Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Battle of Walcheren Causeway depicted in Netflix film The Forgotten Battle

 

In the summer of 2020 a trailer began making the rounds online of a new film called de slag om de Schelde.  




Fans of Canadian military history had reason to be excited. In English, of course, the title is "Battle of the Scheldt" and refers to a major campaign of the Second World War, fought in the Netherlands in the autumn of 1944, with major Canadian participation. The 1st Canadian Army had shaken free of Normandy and taken the left flank of all the Allied armies in Europe. It was a weighty responsibility, as there would eventually be just seven army headquarters on the Continent (1st Canadian, 2nd British, 1st US, 3rd US, 7th US, 9th US, and 1st French) divided into three Army Groups: the 21st (British-Canadian), the 12th (American) and the 6th (French-American). In strategic reserve was the 1st Allied Airborne Army with several divisions of parachute and glider troops under command.

The Long Left Flank, as Canadian historian Jeffery Williams called it, was not a backwater. Within the area of operations of 1st Canadian Army were a number of rocket sites from which flying bombs were hurled at the United Kingdom. There was an imperative to quickly destroy these sites, and it was not the only strategic imperative to Canadian operations. Having thoroughly smashed the German 15th Army in Normandy, the Allied armies advanced across northern France so fast that keeping them supplied quickly became a problem. The Germans showed an unwillingness to give up control of the ports along the Channel coast and many, like Dunkirk, remained in German hands until the end of the war. Others, like Le Havre and Calais, fell to the Canadians (and British formations under their command) only after hard fighting. This meant supplies had to be moved by truck over long distances, consuming gasoline and manpower as the French rail system had been thoroughly smashed by Allied bombing before D-Day.



Battle of the Scheldt

The capture of Antwerp in August 1944, with port facilities intact, promised to solve the worsening supply crisis by providing a major port close to the front lines. The only problem was that the Germans controlled the Scheldt Estuary, the waterway leading from the North Sea into the port. Priority was not given to clearing the estuary, and instead the Allies gambled on Operation MARKET-GARDEN, an ambitious plan to forge a bridgehead over the Rhine River at Arnhem and endanger the German industrial heartland, the Ruhr. The plan failed, and in late September, 1st Canadian Army was given the go-ahead to clear the Scheldt.


The battle lasted for over a month and was primarily a Canadian affair. The 3rd and 4th divisions fought south of the estuary to reduce the so-called Breskens Pocket while 2nd Canadian Division battered at the neck of the South Beveland Peninsula and then raced west towards Walcheren Island where German coastal batteries kept Allied shipping at bay. The Canadians weighed their options, decided not to use paratroops on Walcheren Island, and instead bombed the dikes, flooding much of the island instead. British commandos landed on the western side of the island while the Canadians approached from the east.

Walcheren Causeway

The only land link between Walcheren Island and the South Beveland Peninsula was the Walcheren Causeway. The Dutch referred to the feature as the Sloedam (literally, a dam across the Slooe Channel). The feature was a mile long and only 40 metres wide, carrying a rail line and hardened road linking the island to the isthmus. The occupying Germans had begun to heavily fortify the area in 1942 following the Dieppe Raid. There were a number of concrete bunkers and gun positions in the area by 1944, though most of them were sited to defend against an amphibious landing coming from the North Sea, not a land assault. The Germans did have some idea of how difficult an assault over the causeway from east to west would be, for they had done it themselves in 1940 during their initial invasion of the Netherlands. A unit of SS troops attempted an assault and took heavy losses from the French Army defenders. The causeway was devoid of cover, with just a single row of trees along its length.

Monument to the French soldiers killed at the Walcheren Causeway ("Sloedam") in May 1940. Photographed in 2015.

The 5th Canadian Brigade approached the causeway on 30 October 1944. Both sides made their preparations. The Germans blew a large, deep crater on the causeway itself to prevent Canadian tanks from crossing. They emplaced machine guns in bunkers on the western end, and added a high-velocity gun for good measure able to fire straight down the road. A number of 20mm anti-aircraft guns were sited along the eastern shoreline of Walcheren Island able to fire onto the causeway itself. The Canadians, not sure of what they might be facing, planned to "bounce" the causeway with a rapid attack. One of the 5th Brigade's battalions had trained in the UK to use assault boats, expecting to need them to cross the Seine under fire. The Seine crossing never materialized, and now reconnaissance parties went out to see if they could make use of that training at Walcheren. They reported that the water and mud flats surrounding the causeway was too deep to ford and too shallow to take boats.

