Sunday, April 9, 2017

Vimy Ridge: Myth, Context and the Canadian Deserter Honoured by the Royal Canadian Legion

As Canadians pause to remember the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, it may be worth noting some little-discussed aspects of the battle. Some interesting research has been done for example by Jack Sheldon, who wrote an extensive account of what German troops experienced in that sector throughout the war.1 As this entry is being written, the story of Vimy Ridge is being retold in multiple media. The reasons are clear: Vimy has become important to Canada, as a nation. Pierre Berton, in his famous work Vimy, tells us:
It is a historical fact that Canada entered the war as a junior partner of Great Britain and emerged as an equal, her status confirmed when she, with the other Dominions, was given her own vote at the League of Nations. But did this really spring from the victory at Vimy? Or was Vimy simply used as a convenient symbol, a piece of shorthand to stand for a more complicated historical process that, in the end, was probably inevitable?

Does it matter? What counts is that in the minds of Canadians Vimy took on a mythic quality in the post-war years, and Canada was short of myths.2
The Canadian national imagination remembers Vimy as an unassailable fortress that the British and French tried in vain to take for three years until the Canadian Corps came to do it. Berton goes on to say "(The Canadians) were expected to achieve that victory with fifty thousand fewer men than the French had lost in their own frustrated assaults." The reality is a bit different, and of course, with the other side of the story taken into consideration, perhaps even more interesting.

Vimy as an exclusively Canadian victory

This is emphatically untrue, and historians and media alike are getting better at giving the Imperial forces their due. Jack Granatstein points out that about one in five guns firing on Vimy were actually British.3 An Imperial infantry brigade, the 13th, also participated in the assault. British participation at Vimy included:
  • British I Corps provided 132 heavy artillery pieces and 102 field guns to the 863 of the Canadian Corps, or 21 percent of the artillery involved.
  • Of the 13 brigades of infantry employed in the assault, one was British (the 13th Brigade of the British 5th Division).
  • 16 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps employed 24 aircraft as artillery spotters from 1 April to 13 April, losing three.
  • Considerable effort was also made by British logistical units throughout the Lines of Communication supporting the assault. 
Of course, the battle at Vimy was part of the overall Battle of Arras. The British I Corps stood on the left flank of the Canadian Corps, and to the right the famed 51st Highland Division made its own successful assault that day. Berton reminds us that a definitive history of the Great War from the British perspective gives the Vimy assault just a single chapter, and that the "Americans quickly forgot it and today have never heard of it."
Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge; British brigade indicated by blue formation patch with yellow stripe.

 Vimy as a Fortress

The officers charged with taking the Ridge would have been negligent in not preparing to face the best defence they could envision the Germans creating. Their preparations, and the breathless reporting in Canada under the restrictions of wartime reporting, has led to a popular national memory of the Vimy position as unassailable. At the centennial service on 9 April 2017 at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, one speaker referred to the "impossible" task the Canadians had that day. Many sources claim the British and French had lost heavily attempting to retake the ridge, and that the Canadian Corps had done what others had proven unable to do. The reality was somewhat different:
Statements (about Vimy) regularly make much of the fact that Canadian troops succeeded where the French and the remainder of the British Army had failed...(while) it is true that the arrival of British units put an end to Vimy Ridge being the quiet 'live and let live' front it had become (after) October 1915, mining...increased in intensity and (after) May 1916...(British) priority then and throughout 1916 was the Battle of the Somme. There was never (emphasis in original) the slightest attempt to capture Vimy Ridge between...autumn 1915 and the triumph of the Canadians in April 1917 and the casualties suffered in this sector, though not insignificant, were very slight compared with those on the Somme. The most costly period was 22-24 May 1916 when British losses (totalled) about 2,500 and the Germans roughly half that figure.
"Whilst on the subject of myth, it is important also to dispose of the notion that Vimy Ridge was as good as impregnable. One of the main reasons why the German army fought so hard to maintain the front as far to the west of the Ridge as possible...was to overcome the unpalatable, but inescapable, geographical fact that the Ridge itself was, from autumn 1915 onwards, extremely vulnerable to determined attack....Long before the Somme battles, the German army was well aware of the need for depth in defence - especially here at Vimy Ridge where placement of the gun lines was exceptionally difficult....
"It was not even easy to construct the infantry positions scientifically. A(n Intermediate Position)... was developed... (behind) the First Position, but parts of it were not well placed. The Second Position...had to be dug along the base of the eastern slopes of Vimy Ridge, which was obiviously a totally unviable location once the crest line was lost to the defence. As a result, well before (9 April 1917), work had begun on a Third Position some kilometres to the east of the Ridge...(as) a fall-back position...
"The only hope for the defence in early 1917 was to hold the First Position in sufficient strength...until operational reserves could be rushed forward. This front-loading of the defence...went against all the lessons learned on the Somme, but there was no obvious alternative. Worse still, the dugouts...were mostly clustered in the front line trench itself. This left them vulnerable to destructive fire and meant, in the event of Allied penetrations, that large numbers of defenders were vulnerable to being encirlced - precisely what happened on 9 April 1917."4
German dispositions on Vimy Ridge 9 April 1917
Pierre Berton assures the reader of Vimy that "The Germans didn't believe that any force could dislodge them." Sheldon's research indicates however that "Nothing could be further from the truth and German commanders were extremely concerned about the implications of its inherent weaknesses." One contemporary German report read in part:
Geographical Setting of our Position: Unfavourable. Total lack of depth. Initial enemy success [would be] extraordinarily difficult to rectify. The enemy cannot be allowed to achieve an initial success here. The adverse location of our positions is not neutralised by the physical development of the defences. The state of the defences is bad (influence of the weather and the effect of fire, coupled with insufficient manpower available to predecessors [in this sector]).
The report went on to say that German infantry was considered strong enough to repel an initial assault but that more machine guns were necessary to offset their lack of manpower.5

