Vimy Ridge: Personal connections.

March 21, 2017
Waiter-Herbert Tracy-WWI-Death-Newspaper Clipping

My Great Uncle – article in Toronto paper in 1917.

One hundred years ago on April 9, 1917 the Canadian Corps fought a battle that told the world we were no longer a colony, but a true nation. This was the first time during the Great War all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together in a single operation. Some 97,184 soldiers of the Canadian Corps participated in the battle

Vimy Ridge located in France was a strategic high point the Allies wanted to capture to gain an advantage over the Germans. Attempts to capture it had been made on several occasions before without success. The Canadians had gained a name for themselves as tough, never say die soldiers, so they were called in to attempt to capture the objective.

Canadian commanders did the following key things to prepare for the battle,

  • built tram-ways and plank roads to enable the movement of over 800 tons of ammunition, rations and equipment per day leading up to the battle.
  • had 72 kilometres of pipe laid to supply 600,000 gallons of water per day for the horses.
  • amassed 50,000 horses to move artillery pieces and shift supplies.
  • constructed a full-scale mock-up of the ridge behind the lines so troops could rehearse movements. This the first time this was done.
  • a series of underground caves and tunnels were constructed close to and under the ridge.

The attack was planned for 5:30 am on the morning of April 9th. Several hours before all the men were given a hot meal and a tot of rum.

The attack began on schedule at 5:30 am behind a creeping artillery barrage. The artillery barrage moved several yards each time and the infantry followed behind. This was a tactic that gave the soldiers some protection as it forced the Germans to keep their heads down and caused confusion in their ranks. The first wave went forward through the underground tunnels to catch the Germans by surprise. Some of these caves and tunnels were large enough to hold an entire battalion. Artillery bombardments had been on-going for several days ahead of the attack, this was to confuse the enemy and keep them guessing as to when the actual attack was coming.

Within the first hour the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions reached the first objective and by 8 am the final objective. The battle continued for two days with another two for mopping up. Victory was declared April 10th. The Canadians accomplished what no other troops had been able to. The cost was high with Canadians suffering 10,600 casualties including 3,598 killed. Over 4,000 Germans were captured during the battle.

This battle is personal for me because members of my family took part. As a genealogical researcher I spent a lot of time looking into our military history. I discovered connections to Vimy Ridge and other battles of World War I.

Cuthbert “Bert” Sendell:
My grandfather on mother’s side served in the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) and was at Vimy Ridge. He survived and came home. Interestingly he enlisted as Herbert Strain, his biological father’s first name and his stepfather’s last name.

Herbert Tracy Waite:
Grandmother’s big brother who unfortunately was killed at Vimy. He was only 20 years of age and left behind a wife and children back home. The newspaper article at top is a document I found during my research. Date of his death was actually April 13, 1917, but reporter didn’t have a lot of information at that time. Very sad reading and this is just one example of thousands. He is commemorated at the Vimy Memorial in France, but is one of thousands whose body was never found.

Vimy Ridge was just an entry in the history books to me, but that history came alive when I discovered my ancestors contributed to Canada’s war effort. This coming April 9th I will be proudly thinking about their sacrifice one hundred years ago.

Suggested Reading:
Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918, Cook, Tim, Penguin Canada 2008
Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, Nicholson, G.W.L., McGill-Queen’s University Press 2015
(First published in 1962)
Vimy, Berton, Pierre, McClelland and Stewart 1986
The Vimy Ridge Foundation website


Poppies: Symbols of remembrance

November 3, 2016
Canada's National War Memorial, Ottawa commemorated by stamp.

Canada’s National War Memorial, Ottawa commemorated by stamp.

“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

Lieutenant John McCrae, 1915

When Canadian John McCrae wrote these lines over 100 years ago he wasn’t doing it to glorify war or battles, but to remember the sacrifice of his comrades who had been killed in the service of their country. These men who now lay dead and buried in Flanders Fields of Belgium. He himself would not survive the war.

I’ve actually heard people saying that poppies and Remembrance Day itself on November 11th are meant to glorify war. There couldn’t be anything farther from the truth. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many veterans including my grandfather and my father. Not one of them has ever glorified war, but they’ve always spoken highly of their fellow veterans and especially of those who served with them.

Remembrance is critical. If we don’t remember those who served and sacrificed in some way, many with their lives, we as a society will make the same mistakes. We remember war not to glorify it, but to remember its horrors so that we make peace wherever possible, and only enter war as a last resort. Unfortunately sometimes it takes our military to fight for and defend our freedoms and values. Evil is alive in the world

We owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid to all those who stepped up to defend freedom and especially those who lie still in Flanders Fields where the poppies grow.

Bless them and remember them always.