The Canadians were left with no choice but an assault over the Causeway. The first attack went in on the 31st in the form of a company of the Black Watch, which was turned back with heavy casualties. Their brigade-mates, the Calgary Highlanders, made a second attempt in darkness and similarly went only as far as the crater. 

Painting by Robert Johnson depicting the assault of The Calgary Highlanders over the Walcheren Causeway on 31 October 1944.

An extensive artillery fire plan was drawn up, and Major Bruce Mackenzie's "D" Company went forward on the morning of 1 November under heavy supporting fires, captured the far end, and established a bridgehead. For the better part of two days, the Calgary Highlanders fought off desperate counter-attacks, to be relieved by Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, who were in turn relieved by a battalion of Glasgow Highlanders. As they fought at the causeway, British commandos landed on Walcheren from the sea, with additional landings by the 52nd Lowland Division. The island fell after a few more days, the last act of the Battle of the Scheldt, but by then the Canadians had been relieved and shipped off to the Nijmegen Salient for a much needed rest.

Walcheren Island is visible at far left. After the battle, the Canadians moved into the salient created around Nijmegen (upper right) during the failed Operation MARKET-GARDEN and spent the winter of 1944-45 there.

Legacy of the Causeway Battle

The Calgary Highlanders decided after the Second World War that the battle at the causeway, in which 64 of their men had been killed or wounded, would be held in special esteem. Each year the regiment commemorates the battle, usually with representation by the local Dutch-Canadian community. For the regiment, it ranks as one of their most significant events in over a century of service. 


The Calgary Highlanders parade to remember the Battle of Walcheren Causeway in November 2010. Inspecting the guard is Captain Peter J. Boyle, guard commander, Colonel P. Bury, commander of 41 Canadian Brigade Group, and Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Owens, commanding officer of The Calgary Highlanders. In red is Ms. Irene Bakker, Honorary Consul of the Consulate of the Netherlands in Calgary, representing the Dutch community.

Battle of the Scheldt on the Big Screen

The film, which had its Dutch premiere in 2020, is now coming to Netflix in North America on 15 October 2021 under the English language title THE FORGOTTEN BATTLE. Canadian military history enthusiasts can see much to like in the trailer, not least of which are the references to, and depictions of, the Battle of Walcheren Causeway.

Above, a screen shot from the film, referencing the Sloedam. Below, a marked map in the possession of the Calgary Highlanders Regimental Museum and Archives. This is a "defence overprint" version of the military map of the causeway with German positions, minefields, etc. added to the map.

Based on screenshots and promotional stills, it appears at the least that The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada will be represented. These images show the correct blue lozenge shoulder flashes and rectangular divisional patches of the 2nd Canadian Division. 



Other details are the subject of discussion by keen-eyed observers, battle dress patterns and No. 1 Mk III rifles which were not in use at the time. Military enthusiasts have come to expect inaccuracies, minor and major, in uniforms, weapons and tactics in films so this is nothing new. And it should be noted the story revolves around three major characters, none of whom are Canadian. It would appear the Canadian battle scenes are backdrop to the story of the main protagonists: a German, a Dutch resistance fighter and a British glider pilot.


Walcheren Causeway Geography

The causeway no longer exists as such. The Dutch have continually "reclaimed" land from the sea, and this has been the case with the area separating Walcheren Island and South Beveland. The former Slooe Channel has been diked and is today used as farmland. A new highway has been built south of the former causeway. There are still German bunkers on the eastern edge of what used to be the Slooe Channel, and the former causeway today carries a high-speed rail line.

The author at the site of the former causeway, looking west. In 1944 most of the land shown here was under water. The power poles mark the path of the former rail line and causeway.


Photo of the Causeway taken in 1946 looking east from Walcheren Island. The row of poplars is gone, but the hardened road and railway line are still present.

The set designer has incorporated the unique 1944 period telephone poles into the set.


