, at twenty-seven one of the older men in his company, who lived on the same street as Forbes, just two blocks away, on the other side of Kingsway.

Bramshott Camp 1916
And then there was Roy Dingee. Roy was a ruddy-faced young lad who had his medical just two weeks after he turned 18 and enlisted two weeks after that. Forbes would have known him well. They enlisted a day apart and only a year separated their age; they were also both born in New Brunswick and, of course, they were in the same company - Company B.  However unlike Forbes, Roy was at the front for less than a month.  While he survived the War he spent much of it in the hospital or on light duty. He was discharged, "medically unfit" in May 1918, diagnosed with neurasthenia - a diagnosis no longer in use, but at the time often used by doctors to describe "shell shock".   But we'll return to Private Roy Dingee at another time.

The Canadian Scottish were in dire need of replacements when the first draft was called. A little more than a year earlier, along with much of the Canadian 1st Division, they had been decimated in the fighting around Ypres; first, in their Baptism of Fire in the Second Battle of Ypres where gas was first used effectively, and then a few weeks later in the Battle of Festubert.  At one point they were down to half of their strength until, in late July, they again regained their full complement with the arrival of a draft from the Cameron Highlanders. But after spending the winter in the relatively quiet Ploegsteert front, they returned to the Ypres Salient at the end of March, reputedly "the most dangerous place on earth".  And on June 2nd, while stationed in reserve, the Germans launched a devastating attack towards Hill 60, Mount Sorrel and Sanctuary Wood that ultimately cost the Canada 1st Division 8,000 casualties.

German gun emplacements around Sanctuary Wood in the
aftermath of the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916
On the evening of June 3rd the Canadian Scottish mounted a failed counter attack when a heavy barrage from the Germans threw preparations into disarray, and with troops so exhausted from the fighting no further action was planned until the evening 8th.  During the intervening five days the men of the 16th were continually shelled by German artillery while they worked on strengthening their defences and building out new trenches.  The clear warm days that had led up to the German attack were now gone and shallow, muddy trenches, worsened by the rain, provided little cover against German shells.  The planned attack on the 8th was again cancelled when it became clear that the men, exposed to miserable, wet and cold weather - "more like November" were unfit to attack and needed rest.

Finally, in the early hours of the 13th, in driving rain and wind, the Canadian Scottish attacked across ground that would latter characterize the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele.  The men "kept tumbling and slipping into the mud over the smashed branches and stumps; their rifles became useless".  The Battalion fought throughout the night and under cover of their own barrage they attacked the enemy around Observatory Ridge. As day broke on the 14th Lieutenant "Pete" Osler mounted the parapet of a trench with a red flare in hand that he waved back and forth, the signal for "alls well" (Lieutenant Osler would be killed the same day, shrugging of wounds that, once at the casualty clearing station were evidently more serious and led to his death).  

The Canadian Scottish had achieved all of their objectives, but at great loss. The officer corps in particular was hard hit.  In the preceding ten days they had lost ten officers, greater than that sustained by the Battalion in any engagement of the war.

Cant. James Hamilton, M.C. and Bar
t was in the aftermath of this that Forbes and the other men from the 72nd arrived at the 16th Battalion on the afternoon of June 21st. They were under the command of Captain James Hamilton, one of the officers from A company and formerly an accountant from Vancouver.  Hamilton survived the War and would be awarded the Military Medal (and subsequently a Bar) for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty where in command of half a company in an attack. By clever maneuvering he outflanked the enemy and captured five machine guns."

The trip had begun on the morning of the 18th with a swift three mile march to Liphook Station, a place they had last seen on their arrival six weeks before. From Liphook they took a train to Southampton which delivered them right to the docks; and from there they went aboard one of the many channel boats. Typically the channel crossing would have taken no more than a few hours - nine at most - but in June, likely less. It was then a day's travel by train to Poperinghe - generally in boxcars designed to hold horses. But what could have been a two day trip from Bramshott to the front seldom took less than three or four days, often requiring an extra night's stop after arrival on the French coast, to get kit in order or wait for transportation.