The One-Day Presidency: Senator David Rice Atchison

March 1, 2016
David_Rice_Atchison_by_Mathew_Brady_March_1849

Senator David Rice Atchison in 1849. Photo Public Domain.

In the circus of a Presidential Election Year of 2016 in the United States the electorate gets to see all types on individuals seeking the office. As a Canadian these characters and Presidential oddities of history and today fascinate me. That isn’t to say Canada hasn`t had its share of strange political characters and oddities through the years. More on some of those in later posts, but for now I’ll stick with the American Presidential ones.

Sunday March 4, 1849 at noon President James K. Polk’s term in office expired. President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn into office.Why because it was Sunday, a holy day to him.

The situation is such that the incumbent President is no longer in office, the president-elect will not take the oath of office, so who is the president, or is there a power vacuum? The next person in the line of succession is the President pro tempore (chairman of the Senate). The President pro tempore is a U.S. Senator elected by his fellow senators. On Sunday March 4, 1849 that person is Senator David Rice Atchison a Democrat from Missouri. His fellow senators believe that he automatically becomes the Acting President until President-elect Zachary Taylor takes the oath of office.

Senator Atchison was a strong advocate of slavery and territorial expansion. He fought for new States to be designated pro-slavery namely Kansas and Nebraska. This was prior to the Civil War of 1860-1865. He also served as a general in the militia during the Civil War on the Confederate side.

Many believe to this day that Senator Atchison was in fact the President of the United States for one day; however, this claim is dismissed by nearly all historians, scholars, and biographers. This originates from the belief by many that the office of the President is vacant until the taking of the oath of office.

The fact is Senator Atchison’s term also ended on March 4th. He was not sworn in for another term, or re-elected President pro tempore of the Senate until March 5th. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t require the President-elect to take the oath of office to hold the office, just to execute the Presidential powers. Senator Atchison never took the oath of office, nor was he asked to, therefore he was never Acting President.

Historians and scholars assert when the outgoing President’s term ends, the President-elect automatically assumes the Presidency. In this case it was confusing because everyone went strictly by the Constitution. Zachary Taylor took the oath of office at noon on Monday March 5, 1849. Constitutionally he in fact became the President at noon on Sunday March 4, 1849. History shows he was inaugurated on March 5th. Confused yet? No wonder people of the time wondered about this. Of course the good people of Missouri, Senator Atchison’s constituents claimed him as the President, at least for one day in 1849.

Atchison was 41 years and 6 months old at the time of the alleged One-Day Presidency, younger than any official President. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest to serve, was 42 years and 11 months old when sworn in after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected at 43 years and 7 months old at his inauguration in 1961.

So officially and legally Senator Atchison was never the President of the United States, however, his gravestone reflects the belief of his supporters that he was history`s only one-day President.

Grave-Atchison_David_Rice_-_Plattsburg_MO_3

Grave of Senator Atchison/see photo credits below.

(By The original uploader was AmericanCentury21 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=267600)


Canada-US Relations: One Canadian`s view.

January 31, 2016
Vanceboro-Me-AerialView

US-Canada border Vanceboro, Maine and St. Croix, New Brunswick. US to left.

God here we go again Americans are worried about Canada allowing so many Syrian refugees into our country right next door to them. My American friends Canada is an independent country capable of managing our own affairs. We are concerned about terrorism and security the same as you are.

Let me make one thing crystal clear to my American friends and neighbours. Contrary to what the fearmongers in your country preach the 9/11 terrorists did NOT enter the United States of American via Canada. They arrived via Boston’s Logan International Airport right under the noses of your security. Read that again okay just so you get it.

Canada has been America’s steadfast ally through World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and Afghanistan. Our servicemen and women have died fighting alongside your forces. Our Canadian embassy in Iran rescued Americans during the Iranian crisis or the 1970s. Watch the movie Argo we saved your asses.

Sure we have our differences, but we have too many common beliefs and interests. Americans should be thankful they have us as next door neighbours. I haven’t seen pictures of hordes of Canadians trying to sneak across the US-Canadian boundary to seek a better life like along your southern border with Mexico.

I am proud of the fact that my country Canada is a compassionate and caring country toward it own citizens and to others. Refugees and others immigrating legally to Canada are becoming valuable citizens who are contributing to the building of our country. Multi-Culturalism in Canada is one of our key beliefs and Canada is better for it.

As for the current Syrian refugee situation we are bringing a large number to our country subject to extensive vetting and security screening. First we are only allowing families at this time, no single persons. The refugees are vetted via the United Nations agencies initially and then our own security screening overseas before they are approved. Once approved they are screened further upon arrival in Canada before being released within Canada. Once here they are monitored and supported by government and individuals. Canadians have embraced these families. They are already contributing to our society.  Remember these are people who have lived under constant threat of death and torture in their home country. They are not terrorists, they are fleeing terrorism. They are incredibly thankful to be able to live normal lives safe from war.