From the book SLAGVELD SLOEDAM, translated from the Dutch, showing German defensive positions in October 1944. WN (Widerstandnest) were small "resistance nests", two or more of these could be grouped into a Stützpunkt (strongpoint) - the strongpoints were named after famous German generals.

Google Map 3D view of the battlefield today, looking west from above South Beveland toward Walcheren. Much land has been reclaimed from the sea, the brown lines indicate areas that were under water in 1944. Camera is looking west from what was the Canadian end of the Causeway on 31 October 1944, toward the German-held end. Landmark labels refer to following photos taken in 2015.


Observation Bunker 1


Bunker Ruins

View from north of the Causeway, looking south. The camera is on a low dyke that formed the eastern shore of the former Slooe Channel. The darker green crops in this photo would have been under water in 1944.

Concrete Shelter

Tobruk Bunker. These were named by the Allies after encountering one-man concrete fighting positions like this near Tobruk, North Africa. The bunker has a deep shelter underneath the round fighting position above ground.

View from what was the eastern end of the Walcheren Causeway, looking straight west from what was the Canadian end. Railway is in the same location as the old causeway line, but the track bed has been elevated several feet from the 1944 line. Farmland at right would have been under water in 1944.

Observation Bunker 2 is about halfway down the causeway south of the rail line on the 1944 map shown below - it is today north of the rail line.

Map is a wartime "Defence Overprint" from the collection of The Calgary Highlanders, dated at about the time of the battle. Numerals in yellow are grid reference numbers. Numerals indicate landmarks from the photographs above: (1) Observation Bunker 1 (2) Bunker Ruins (3) Concrete Shelter and (4) Tobruk Bunker.

Conclusion

The Battle of Walcheren Causeway has great importance to the regiments that fought there (The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, The Calgary Highlanders, and Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, as well as 1st Battalion, Glasgow Highlanders of the British 52nd (Lowland) Division) but is largely unknown outside of military history circles. With little of the original battlefield surviving into the current day, it is exciting to think that the battle will be brought back into the public consciousness by this major motion picture.

Further Information





Saturday, December 26, 2020

Aubrey Cosens, VC

Aubrey Cosens was born to a First World War veteran in Latchford, Ontario, on the 21st of May 1921. 

He moved at a young age to Porquis Junction, near Iroquois Falls, Ontario and was educated in the Porquis Junction School. In 1938, he left school 1938 to work on the railway with his father as a second hand. In 1939 he attempted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force but his application was rejected. In 1940, he went to Hamilton, Ontario and was enlisted in The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, with whom he served in Canada, Jamaica and England, eventually earning the rank of corporal.

In the summer of 1944 he transferred to the1st Battalion of The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, serving in Europe with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, and was soon promoted to sergeant. Cosens was acting as the Platoon Sergeant of 16 Platoon during the action in which he earned the Victoria Cross.

Aubrey Cosens is buried in Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

His Victoria Cross is held by the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. 

Cosens as a corporal with The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada. 
There are no known photographs of him in the uniform of the Queen's Own Rifles.

Rifleman Don Chittenden of the Queen's Own Rifles served in Aubrey Cosens' platoon.  The following is taken from the February 1994 issue of Legion Magazine, and is in Rifleman Chittenden's own words.  
 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

What "1917" Gets Right (No Spoilers)


Military enthusiasts have long become used to the conventions of cinematic treatments of modern warfare (tropes, if you will). If the story is well told, the tropes are accepted as a necessary means of getting the story to the screen and into the public consciousness. Band of Brothers comes to mind. Others, just as well meaning, come off simply as more formulaic. The fictionalized Memphis Belle, for example, packed in so many vignettes of aerial combat that surviving heavy bomber crews noted that more happened in 90 minutes of screen time than any of them had encountered in entire combat tours over Europe.

Nonetheless, modern directors have turned their backs on the epic war films of the 1960s and 70s which told widely focused stories of massive scope, and instead have brought their cameras into the mud to tell much more personal tales. One reviewer said of 2017's Dunkirk: "That was one of the things most appreciated about (it) — that it felt more like an experience than an actual story."

Such is the case with 1917.