The contrast in the towns of Poperinge (left) and
Ypres (right), just a short distance from each other., in 1916.
On the afternoon of the 21st Forbes arrived in Poperinghe, a small Belgian town 12.5 Km west of Ypres where the Canadian Scottish were being held in divisional reserve.  The Battalion was resting and reorganizing after the battle of Mount Sorrel at an area referred to as "The Scottish Line", a quiet section behind the lines; they were also burying many of their dead in the nearby cemeteries, to the sound of pipe and drums.

The new draft was inspected by the new Command on the afternoon of the 22nd, while Captain Hamilton began his return journey to the 72nd Battalion, still in England.  There would be further inspections with the entire Battalion in the two days that followed, as well as a church parade on the morning of the 25th. And then late that same evening they boarded a train for the short journey to Ypres where they relieved the 5th Battalion: their role, to provide support for the 13th and 15th Battalions who were on the front line.

In the days that followed the front line was heavily shelled, and in the early hours of June 27th the 13th and 15th Battalions were forced to repulse a localized German attack. A day later the Canadian Scottish were hit and two men were killed and nine others were wounded. But this was a gradual introduction to the War for the men in the Draft. Through the weeks of July and August, as the Battalion gradually regained its strength in officers, it returned to Hill 60, site of the devastating battles  earlier in the summer, and the routine of War in the Ypres Salient.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

July 1st, 1916 - Canadians in the Somme

I wanted to write and post this one month before the actual centenary because on July 1st Canadians will be celebrating Canada Day.  But of the leading countries in the Commonwealth, including Great Britain, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, it's quite possible that Canada will be one of the few Commonwealth countries whose top news story on July 1st will not be the 100th anniversary of the single bloodiest day in a war in which bloody days were commonplace. And added to this list of countries will be France, Ireland and Germany, all of whom were major combatants in the Somme.

By the time the Somme offensive had petered out four months later, in mid November, four hundred thousand Commonwealth soldiers were missing, wounded or dead. And of those casualties, approximately 125,000 were dead - one third the number of commonwealth combatants killed in the six years of the Second World War.  

But it is possible that not all Canadians will be recognizing Canada Day as the top story.  Newfoundlanders may be charting a different course. At 8:45 on July 1st, 1916 the men of the Newfoundland Regiment climbed the parapet at Beaumont Hamel to attack German trenches 600 yards to their front.  And within minutes, 680 were casualties - the hardest hit battalion of any on that day - they had advanced 300 yards (see: The Royal Newfoundland Regiment: July 1, 1916).

One of these men was Charles Taylor who showed up at the CLB Armoury, named for the Church Lads’ Brigade, on Tuesday September 1st, 1914, ten days after the enlistment of recruits had started for the newly formed Newfoundland Regiment. Already 597 men had signed up, although by the time he actually declared on October 2nd, enough had failed to get accepted that he would be counted within the “First Five Hundred”. Like others in the regiment he wore the blue puttees that, in the absence of khaki material, had been scrounged from blue broadcloth and would give the First Five Hundred their other nick name.

Taylor sailed to England with the Regiment at the beginning of October and spent the next ten months training. Like many of the lads he got in to his share of trouble, often skipping tatoo and leaving rank without permission, for which he was frequently confined to quarters and required to forfeit pay.

The Newfoundlanders finally shipped out to Gallipoli in August, arriving in September, a month after the major  campaign had ended. But as with others in his Regiment, Taylor still suffered. On the day they landed at Suvla Bay he was admitted to hospital suffering from dysentry. He would spend much of the next five months there, not rejoining the Regiment until it passed through Suez in March 1916 on its return journey to France.  It was to join British and other Commonwealth forces who were preparing for a summer offensive that was designed, in part, to relieve French trench struggling to hold the Front 250 kilometres southeast, in Verdun.

Unlike the Newfoundlanders, not yet a part of Confederation, the Canadian Division would not join the battle until the Fall when they moved from the Ypres Salient to provide "fresh blood" for the depleted British, Australian and New Zealand troops.