The Deserter

Jack Sheldon recounts a remarkable story of how a Canadian soldier aided the German defenders:
...on 12 February (1917), an extraordinary incident occurred somewhere around the La Folie area, when a deserter from "C" Company Royal Canadian Regiment succeeded in slipping away from his own lines and making himself known to men of Reserve Infantry Regiment 23 from 12th Reserve Division. It was almost their last act at the end of a three month tour of duty in the Vimy area...
The man's real name was Otto Ludwig Dörr. He was ninteteen years old at the time and had been born in Frankfurt am Main...(he) was interrogated on at least three occasions, cooperating fully with his questioners on each occasion.
When he was questioned at Headquarters VI Reserve Corps, he provided the information that he and his parents left for Saskatchewan in 1906...Three years after they arrived in Canada the family became naturalised, but never forgot their German roots. Immediately after the outbreak of the war, Dörr decided that he wished to fight for Germany, but the only way he could think of achieving it was to join the Canadian Army. Without mentioning anything to his father, he enlisted in Saskatoon in April 1916 with a false name and was posted to the 97th Battalion.
...(H)e left Canada with his Battalion on 17 September 1916, on board HMT Olympic...(and) left for France on 21 October 1916 with a draft of 152 trained men of 97th Battalion, who were sent to join the Royal Canadian Regiment....On his arrival he was employed as a stretcher bearer, even though he had not received relevant training. Once he was sent into the trenches he constantly sought an opportunity to desert. This finally occurred during the morning of 11 February (sic)...
Unsurprisingly, Dörr provided the Germans with a great deal of background information on a wide range of topics...(including) these forecasts:
"Because recently a great deal of ammuntion has been dumped behind this front and new guns have been moved into position, there is much talk amongst the troops of a major Canadian attack against Vimy Ridge."
"A more-or-less strong British offensive is predicted for the early part of the year. It is expected to be a dreadful clash...For the Canadians, Vimy Ridge, north of Neuville St. Vaast, has been selected as the objective for attack. The prisoner claims to have observed a constant build up of artillery. He does not believe, however, that the attack will begin before the middle of March."

HMT Olympic, sister ship to the infamous Titanic, shown during the First World War in its livery as a military troopship. The deserter Otto Doerr travelled twice on Olympic.

The strange tale of the deserter doesn't end there. According to Sheldon, "Much of the story of Dörr's later life remains obscure..." What is known is that he survived the war. It isn't known if he actually fought in the German Army. We do know that he returned to New York (on the Olympic, by coincidence, the same ship he went to Europe on) in 1931. He lived in Nanaimo, British Columbia for many years and claimed to have flown for the RFC. He was a Grand Principal of the Saskatchewan Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch Masons in 1961. He died, age 98, having become a Life member of the Royal Canadian Legion. He is mentioned in the Last Post section of Legion Magazine, both the online digitized version and the snippet below which appeared in the November-December 1996 issue of Legion Magazine.