The film features just two protagonists, in a one-shot format intended to personalize the story even further. Steven Spielberg had explained in 1999 that he avoided crane shots and flyovers on the set of Saving Private Ryan because he wanted it to look like the cameraman was actually on Omaha Beach with the actors. Sam Mendes has gone one further by making the entire film appear to be a single camera affair, shot in real time.

The publicity around this style of filming is probably more of a distraction than an attraction. This author didn't even realize Birdman was shot in the same manner until he read the reviews after seeing the film. During my viewing of 1917, I found myself looking for the places that the filming would have been interrupted. Some are easy to spot, if one is looking for them, and if it hadn't been for the publicity, I wouldn't have been looking for them.

Nonetheless, the acting, special effects, and yes, camera work, all have combined to do something quite special, at least for the first part of the movie. The hazardous journey of the two principals through No Man's Land is full of subtle details that will encourage repeat viewings. The details paint a rich tapestry of what life on the Western Front must have been like, in ways that are more convincing than anything committed to film before. The camera doesn't linger on the bodies, the rats, or the carrion birds, the way it does in other films like Legends of the Fall, demanding the viewer take note of how terrible it all was. In 1917, the dead, decaying bodies are a part of the landscape as natural as the trees, and the director trusts the viewer to come to their own conclusions about how to feel about what they are seeing.

Military enthusiasts (I am one) began their chatter about the verisimilitude of the film as soon as the first trailer was released. For my part, I zeroed in on what looked like modern weapon carries. (Yes, people really do dwell on this kind of thing.) On actually viewing the film, I'm less inclined to feel the military advisors have led the actors at all astray. One or two scenes may or may not be consistent with period weapons handling practices, but the overall look and feel of the film is so hyper-accurate that one easily dismisses it and gives the actors the benefit of the doubt.



Harder to swallow, perhaps, is the plot line itself, at least in military social media groups that I have perused. It gives away nothing to say (as the trailers do) that the two principals have been charged with getting an important message through to a battalion cut off from its chain of command. (For those wondering, yes, the inability to just pick up a field telephone is lampshaded in the film by reference to cut cables.)

But of course, without the need to send these two characters into No Man's Land, there would be no story.

But is the story really so far fetched?

Those familiar with the actions of Private Harry Brown of Canada's 10th Battalion might not think so.


In August 1917 (four months after the events of the film), Brown was ordered, with a comrade, to carry a message between an incommunicado company and headquarters. The use of runners was common in the First World War (and even with the advent of reliable radio communications, in the Second World War as well). The most famous runner of them all, of course, was Gefreiter Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment. He was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class for his service.

Harry Brown was awarded the Victoria Cross.

His citation reveals some other similarities to the characters in 1917:

For most conspicuous bravery, courage and devotion to duty. After the capture of a position, the enemy massed in force and counter-attacked. The situation became very critical, all wires being cut. It was of the utmost importance to get word back to Headquarters. This soldier and one other were given the message with orders to deliver the same at all costs. The other messenger was killed. Private Brown had his arm shattered but continued on through an intense barrage until he arrived at the close support lines and found an officer. He was so spent that he fell down the dug-out steps, but retained consciousness long enough to hand over his message, saying ' Important message.' He then became unconscious and died in the dressing station a few hours later. His devotion to duty was of the highest possible degree imaginable, and his successful delivery of the message undoubtedly saved the loss of the position for the time and prevented many casualties.

— The London Gazette, No. 30338, 16 October 1917

In other words, the story of two messengers being tasked to carry a message back because of cut wires is not at all far-fetched. Though in Brown's case, the second runner was insurance to guarantee the message got through (they would have been ordered to take different routes to maximize their chances of success).