So different from the claustrophobic Ypres salient
When they arrived in late August the region still featured wide open spaces and gentle sweeping hills, but it had been devastated by the two month campaign and resembled a lunar landscape. In the Somme the British rarely expended less than a million shells a week on German lines that included dugouts so deep they were impervious to British artillery. Towns like Pozieres, that had been levelled by artillery, were little more than white scars. Canadian accounts of their arrival in the area all share a similar description of a ravaged landscape.

The rolling fields of the Somme looking towards
Regina Trench from Pozieres
“The countryside in the battle area was completely devastated. We did nearly all our fighting north of the Albert-Bapaume road and in this section two and a half months of the offensive had advanced the line less than four miles. The fighting had been accompanied by intense and continuous shelling by both sides, and scarcely a square foot of soil remained that had not been turned over again and again. Pozieres, a village captured by the Australians near the end of July, had simply ceased to exist. A small pile of pulverized brick marked the spot where the church had stood; there was nothing more. A like fate befell La Boiselle, Contalmaison and all the other villages and hamlets in the battle zone. Not an undamaged tree was left standing: there were no leaves, little grass. The colour green had practically disappeared, all was drab and dirty; fifty square miles of utter desolation.” Charles Henry Savage, 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1936

The modern day town of Courcelette
Pozieres is the high point on the Albert-Bapaume road and was the scene of intense fighting between the Germans and the Australians through the summer of 1916. Today, the Australian monument in Pozieres, a short distance from the quaint crossroads village, is an ideal vantage point to take in the panorama of the Thiepval and Pozieres Ridge and what was the Canadian battlefield in the Somme in the fall of 1916: a short distance to the east and north east of the monument, crossing the Albert-Bapaume road, is Sugar Trench and Candy Trench, named for the German held refinery that the Canadians captured in the first hours of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on September 15th; a little further on is the town of Courcelette itself, that the Canadian 2nd and 3rd divisions captured in brutal back-and-forth fighting with the Germans; directly in front of the monument was the heavily defended Moo Cow (Mouquet) Farm, a key objective for the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles on the 15th, and one that the Australians had been unable to capture despite repeated efforts through the late summer; and two kilometres in the distance, directly in front of the monument, running the length of the ridge, was the longest German trench on the Western Front, and the ultimate objective for the Canadians that would take them two months to achieve.

The battles in which the Canadians fought in the Somme, the battle of Flers-Courcelette and their repeated attempts through October and November to capture Regina Trench, were as bad as those they would encounter twelve months later at Passchendaele. And they were compounded by unseasonably heavy rains and constant artillery bombardments that resulted in similar conditions to what they would find at Passchendaele.

“Huge shell holes, half-filled with water, pitted the fields in every direction. . .  Far beyond Courcelette I saw the German flare-lights and the bursting of shells. It was a scene of vast desolation, weird beyond description. . . When I got in to Regina Trench I found it was impossible to pass along it, as one sank so deeplyinto the heavy mud” Canon Frederick Scott, 1st Canadian Division, 1924

Despite the battles to come, Vimy and Passchendaele, it was their two month campaign in the Somme that resulted in the costliest number of  casualties for the Canadians - more than 24,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. When called upon a year later to close the deal at Passchendaele, General Arthur Currie had one fundamental condition above all others before he would accept: that it would be with Plumer’s second army and not with Gough’s fourth, so poorly was his reputation with the Canadians after their experience in the Somme.

Many of those killed in this fighting, men such as James Richardson, recipient of the Victoria Cross, are buried at Adanac Cemetery or Regina Trench Cemetery, both just a few kilometres north of Courcelette.  But of the 8,000 men killed around Courcelette, 6,000 have no known grave.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Bombardier

William "Hike" Currin, buried at Reservoir
Cemetery on the outskirts of Ypres.
William “Hike” Currin was an adventurer; his two friends Lily and Edith were only too aware of it - and he blamed Uncle Sam for not giving him the opportunity for greater adventure - something he would fix, in time. He had graduated from the small Ohio university of Denison in 1913, a degree in classical and modern literature, where he had found some release in theatre. He had since taken a position as a junior reporter for the Cleveland Press, but he was looking for more:”I am tired of sitting on a three-legged stool, just a cub reporter for a penny newspaper. I want to live my life in all its largeness and its fullness and its joy.”  When war broke out in Europe, he saw his chance; it was the perfect vehicle to collect material for stories and would, he thought, probably last but a few months.