Canadians are concerned with the apparent rise of fascism and the lack of compassion that seems to be on the rise in your great country. It is unbelievable to me and most Canadians that the United States seems to not care. This is not the America that I know. I have many friends in the US and for my entire life have enjoyed visiting and interacting with them.

Canada and the United States share a continent and the longest common border in the world. Undefended yes, but not unmonitored. I believe and hope our close friendship will continue. I believe the majority of Americans value our friendship. Maybe I’m naive, but we are brothers and sisters. Together we are stronger if we lose this unique relationship both of us will be the poorer for it.


Jim Thorpe – Athlete Extraordinaire

January 3, 2016
Jim_Thorpe_Stamps

Jim Thorpe on US stamps.

On a recent visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio I rediscovered the remarkable Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was a Native American who was voted the athlete of the first half of the 20th century. He excelled in football, track and field, baseball and basketball.

The entrance to the Hall of Fame is a tribute to Thorpe. There is a larger-than-life gold statue of him and a special hall dedicated to his accomplishments. Turns out he was one of the founders of the National Football League (NFL).

Although football was his self-admitted favourite sport he also played and excelled in many others. In the 1980s he was voted the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century receiving more votes than others such as Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Wayne Gretzsky, Jack Nichlous, and Babe Ruth.

James Francis “Jim” Thorpe was born May 22, 1887 in Oklahoma. He was a Sac and Fox Native American whose name Wa-Tho-Huk is translated as “Bright Path”. Thorpe had natural athletic talent and excelled in a variety of sports from an early age. Jim attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There the famous coach Pop Warner developed his talent.

He tried out for and made the American Olympic Team competing in the 1912 Olympic Games held in Stockholm, Sweden. His primary events were the gruelling pentathlon and decathlon. Jim won gold medals in both events setting records that stood for decades.

Six months after the Games it was discovered he had played minor league professional baseball prior to the games. This was a strict no-no at the time. He was paid about $50 for his six games. Most white athletes did the same thing, but they used aliases to prevent their discovery. Jim’s mistake, he didn’t. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) reviewed his case and in the end stripped him of his medals, records and other awards. However the IOC didn’t follow their own rules. The Olympic rules said that any appeals must be filed within 30 days of the closing of the Games. The objections weren’t filed until 6 months after the Games.

In 1982 the Jim Thorpe Foundation with the support of the US Congress petitioned the IOC to reverse their 1913 ruling. They were successful and on January 18, 1983 the IOC presented commemorative medals to two of Jim’s children in a special ceremony. His original medals were stolen from a museum and to this day have never been recovered.

After the Olympic Games ended in 1913 he played professional baseball for the National League champion New York Giants and later the Boston Bears and the Cincinnati Reds. He retired from baseball in 1919.

Next he played professional football with the Canton Bulldogs of the fledgling American Professional Football Association (APFA) the forerunner to the NFL. Jim played six seasons from 1920 to 1928. He retired at age 41. Thorpe was First Team All-Pro in 1923, NFL 1920s All-Decade Team, NFL 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, College Football Hall of Fame, and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in 1963. He is one of 17 players in the Hall in the charter class. Jim was the first president of the APFA from 1920 to 1921 while at the same time playing. He is considered one of the founders of the NFL.

Books have been written about his life and accomplishments. He faced much racism during his career, but his feats endeared him to the world regardless. In his personal life he struggled with chronic alcoholism. Jim married three times and had 6 children. He died March 28, 1953 at his home in Lomita, California with his wife at his side. He was 64 years of age. He is buried in the town named for him Jim Thorpe, PA.

Thorpe was memorialized in the 1951 Warner Bros. film “Jim Thorpe – All American” starring the great American actor Burt Lancaster as Thorpe. Contrary to rumours he was paid the considerable sum of $15,000 for the story. The United States Postal Service (USPS) has issued a 20c and a 32c commemorative postage stamps honouring him.

Some of the greatest tributes were from his fellow competitors. Future President Dwight Eisenhower who played against him in college recalled of Jim in a 1961 speech,

“Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”

Martin Sheridan, a five-time Olympic gold medalist said in 1909 while shaking his hand after watching Thorpe destroy all his previous records,

“Jim, my boy, you’re a great man. I never expect to look upon a finer athlete.”

Jim Thorpe, All-American truly was a remarkable athlete and person.


The Greatest Generation

November 5, 2015
One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada's war dead lie.

One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada’s war death lie.