Other elements of the story are perhaps better accepted for artistic license, though many of the small details ring true. In no particular order:

  • the general demeanor of soldiers in the line, particularly to "outsiders" or men not from their immediate unit. When the characters walk into the wrong section of trench, they're cursed at, questioned for being there, and told to get away. When they bump into someone by accident, even in a narrow trench where it can't be helped, tensions rise in realistic fashion. These scenes were a joy to watch
  • the date of the film is set at 6 April 1917 (shown in the film's main title card). This is 3 days before Vimy Ridge, which of course was just part of the overall Battle of Arras (Canadians are quick to forget about the latter while complaining that the British always forget about the former). The Germans were indeed thinning their lines out in order to move back to the Hindenburg Line, in a new defensive principle that replaced their old doctrine of clinging to every scrap of ground no matter how useless tactically. It is not well known that even at Vimy Ridge, the Germans were in the process of thinning out and pulling back to a stronger, shorter line when the storm broke on 9 April. The characters of the film, incidentally, note that "something big" seems to be about to happen. They are right, just as their commanding officer is right about the Germans pulling back, a convenient (and as it turns out, accurate) hook on which the entire story is hung.
  • The set decorators have done a nice job of differentiating the German and British trenches, highlighting the concrete bunkers the Germans enjoyed and marvelling at the size of the dugout they encounter. This jives well with period accounts.
No doubt the military enthusiast will find much in the way of details large and small to find fault with, but more importantly the film delivers a solid cinematic experience. I was struck by how little the trailers gave away of important plot occurrences (rare enough, these days). And even if one is pulled out of the story completely by an unwillingness to suspend disbelief at the way the story unwinds in its last 30 minutes, with the usual descent into symbolism that dooms many First World War films (the crucifixion scene of Passchendaele comes to mind), that first scamper through No Man's Land has to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated, possibly more than once.

No love stories here, nor Hollywood heroics, just a glimpse into what it must have been like that complements Peter Jackson's documentary very nicely and brings to life a now dead generation in an equally moving, yet surprisingly fresh, way.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Sorting Out the Carnage: 100 Years Later

In 2010 I had the pleasure of accompanying a large delegation of soldiers, musicians, veterans and family members of my reserve unit to France, Flanders and the Netherlands to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the creation of The Calgary Highlanders. We spent two weeks visiting battlefields and a fair number of Canadian military cemeteries. One notable aspect of our visit was visiting a Calgary Highlander who was buried in 1944 and whose headstone incorrectly identified him as a soldier of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada.

The mix-up was perhaps understandable. On 25 July 1944, as part of Operation SPRING, the Black Watch put in an unsupported attack against the Verrières Ridge. It was the worst day of the war for the Black Watch and the worst single day for any Canadian infantry battalion after Dieppe. A total of 325 Black Watch men left the start line and after their gallant attack, something like 10 men were still alive and unwounded.

One can only imagine the chaos that must have ensued at the casualty clearing stations as the scale of the disaster made itself felt. The Calgary Highlanders, who served alongside the Black Watch in the 5th Canadian Brigade, had put in their own attack that day as well. In all the confusion, it was perhaps understandable that one of our soldiers was mixed up with those of the Black Watch. He was put in a temporary grave and then later reinterred in one of the many beautiful Canadian War Cemeteries that are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. When research by the regimental museum discovered the headstone was incorrect, the matter was quickly rectified.

The enormity of loss in the two world wars comes into sharp focus when one discovers that we are still trying to sort out the mess even 100 years later.

Private Hair

I recently received an email from the United Kingdom, with a photograph:

Afternoon,

My name is Chris Docherty, a former British soldier from Scotland. Whilst walking through a local cemetery in Port Glasgow, Scotland I stumbled across a commonwealth war grave, it was located far from the other war graves by some 200 metres.

The fallen soldiers name is 2004542 Private W. Hair of the 7th Battalion, Canadian Infantry.  The headstone does not say where and how he died, the date he died was the 1st March 1917 aged 37. I can only assume his name may have been William.

I would love to trace his living relatives if this was possible and to find out if they know the graves location.

I have attached a picture of the headstone but, you would not believe it’s location as it’s placed with the most awesome views over the river Clyde to the hills beyond.

Can you or anyone you know help me with this ?

Regards, Chris
Ex-Brit Mil



There are a number of tools available online to research with. I immediately looked up the soldier's attestation form, and found his entire service file had been digitized. It is available at this link



The file is not a happy one. It appears this gentleman arrived in the United Kingdom, went straight to hospital, and died of Meningitis. What struck my eye was his unit. While his headstone indicates 7th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, his service record indicates that he was with the 7th Reserve Battalion, which was a completely different unit.