Almost immediately as war broke out in Europe, Americans began drifting north to Canada to enlist and fight with the CEF. Eventually, more than 15,000 would join up, 2,100 of which would end up as casualties, and five of whom would receive the Victoria Cross. A large contingent of volunteers would also form their own unit, the 97th American Legion, under the command of Lt. Col John Labatt, though on arrival in England in the fall of 1916, like so many other small battalions, it was divided up and never fought together as a unit.

A journalist from Ohio
In the first months of the War many Americans who tried to enlist were put on hold, as the number of applications exceeded the number of men required. But William Currin’s application was accepted and he ended up in “his great adventure”, sailing for England with the first contingent of Canadians in October, 1914.  “In a few hours the pilot we have on board gets off, an escort of British war ships picks us up and -- if nothing unexpected happens -- we're off for England: about fifteen big liners, transports, and some thirty thousand infantry and artillery with the latter's horses. This my friend L.B., this is life!”

But a winter on Salisbury Plain did its best to temper his enthusiasm: “Please tell Sam for me I decidedly am not a 'wild, sweet spirit.' If he could listen to me cursing reveille at 6:00 am, just before plunging out of a wet, floppy tent into eight and a third inches of mud, he'd change his opinion.”  

Serving with the 3rd Brigade, Canadian Artillery, Currin’s introduction to war was shortlived. Having written to his parents regularly leading up to the German attack around St. Julien in April, a break in the correspondence in early May led his father to believe that “his son had fallen in battle”. But it was not as bad as first feared; on Tuesday, 27th April, while the brigade supported a French counter-attack around St. Julien, Currin’s battery came under heavy fire, “from two and sometimes three sides” - sometime during the fight, Currin was hit in the thigh.  Two days after the first story showed up in his home town, a short note appeared in the Granville Times reporting that Reverend Currin, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Kenton, had received word from his son to say that “he had been wounded and was in a hospital in France.”

By 1917, three years of war has done little to dampen Currin’s colourful prose, ever the thespian; though reality had long since invaded his words.

"I labor with pick and shovel. . . we do it in the dark. . . We work so aforesaid with pick, shovel, and sandbag till daylight or perhaps a little before if the lieutenant in charge has a heart. Then we pick ourself up and stroll merrily back to billets and beds. Program is sometimes diversified by an occasional short whiz-bang strafe from Fritz which may incline you to think that his sausage balloons have found you out if you're given to worrying over that sort of thing, or it may be illuminated by the beautiful yellow moon which shines here just as it does at home (slow music from the violins, please); or it's the other kind of night, possibly soaked by a pleasant midnight rain. 

A pick-and-shovel tour of Belgium by night with a cold bath thrown in for luck may be profitable and instructive - possibly entertaining enough in children's books of "how they fought the Great War in Yurrope" but it's "damned depressin'" for the troop that's doing the touring.  . . 

. . .but you get the idea, don't you - sad, old chap - a la cigarette (center stage, well down) blowing idle smokepuffs in Fate's face. Home this morning at three. Rain. Mud. Rotten tired.…

"Tut! Tut! What talk is this of three-years' terms and such things as that? Dae ye nae ken we're in it for guid and will be e'en waitin' here tar its end? And the end, my good friend, verily, verily, the end is not yet.… The job drags L.B., it drags horribly and the active mind turns to the lost images it knew of a different order of life in a little college town. The only common, decent, civilized life I've had a glimpse of for two years and a half now is English -- another two years and a half and I shall know you and your civilization's ways no more -- I've darned near forgotten 'em already.”