On November 11, 2015 it will be 70 years since the end of the Second World War 1939-1945 and over 100 years since the beginning of the Great War 1914-1919.

Tom Brokaw’s  famous book, “The Greatest Generation”, is in my opinion one of the best reads on war and sacrifice. It is a collection of stories from veterans and their wartime experiences. It’s not about generals and strategy, but rather about ordinary people and how they stood up and fought for our freedom against the evil forces seeking to destroy and conquer the world. Although American it applies to all who were of that generation. These people grew up in the Depression of the 1930s and did what had to be done in the 1940s. They made it possible for us to have the society we have today. The following quote from the book says it all

“They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today.”

These men returned from the horrors of war to short-lived celebration and then resumed their lives as best they could. For years they never talked about their experiences. All that changed after fifty years when they realized age was killing them off at a rapid rate. They didn’t want to tell their stories to glamourize war, but so that we would never forget. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to know some older vets who told me of their experiences. It is incredible to see a vet tear up when he remembers a buddy from all those years ago. They remember the friends they lost like it was yesterday such was the horror of it. To all the vets who tell the stories thanks for letting us know what it was really like.

To younger people if you want to know about wars don’t read the accounts of generals and politicians, read the stories of ordinary people, the soldiers who went through the mud, the fire, and the blood. For Canadians there is “Testaments of Honour: Personal Histories of Canada’s War Veterans” by Blake Heathcote which I highly recommend.

Other books to read are Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers” or Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day”. These books are far more interesting and enlightening then some general’s memoirs. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” which revolves around the D-Day landings is one of the most realistic war movies of all time. Director Steven Spielberg screened it for veterans of D-Day to get their input. To a man they liked it, but said it lacked one thing, the smell. They told him the smell of blood, gore, death and cordite from shells was overpowering during the combat. They also told him the noise level pierced them to the very soul. These were the things they still remembered all those years later.

When you attend or watch the Remembrance Day ceremonies and you see all the old vets close your eyes and visualize them as young boys and men in their late teens and early twenties preparing to charge off the landing craft into the hellstorm of machine gun fire and shelling. While you’re contemplating that image ask yourself if you could stand up and do what needed to be done.


Minority governments in Canada.

October 18, 2015

canadian-flag-blowing-in-the-wind-PublicDomanThe Canadian election is tomorrow, October 19, 2015. The present government is the Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper. They have had a majority government since the election of May 2, 2011. Prior to that the Stephen Harper and his Conservatives were elected twice before, but both times with minority governments.

In 2006 for the first time, but were 30 seats short of a majority. This government lasted 2 years, 207 days (total 937 days) before another election was held. Then in the subsequent election held October 14, 2008 the Conservatives again failed to obtain a majority. This time they fell 12 seats short. This time the minority government lasted 2 years, 4 months, 9 days (total 859 days).

Finally in the next election of May 2, 2011 the Conservatives won the majority they were seeking. The two minority governments he and his party formed are the two longest lasting in Canadian history.

There are pros and cons to both majority and minority governments. Failing to obtain a majority government forces the winning party to work with the other parties on important legislation. This need to compromise is not easy, but if important legislation such as a budget are defeated then the government must resign and another election called. With a majority these is no need to compromise. However, if the government doesn’t take other parties and stakeholders concerns into account then at the next election they may be defeated or lose their majority. Minority governments require a deft balancing act to remain in power.

Here are some interesting facts about minority governments in Canadian history since 1867,
– the longest consecutive term was 937 days (2 years, 6 months, 24 days) by the Stephen Harper Conservatives. Elected January 23, 2006 and dissolved September 7, 2008.
– the shortest duration of a minority government was the John Diefenbaker Progressive Conservatives elected April 12, 1957 and dissolved February 1, 1958. It lasted just 177 days (5 months, 25 days).
– smallest minority was the Stephen Harper Conservative government elected in 2006.
– average duration of minority governments in Canada is 479 days (about 1 year, 140 days)
– first minority government in Canadian history was William Lyon Mackenzie King led Liberals in the election of October 8, 1921. Initially this government held an exact number of seats for a majority but lost two seats in by-elections of 1924 and then continued as a minority government until later in 1924 when another by-election returned them to a majority.

The election of 2015 is too close to call at this writing, but polls show the Liberals led by Justin Trudeau forming a minority government. The other two parties having a realistic chance are the incumbant Conservatives led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the New Democratic Party (NDP) led by Thomas Mulcair. It would be a huge surprise if a majority government is elected on October 15th. Voter turnout is anticipated to be heavy based on the Advance Polls so anything can happen.

** Update – Liberals pull off upset majority government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau) will be sworn in November 4, 2015.


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