His page on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial also incorrectly lists him as serving with the 7th Battalion, Canadian Infantry. A check with the good residents of the Facebook Society of Military Artifact Preservation, in particular the always helpful Mark Tonner, confirmed that the Book of Remembrance lists him as a soldier of the 7th Reserve Battalion.



A quick note to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission produced a response within 24 hours:

Dear Mr Dorosh,

Thank you for your email below.

Our Records section has now investigated this matter and confirmed that the correct unit text for Private Hair is the 7th (Reserve) Bn. As such they have amended our database and this should reflect on our website within the next 24 hours or so.

They have also placed an amendment request into our works programme to amend the Unit on the headstone from 7th Bn. Canadian Inf. to 7th Res. Bn. Canadian Inf. As this will require a replacement headstone I cannot give you an exact timescale as to its completion (normally anywhere between 18 and 24 months) but they have requested a photograph of the completed work which will be forwarded on to you once received.

Kind Regards

CWGC Enquiry Support Team


As for the next of kin, while I don't have an interest in genealogy, from the available documentation online it looks like this unfortunate soldier had been buried just a few miles from his mother's home in Greenock, Scotland. If there can be any happy element of this story, it is that his family must surely have been aware of the location of his burial, and possessed the means to visit him as often as they wished.

Thanks to Chris, and the CWGC, his final resting place will soon be marked with the correct name of the unit he belonged to when he died.

Sergeant Milne

In August 2017 I had the honour of serving on the burial party of a sergeant of the 10th Battalion who had been recently discovered near Arleux. His remains had been dug up during the construction of new housing. Because he had privately purchased a set of metal identification tags, his ID was confirmed. He had been killed there shortly after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and his name appears on the Vimy Monument among over 11,000 Canadian soldiers who were listed as "missing" and presumed dead. The government was unable to locate any living relatives, and so a regimental delegation of The Calgary Highlanders served as witnesses to his proper burial, over 100 years after he died.



Sobering reminders, a century on, of how vast and terrible these conflicts were, in which men were killed in such numbers it was difficult to keep track of them all.

Post-Script

Less than an hour after posting this blog entry, one of the collectors at the Facebook Society of Military Preservation mentioned above indicated that he was in possession of the Memorial Cross sent to the family of Private William Hair 100 years ago. Small world.



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 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