As Currin wrote these words to Lily, in the early summer of 1917, the 3rd Brigade was preparing for the Battle for Hill 70. His leave over Christmas, had slipped by ,“the scenes shift in the cinema -- flicker! flicker! -- Victoria Station -- the leave boat from Folkestone -- the shores of France -- and he is back again. . . He is back and the job has him again -- the stupid job of killing men and that by machinery! What an insanity that really is you comprehend only when you have been part of the machine -- insanity and a species of prostitution”.

By mid-October, after a four day march from Hill 145, his unit was back in the Salient to support the Canadian attack on Passchendaele. As the attacks began shelling in the area to the batteries, roads and wagon lines, was heavy and casualties mounted. The mud and water from bursting shells showered the guns, the breach mechanisms clogged and guns failed. Others were hit by counter battery fire or strafing from enemy aircraft. (The mud worsened and the roads became unusable; guns were moved by laying sandbags in rows, the width of the track, laying corrugated iron across them, and manhandling the guns forward.)

On the morning of November 6th, during the attack on Passchendaele village, enemy shelling of the area was so heavy at times that several batteries of the 3rd brigade, Currin’s among them, were ordered to stand down and take cover.  While Currin sent his men away, he remained at the gun, loading, laying and firing it himself. 

Record of Death
Five days later, with orders in hand for the relief of the 3rd Brigade, Currin’s gun pit was hit by a shell, and he was killed by a piece of shrapnel to the head. 

At the end of November, just a month before his younger brother enlisted in the US Army, a short notice appeared in the Granville Times announcing the death of W.J. Currin. At his memorial service, Denison Professor Theodore Johnson paid tribute, saying that “if ‘Hike’ Currin had enlisted merely in a spirit of adventure it had taken not many months to enlarge his vision and that comprehension of the real meaning of the great world struggle had come with service.”  Two months after his death William “Hike” Currin was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” for his actions on November 6th.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Canadians at Passchendaele

The capture of Passchendaele Ridge by the Canadian Corps at the end of October took place in four phases that began on October 26th and ended two weeks later when the village of Passchendaele was captured by the "City of Winnipeg" 27th Battalion.

This is the story of the second phase of the attack that took place through pouring rain and concluded on October 30th, on the outskirts of the Village, ninety-eight years ago today.

They Called it Passchendaele!
On the Bellevue Spur, looking across the now pastoral
Ravebeek Gully towards Crest Farm and Passchendaele

So much imagery of the First World War can be conjured up simply by reciting names like Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele; villages that lost their identity for the battles that were fought there. That one word, Passchendaele, invokes some of the most obscene images of the war; oceans of mud, created by the destruction of the area's drainage system, swallowed men alive if they happened to stumble and fall off duck boards that been laid down like roads to traverse the lines behind the trenches.  

Passchendale is also a name that transcends borders. Unlike Vimy, which, despite being fought over  repeatedly by Britain and France in the first three years of the war, has been usurped by Canada to define her independence, Passchendaele must invoke the same sentiment to the British as it does to Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians: for all, those immortal words penned by Siegfried Sassoon ring true: “I died in hell - They called it Passchendaele.” 

When the Canadians returned to the Salient in mid October, 1917, having been fighting in the Lens-Arras area since the spring, the Flanders Offensive that had been launched in mid June with a stunning success at Messines Ridge, had virtually ground to a halt. The ten day bombardment that had preceded the attack, which expended more than four million shells (one every two seconds), destroyed the area’s fragile drainage system and eliminated any element of surprise. Heavy rains through August and October, among the wettest on record, had turned the area into a vast mud swamp. In the three months since it was launched, the series of battles along the 18 kilometre front east of Ypres had cost the British 100,000 casualties, and many of the objectives for the first day of the attack had still not been achieved.  

At Crest Farm, the view across the Ravebeek Gully
towards the Bellevue Spur.
Taking over from the ANZACs east of Gravenstafel Ridge, the Canadians were tasked with capturing the high ground of Passchendaele Village. Attacking north of the valley of the Ravebeek stream the Canadians would move up the Bellevue Spur towards Meetcheele; and across the valley, moving up Passchendaele Road, towards Crest Farm, ultimately  capturing the village itself.

