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 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.


Growing up in the Cold War

December 14, 2014
DSC_0001

The museum in Albuquerque, NM. photo by Steve Davis

During a recent road trip I visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico. More about the museum itself in a future post, but the gift shop had some old government publications for sale. I picked up one titled, “Survival Under Atomic Attack”. This is a printed by the Office of Civil Defense, State of California in October 1950. California reprinted it from a federal government brochure.

It is an extremely interesting document from the Cold War era. The government tried to prepare and reassure the populace by telling them it was actually possible to survive an all-out nuclear exchange between the USSR and the United States. Not only that they actually told people that life would go on much as before. Reading this brochure I found it so asinine that I actually laughed out loud at a lot of the contents. I thought I’d share some of the ‘deep thoughts’ found in the booklet.

On the very first page it states,

“YOU CAN SURVIVE,

you can live through an atom bomb raid
and you won’t have to have a Geiger counter,
Protective clothing, or special training in order to do it.

The secrets of survival are:

KNOW THE BOMB’S TRUE DANGERS.

KNOW THE STEPS YOU CAN TAKE

TO ESCAPE THEM.”

Forgive my skepticism but okay folks whatever you say.

Then there is a page titled “Kill the Myths” I found this just absurd. Here it is,

Myth #1 “Atomic Weapons will not destroy the Earth. Not even hydrogen bombs will blow the earth apart or kill us all by radioactivity.”

Yeah right they’ll just kill most humans, animals, and all other life and leave the planet uninhabitable.

Myth #2 “Doubling Bomb Power does not double destruction.”

This is total bullshit. Nuclear weapons would be detonated above their targets causing enormous damage. The governments who control these weapons have done extensive testing and know full well that this statement is an outright lie.

Myth #3 “Radioactivity is not the bombs greatest threat.”

Maybe not over the short-term, but over the long-term it is the greatest threat. It would linger and as proven by studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagaski, do damage for generations. Why do you think those x-ray techs in the dentist’s office run out of the room when they take those shots of your teeth? Why do they drap that lead vest around you and your vital parts? It’s because of the radiation. Granted it’s only in small dosages from x-rays, but nuclear weapons emit massive amounts of radiation when they explode.

Reading this document at this time in our history is an amusing peek into the mindset of those in power during one of the most frightening periods in recent history. As a child who grew up during the Cold War the contents of this document are beyond comical. It shocks me that we actually believed this stuff. I guess it reassured us that we shouldn’t have been scared. Hell no in reality most of us were scared shit-less!

My personal philosophy in the event of an all-out nuclear exchange was simply that I would prefer not to survive thank you. Let others deal with the nuclear winter and fall-out that would affect the Earth for thousands of years. Let others try to live on without law and order. Let others live on without the benefits of modern civilization like drinking water, heat in winter, and food. The dead would be better off, of that I have no doubt.

Reference::

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
Alburquerque, New Mexico
http://www.nuclearmuseum.org


The Great War 1914 – 1919 – Centennial

January 2, 2014

Image

The year 2014 marks 100 years since The Great War, better known as World War I began. The war to end all wars in fact spawned the even more destructive Second World War. This year will mark 75 years since its violent forces swept the world.

As a genealogist and historian I have long been fascinated by the cause and events of these two conflicts. Both these wars changed the world forever in many ways.

What caused this war of 1914? Europe at the time consisted of many ambitious countries who were allied through treaty with many other nations. All these nations had dreams of grandeur through expansion and imperialism. The British, French, Germans, Russians, Italians, and Ottoman empires were all competing economically and militarily. When the Archduke was assassinated one blamed the other. Foolish pride and inflexibility carried the day. Military forces were massed on borders, ultimatums were issued, and finally attacks took place. The domino effect resulted in a world war. Kings, dictators and politicians had their war into which young men were the fodder to fuel the fires.

My grandfather like most Canadians enlisted in the Canadian Army when war was declared in 1914. Young men rushed to serve King and country and to do their duty. To many it was a great adventure. When they discovered the terrible reality of modern warfare the adventure turned to survival. These young men did their duty and served valiantly, but at a horrible cost.

Has mankind learned its lesson? Much as I’d like to believe so it has not. Wars constantly rage throughout our world today. Fortunately none have escalated into a worldwide conflict, but we have had our near misses, Korea, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War to name a few examples.

We must understand our history and learn from it, otherwise we are sure to repeat our mistakes. Nations like human beings are driven by foolish pride, nationalist goals, racism, jealousies and ambitions of domination.

The major difference in this world of the 21st century is that mankind possesses the means to make itself extinct, nuclear weapons and weaponized diseases being two major methods of mass destruction.

This centennial year should be a challenge to all of us to learn more about our human history and to open our eyes to the mistakes of the past.

More posts to follow on World War I.

 


We will remember them.

November 8, 2010

One of many cemeteries in Europe where Canada's war dead lie.

I will be leaving this up all week as a reminder of the cost of suppressing tyranny and keeping the peace.

No one likes war, but sometimes it is necessary to kick the bullies out of the schoolyard. Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, the Kaiser, and other despots had no respect for peace, human rights, and international law.

May we never forget the young men and women who gave their service and their lives for our country,

They shall not grow old
as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
we will remember them.


Remembrance of WW I Vets

November 11, 2009
Remembrance Day2009

Tomb of the Unknown (U.K.)

The photo above shows tributes placed on the British Tomb of the Unknown. This is located in Westminster Abby in London. Their unknown soldier is from World War I (aka The Great War).

The last three British World War I vets died this year, so there are none remaining from that country.

Canada’s last known surviving WW I vet is still alive. He lives in Spokane, Washington, U.S.A. The Canadian government has offered him a State funeral if he and his family so choose. He is over one hundred years old at the present time.

We must always remember.


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