UP THE LINE: Experiencing the Somme with Martin Middlebrook

The name Martin Middlebrook is well known to anyone who has made an attempt to seriously study the Battle of the Somme. His 1971 book First Day on the Somme is still in print and acknowledged to be a well-written and dramatic portrayal of what was, and is, the worst single day in the history of the British Army. His book about the Somme was his first publication, and he went on to write a number of other military history works, including accounts of the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 as well as several books about various aspects of the operations of Bomber Command in the Second World War.
While he no longer seeks to publish books, Mr. Middlebrook continues to remain active in the writing and historical communities. His most recent activities include a cross-Canada tour to deliver a public lecture entitled "Up The Line and Back Again." He has been giving public presentations for many years, including a public lecture on the Battle of the Somme going back at least as far as May 17, 2007. I attended his Somme lecture a number of years ago at Calgary's Military Museums.
The intent of this essay is to provide some impressions of the UP THE LINE presentation, with some ancillary discussion of Middlebrook's Somme materials.
The Presentation - Part I (Regimental Mobilization and War Service)
I attended the September 16, 2014 session of UP THE LINE at Calgary's Military Museums. The event was well-attended, though a number of empty chairs suggested it had not been as well advertised as other stops on his cross-country tour. There were no other speakers other than some very brief and appropriate introductory remarks by the evening's host, Major Peter Boyle, CD, ADC, the Regimental Curator of The Calgary Highlanders.
The talk was divided into two parts. Mr. Middlebrook seemed apologetic about discussing the first part at all, fearing it too dry for a general interest audience. The material was a description of the British regimental system, mobilization outline, and general course of manpower management for a typical infantry regiment in the First World War. As someone who has struggled to understand the subtle differences between the Territorial Army and the Reserve, I personally found this segment very interesting, and think I may finally understand why some units received designations such as "1st/4th" and "2nd/4th" etc. Middlebrook took the sensible approach of using a single actual regiment as an example, and chose The Lincolnshire Regiment. Not only does he hail from Lincolnshire himself, but his father and uncles served in the Lincolnshires, two of them being killed in the Great War. Middlebrook also shared something of his own military experience, having grown up in the period of National Service, but some stories deserve to be experienced first-hand and so I therefore won't elaborate here.
The first part of the lecture presented a number of facts and figures and logically traced the lineage and war service of the various battalions until the final casualty figures of the war service battalions were presented. This is a very plain accounting of the contents of the first part. Middlebrook breathed a great deal of life into the subject by relating it to his family and personal experiences. It was a charming presentation and Middlebrook is a well-practiced public speaker. While perhaps not polished, he does come across as genuine and spoke without needing to refer to notes.
Part 2 - Casualty Clearing System in Major Battles
The second part of the lecture was more disorganized. I don't think it hampered the presentation, and in fact, the jumping from subject to subject allowed Middlebrook to keep the momentum of the evening going. The major topic was the casualty treatment system of the First World War. This was a major theme of Middlebrook's first book, and the Somme battle - in particular the first two weeks - were used as the primary example for purposes of the talk. A comparison of Middlebrook’s discussion to what is found in, for example, Keegan’s Face of Battle shows that Middlebrook’s research appears to be beyond reproach. Again, the material was at risk for being painfully dry, but this is where he wisely deviated from a straight recitation of British Army casualty clearance doctrine and shared some personal vignettes, and also embarked on some major digressions which became a third major theme of the evening.
British Cemeteries
Folded into the discussion of casualty clearance was a brief history of the Imperial War Graves Commission (later Commonwealth War Graves Commission). This was not a straight history, which could be found online in any event, but a brief overview and then some interesting discussion of select sites. The focus of the talk was on how individual cemeteries came into being. Middlebrook made the statement with words to the effect that “each cemetery starts with a single grave” and he illustrated how various cemeteries came into being and why some burial sites with unique layouts were patterned in different ways. Again, he included some personal touches, including a photo of his late wife who passed away in May, dutifully pointing out a grave marker in one of the many cemeteries she helped photograph for him. Another set of photos, of Railway Dugouts Cemetery, includes a grouping of seven men of the 1st/4th Battalion Lincolnshires, including two sergeants, laid to rest in a row. This set of graves had special meaning for Middlebrook as his uncle had been a sergeant in the 1st/4th Lincolns. Sergeant Andrew Crick, Regimental Number 812, is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
Lancashire Dump Cemetery was revealed to be a favourite of Middlebrook’s, though again, one should hear the story of why first-hand. As a hint, Middlebrook made reference to Rose Coombs, author of Before Endeavours Fade. Some other notable cemeteries discussed include Brandhoek New Military Cemetery where Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC and Bar, MC is buried, and special protection is provided to the grass over his grave since so many visitors come to photograph the unique headstone with its double Victoria Cross insignia.
Overall Impressions
In all, the evening was a pleasant experience and Middlebrook is an experienced public speaker. While perhaps lacking some of the polish one might get from a different type of speaker, Middlebrook speaks with conviction, charm and the occasional flash of humour – and most importantly, sincerity. There is no questioning his passion for the subject and his desire to share his decades of accumulated knowledge with others. When one of the younger members of the audience, sitting in the front row, dared to yawn expressively there was a refreshing exchange of spontaneous sincerity from Mr. Middlebrook that left the rest of the audience both amused and a little more alert in their chairs.