“The deep gully of Ravebeek runs below the slopes on which Bellevue is raised, and down there there is one filthy swamp of mud and water. On the other side of the gully is a hill which raises to Passchendaele, and the separate hummock of Crest Farm southeast of that big pile of ruins, which commands a long, wide view of the plains.” 

Ravebeek stream had been turned in to a bog forcing them to attack along the exposed higher ground. 

The view from Crest Farm to Passchendaele.  The
penultimate phase of the attack was just 300 metres away
but achieving it would cost 2200 casualties.
“Bellevue on the one side and Crest Farm and Passchendaele on the other support each other from attack, and from their blockhouses they are able to sweep machine gun fire upon any bodies of men advancing up either slope. So the Australians found in the great attack of Oct 12, and had to fall back when Passchendaele itself was almost in their grip, because of an enfilade fire from the ground about Bellevue, while other Australians, trying to work up these slopes on the west side of Ravebeek, were terribly scourged by a machine gun barrage. The Canadians knew all that.”   The New York Times, October 31, 1917

Driving up the Bellevue Spur, along Gravenstaffel Road, it is just possible to get a sense of the challenge in front of the Canadians. While slight, the incline is discernable and steady for three kilometres.  At the crest of the spur sits the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, where more than 2100 soldiers are buried, more than 1200 unknown. Today, the Ravebeek Valley that once separated the thrusts of the Canadian attack on Passchendaele, is farmland; a narrow field of hay between two ridges, a kilometre apart, cows grazing not far from red shingled farms.

Graves of Canadian soldiers at Passchendaele New British
Cemetery on the Bellevue Spur.
“It was worse as bad on Friday morning and worse. Rain had poured down all night and the shell craters brimmed over and every track was so slippery that men with packs and rifles fell at every few steps. Beyond the dockboard tracks there were no tracks for 1,500 yards and there was a morass knee deep and sticky so that the men had to haul each other to get unstuck. . .  Unwounded men as well as wounded had to endure agonies of wetness, and coldness, and thirst and exhaustion. It was only their hardiness which enabled them to endure. They lay in the cold slime, and a drop of rum would have been an elixir vitae to them.”  The New York Times, October 31, 1917

The centre of Passchendaele - 300 metres from Crest Farm
where the Canadian memorial now stands.

It’s about three hundred metres from Crest Farm to the church at the centre of Passchendaele, the penultimate stage in the attack. The Canadian national memorial, is understated; a granite block, inscribed with a simple description of the achievement, in a well kept garden. It was an ideal spot to eat lunch on that Mother’s Day -  a sandwich bought at a small delicatessen, ironically in Langemarck. Looking across the the Ravebeek valley, it’s possible to make out the twin pillboxes of Passchendaele cemetery along the Bellevue Spur, and despite the pastoral scene, it’s difficult, as it is throughout this area, not to wonder at the events that brought us here.

By the time the Canadians joined the battle, the capture of Passchendaele Ridge had become a limited objective - to secure high ground for the winter. As one historian notes, “even the name Passchendaele was an objective in itself.”   The three month offensive cost the British 320,000 casualties and the Germans, 210,000. And, in three weeks of fighting, there were close to 16,000 Canadians who were wounded, killed or missing. 

The Canadian monument at Passchendaele - one of six
similar monuments

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

William Mulhearn - From Winnipeg

William Mulhearn
As I'm in Winnipeg today it seems appropriate to post this story about a young man who settled in Winnipeg at the turn of the last century and was killed ninety-eight years ago today. Buried in a quiet cemetery in Ypres, he was killed while on a seemingly routine work detail in the early phases of "Passchendaele".  I came across his grave on a rainy Spring day and decided to learn just a little more about William Mulhearn; one of 12,000 Canadians, and 16,000 casualties in the Canadian effort to capture Passchendaele Ridge.