One can only speculate that life in Germany was not to his liking, or perhaps he was simply not welcome in Germany. He may have missed his family. Michael O'Leary (webmaster of the Regimental Rogue website) has found these references in the RCR Part II Orders:

261286 McDonald, George

Strength; 261286; 16-10-22; Pte; 97th Res Bn; RCR; Having arrived from England as Reinforcement is taken on the strength of the Battalion.

Strength; 261286; 17-02-12; Pte; Reported Missing After Action 12 Feb 1917 and struck off strength accordingly.

Strength; 261286; 17-02-12; Pte; Part II Daily Order No. 26 dated 13 Mar 1917, insofar as it shows the marginally noted (261286 Pte McDonald, George) SOS “Missing after Action” is hereby cancelled and the following substituted: SOS as a deserter with effect from 12 Feb 1917.


Canadians fought a chivalrous war against a dastardly enemy

Canadian troops had been subjected to poison gas attack in April 1915, and suffered heavily. Many expressed shock, and before the Battle of 2nd Ypres began on 21 April, no one really expected the Germans to violate established rules of warfare by employing gas.6

There has been much (deserved) outrage in Canada and around the world over the recent discovery that chemical weapons have been deployed against civilians in Syria. What many Canadians don't realize today is that during the First World War, Canadians became enthusiastic proponents of gas warfare themselves, in a military context against soldiers properly equipped to withstand such an attack. A Leutnant Zeller of the 7th Company, Reserve Infantry Regiment 262, wrote of the Vimy barrage:
During the evening of 4 April my platoon was due to be relieved by another from 5th Company. The relief was to have started at midnight but suddenly, at 11.00pm, the (Canadians) launched a gas attack. We were not totally surprised by the attack because we had heard the noise of the installation of cylinders over a period of several days. Being cautious, however, I ordered increased gas readiness as soon as the wind was favourable. In addition we were all outside in the trenches because the Canadians had attacked to our right a short while earlier. The Canadians released two gas clouds and it was possible for us to unmask in between the two waves. I remained unclear why the Canadians had released gas in this way without following it up by an attack. In the front line gas casualties were practically zero, but the relieving troops from 5th Company, who were underway, suffered worse. Some of them were gassed and had to turn about immediately...As a result I...had to remain forward in the trenches for an extra day.7

After the losses of the Somme in the summer of 1916, there was no doubt that the war would be long and costly. New weapons were introduced in an effort to gain tactical advantage, of which poison gas was just one. Flamethrowers, tanks, light machine guns capable of being carried on the advance, all were developed and all turned the war more brutal and less personal. The history of the 10th Canadian Battalion describes mopping-up procedures during the Vimy assault (the 10th Battalion was in the lead wave on the 1st Division front):

Many Germans were huddled in their deep dugouts as the Tenth passed overhead, and mopping-up parties had no trouble dealing with these often dis-illusioned defenders. Mills bombs proved to be most useful in "urging people to come out of dugouts," Colonel Ormond recalled. "Faced with a couple of Mills bombs bouncing down the steps, why, the Germans didn't like to stay there very long!" This was a variation on the chilling practice that came to be known as "the Tenth Battalion solution." The unit's moppers-up began using flares to clear enemy dugouts, sometimes with horrifying results. In one instance involving an underground aid station, the occupants ignored a summons to surrender, and the subsequent flare ignited a box of ammunition. "The wounded," commented an observer, "came running out on their stumps."8
The Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was well-planned, relentless, and pitiless. It had been costly and is remembered as a great victory, which it surely was. It is also well to remember, as Robert E. Lee had famously said of war in general, how terrible it was.

Notes

1.Sheldon, Jack The German Army on Vimy Ridge 1914-1917 (Pen & Sword Military Books Ltd, Barnsley, UK, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84415-680-1
2. Berton, Pierre  Vimy (McClelland and Stewart, 1986). ISBN 0140104399, p.295
3. Granatstein, Jack. Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, ON, 2002). p.113 
4. Sheldon, Ibid
5. Sheldon, Ibid, p.252
6. Dancocks, Daniel G. Welcome to Flanders Fields: The First Canadian Battle of the Great War: Ypres, 1915 (McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, ON, 1988) ISBN 0-7710-2545-9, p.109 
7. Sheldon, Ibid 
8. Dancocks, Daniel G. Gallant Canadians: The Story of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919 (The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation, Calgary, AB, 1990) ISBN 0-9694616-0-7, p.114