Middlebrook’s Historical Approach
The exchange with the yawner shouldn’t be taken out of context. Middlebrook presented himself as a humble, though genuinely learned, man and in fact expressed concern several times for the welfare of the audience. He began by pointing out he would feel no offence if anyone had real world issues and had to leave during the presentation, or if in fact simply saw no value in the talk and left. “Don’t be embarrassed,” was his council. He apologized more than once for the first part of the talk, insisting the hosts had been keen on having the entire presentation. The apology sums up Middlebrook quite well, as did one other comment he made during the presentation.
He was forthcoming in the thought that military historians have come to a consensus that First Day on the Somme made just two major contributions to military history. While his research did introduce a number of first-hand accounts of Somme participants into the public record, Middlebrook noted that he feels these “were not major contributions” to military history. What he feels military historians have recognized him for are bringing two facts to public attention:
  1. The fact that General Rawlinson, a senior British Commander on 1 July 1916, had altered war diaries before publishing his memoirs in the 1920s, and
  2. Research done on the casualty evacuation system in place on 1 July 1916, particularly the lack of ambulance trains. Middlebrook apparently tracked down correspondence between Rawlinson and Haig, the latter of which refused to approve the number of trains requested, leading to a breakdown of the evacuation chain on 1 July 1916 with disastrous consequences.
I had an interesting exchange with Middlebrook at the early session on the First Day on the Somme which may speak further to his approach. During the question and answer period, I responded to what I felt was Middlebrook’s criticism of many decisions made leading up to the events of 1 July 1916 by pointing out that the British troops of "Kitchener's Army" were largely civilians drafted into "Pals Battalions" - I asked him therefore what choice the British Army had but to make tactics simple for them. Middlebrook’s response was to ask in return: “You’re a military man, aren’t you?” The question, even the description alone as it rolled off his tongue, seemed to state clearly his perspective.
Newer Approaches to the Somme
William Philpott published a history of the Battle of the Somme (in other words, not just the first day, but the entire battle which is recognized by historians as running from 1 July 1916 into November of the same year) entitled Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme which by the title alone suggests yet another shift of interpretations of the battle. The final chapter makes it clear this is exactly what Philpott is doing, and he mentions Middlebrook by name. Beginning on page 592, Philpott traces the evolution of the battle's history, analyzes how it has entered the public consciousness, and how pop culture has shaped – or even distorted – public perception of the battle, and later the entire First World War and Britain’s role in it. Middlebrook is not mentioned until page 613, and despite the honest work Middlebrook has done in capturing first-hand accounts of the battle, he is described as part of a “post facto generalisation of the nature of (the) war.” Philpott describes a process in which First World War veterans were in fact “sucked in” to a process in which historians re-examined the war, and utilized the fading memories of veterans, inter-twining them with “harsh post-war realities” that eventually “convinced the combatants of the overarching futility and tragedy of their youthful fight.” Philpott argues that this was a sense of futility and tragedy that the combatants did not feel at the time of the war – insisting that “the troops on the Western Front were not the victims that twentieth-century history has made them…” 
Another examination of the Somme that is even broader is Somme 1914-18: Lessons in War by Martin Marix Evans, which explores fighting in the sector throughout the entire war. Like Philpott, Evans devotes space in his conclusion to the evolution of public understanding of First World War history. While he is not as ready to dismiss historians, like Middlebrook, as being complicit in a rewriting of history, he does warn that "(t)he facile triviality of Oh What a Lovely War! is as useless and patronising as gung-ho nationalism" and urges those studying the war not to forget that "(i)t is possible to think in terms of the war in Europe...or on the Somme, or on 1 July 1916, the first day of the great Somme battle, to the exclusion of all else, but it is vital to be aware of doing so. To some extent each time and theatre influences the other." The Western Front, he notes, was part of a much larger world war.
Conclusion
With the popularity of so-called "social media" it's tempting to ponder the fate of lecture series such as this. Having enjoyed public speaking engagements by Tim Cook (author of Shock Troops, The Madman and the Butcher and other Canadian Great War histories) and now Middlebrook, in addition to several good historians while an undergrad at University (I'd like to think I appreciated the experience then as much as I should have - the good ones still stand out in memory), it is easy to both recommend the experience to others, and believe they will always be part of the historical landscape.
For anyone who did attend and is struggling to remember what Mr. Middlebrook was asking people to "google" at the end of the lecture, his website is at this address and tells the story of his visit to Kelowna and the tribute to British soldiers of the 12th Division.
Martin Middlebrook presents an interesting picture of contrasts. On the one hand by his own admission not claiming to be a serious military historian, yet clearly having a grasp of many intricate technical details borne of long years of study. His book First Day on the Somme deserves to be read for its masterful portraits of men in war, but also needs to be tempered with the deeper background accounts offered up by authors like Evans or Philpott who can skillfully supply the greater - one dares say colder - context that Middlebrook, probably unapologetically, does not provide.