October 1917 was eventful for British, ANZAC and Canadian soldiers as the Third Battle of Ypres ground it's course through the mud of the salient.  Australians and New Zealand troops had been fighting in Flanders since the British offensive began in July, but the Canadian Corps were newcomers.  They had arrived in mid-October to relieve the ANZAC troops, after fighting around Arras in the aftermath of their Victory at Vimy Ridge, and their capture of Hill 70 around Lens.  

The objective for the Corps was Passchendaele, a ridge stubbornly held by the Germans, despite repeated efforts by the British to dislodge them.  Passchendaele Ridge had been a key objective for the Allies, from which they would have a clear line to attack the Belgium channel ports. The Canadian attack on the ridge was mounted in 4 phases, the first of which was launched on October 26th.
The grave of William Mulhearn in Ypres
Reservoir Cemetery: "A loving husband, a
father kind, a beautiful memory, left behind."

William Mulhearn was a Cheltonian; his name is remembered on the Cheltenham War Memorial in the centre of the Cotswold village and it was there that he met, and married, his wife in 1904. They had three children before they left for Canada, and had two more after they settled in Winnipeg. Mulhearn enlisted with the Canadian Army in 1916 and was assigned to the 10th Field Company, Canadian Engineers, part of the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade.  

In the third week of October, Mulhearn’s battalion took up position around Potijze, just outside of Ypres. Most of their work involved road repair near Zonnebeke Station, particularly hazardous as German guns targeted the roads; although they weren’t exempt from building latrines, clearing dug-outs, building frames for gas doors at the Battalion H.Q., and even repairing bath mats in front of the divisional quarters. 

Shortly before 9 a.m. on the 27th, Mulhearn was working with five men, strengthening the walls and cover of the quarters for the Commander Royal Engineers, when an artillery shell exploded near by. He and one of the men, Sapper Smith, were killed, while four others were wounded, one severely in the head.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Australian

The grave of Stanley Harris in Tyne Cot who
was killed on 9 October, 1917.
I'm a couple of days late posting this story, but I was distracted by a quick trip to TO to see my great niece.  As she's a Kiwi, this little piece of ANZAC history seems appropriate. 

I had fun researching and writing this story as it's, what do they call it, a dramatization based on fact.  It was inspired by a random picture I took of an Australian Lance Corporal of the 20th Battalion, Australian Infantry.  What I found interesting about the grave was the Star of David.  Of the 416,800 men who enlisted in the Australian Army in the First World War, only 2,300 were Jewish. But this amounted to 13% of the Jewish community then living in Australia. And of that number 300 were killed.  However, as I dug into the background of Stanley Harris I uncovered a few surprises which, with a bit more research, taught me more about the endless challenges faced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in correctly identifying those who were killed. I also learned about the techniques and inherent danger of laying and marking wire.  

While I decided to fictionalize what I found out about the young lance corporal the basic facts of his life and his last days - including his trip to the wire - remain true.  And as I post this today, I've finally uncovered the most likely truth for the Star of David.

Stanley Harris

Harold Reginald Harris looked at the answers he’d given one more time before penning his signature at the bottom of the Statutory Declaration. Since his mother had died two years earlier, in 1920, he hadn’t received any correspondence about his brother. He was assured, that this would fix that. He’d be sent a photograph of the grave, a memorial scroll and the medals - the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. 

“It had been five and a half years since Stanley enlisted - well, six if you count the first time when he got sick and they sent him home. He’d had to fill out the form all over again the second time: Age: 25 yrs, 11 month; Occupation -  Commission Agent; Religious Denomination: C of E. etc. etc...

Stanley’s youngest brother, Charles - you see, Stanley was the middle one - had returned from the War in March 1918. He’d gone over first, in September of ’15, and had a rough go of it.  He’d spent more time in the hospital than he had at the front, but never got wounded. Fancy that. He never quite recovered from the bout of flu he got in Greece - then he was in the hospital in Alexandria, in Cairo, England and France. Eventually they just declared him unfit and sent him home.  

From what he’d heard, the same thing had hit Stanley almost as soon as he got over there in February - he'd even ended up in the same hospital in Southall as his brother Charles. . .  just a day apart too. In Southall. That's where he’d met that nurse - Sister Agnes Mary Hayes; five months in England and then off to France at the beginning of August. They made him a Lance Corporal not too long after that.

But there hadn’t been much more once ‘e got to France.

Course, they’d all heard about the big push toward Passchendaele; the attacks on the village on the 4th and the 9th. The 20th had been right in the thick of it for the second one, just like they had in September when they captured Polygon Wood on the 26th - the boys had done well that time. But it was dry then. 

In the first week of October it had rained almost every day, at times drenching - the conditions were indescribably miserable - the ground a morass and it was almost impossible to move. On the night his battalion moved up to the front line, it had suffered heavily - men got lost in the mud and shelling; the support trenches caved in because of the rain and barrage and stretcher bearers 'ad a hell of a time making it forward.

Report from one of the last soldiers who saw Stanley.
They told me that Stanley had gone out at 4 in the morning, the morning of the 9th, when an officer had stuck his head in the dug-out and asked for two volunteers for taping. That was what they called it when they marked the paths out to the gaps in the enemy wire. 

Entry in the War Diary of the 20th Infantry Battalion
describing events for 9th October, 1917 and the
shelling that fell short.

They stuck stakes in the ground, or screw pickets, and they’d run white tape along them - they’d go out 50 or 100 yards. It was just about the time that the rest of the battalion was heading up to the “jump off point”. Course, he could’ve been with the other group that went up at the same time - they were going up to set up a forward report centre. Anyway, that was the last they’d seen of ‘im. Their barrage had started shortly after that. They heard it’d been pretty ragged - some of the shot fell right on their own wire - 100 yards short of the line.

So that was it then. They reported him as wounded, and then after the Court of Enquiry they said he was missing - and then in May, Charles was home by then, they reported him as killed. Buried him at Tyne Cot Military Cemetery - that’s the big one southwest of Passchendaele where a lot of our lads are buried.”

Tyne Cot Cemetery

The Cross of Sacrifice at Tyne Cot with a small
window revealing one of the captured
German blockhouses.
Graves at Tyne Cot surround one of six German pillboxes
captured by the Australians in early October 1917.

Tyne Cot Cemetery is located on ground captured by the Australians on 4th October, 1917 and one of the six German pillboxes captured was transformed in to an Advanced Dressing Station, the cemetery of which became the basis for Tyne Cot after the War. It is the largest British and Commonwealth cemetery in the world, with 11,900 graves, as well as The Memorial to the Missing, remembering 35,000 servicemen who have no known grave; the Cross of Sacrifice common to all Commonwealth cemeteries, was built over the original pill box capture by the Australians.

Post Script - a Word on the Cross and the Star of David

It seems the Internet retains pretty much everything.  When I first wrote this story I reached out to some knowledgeable folks in Australia via a First World War bulletin board enquiring about the possibility of a mix-up.  A year later one of the members sent me an email, pointing me to an exchange on another bulletin board, a much more active one with quite knowledgeable participants on which a debate was taking place inspired by a picture I had posted posing the question.  Unfortunately I never received that email, and it wasn't until today that I read the series of threads attributed to my post.

WIthout belabouring the various opinions about the mix-up, how it might have occurred because of the rules governing what was selected, the Star of David for those who are Jewish, or a cross for those belonging to the Church of England, the truth apparently lies in a much more benign and human explanation.  Without realizing the significance when given the choice between the two options for her son's grave, Stanley's mother selected the Star of David because she "thought it would look lovely on her son's gravestone". 

Post Script on Sister Mary Agnes Hayes

Of Nurse Hayes, I spent little time digging into her past, beyond looking at her service record which is available on the archives site of the Government of Australia. Like all such records, it tells us of her postings through the course of the war - from her short stint in England, to her posting to France in advance of the Third Battle of Ypres.  

In August 1933 Nurse Hayes wrote a letter to The Officer in Charge at Victoria Barracks, enquiring about directly contacting the family of Lance Corporal Stanley Harris.  After a brief back-and-forth in which she was informed that all correspondence should go through The Officer in Charge, nothing further has been retained.