Nurse Edith Cavell: No hate in her heart

March 6, 2018
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Mount Edith Cavell with hiking trail in foreground. Photo Steve B. Davis

Jasper National Park in my home Province of Alberta, Canada has Mount Edith Cavell. My daughters and I hiked up to its base a couple of summers ago. They asked the obvious question, who was Edith Cavell and why is this peak named after her.

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1930 Canadian postage stamp showing Mt Edith Cavell.

Edith Cavell was a British nurse during World War I. She ran a medical clinic in German occupied Belgium. She started a clinic there before the war and trained Belgian nurses. Once the war started she returned but eventually most of Belgium was occupied by the Germans.

As as nurse she saved countless lives of soldiers from both sides. She also helped some 200 Allied soldiers and many civilians escape from occupied Belgium. Edith helped them reach the unoccupied  Netherlands or even back to England.

The Germans became suspicious of her activity and eventually arrested her charging her with treason against Germany even though she was a British citizen. She had broken German law by assisting enemy soldiers.

Found guilty by a German court martial she was sentenced to death. Despite pleas for mercy she was executed by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915. Her execution received international condemnation and extensive press coverage. Edith was only 49 years of age at her death.

She was a symbol of German barbarism for the remainder of the war. Edith was a revered figure. Stamps and coins were issued to honour her. Many places bear her name around the world including Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park.

One of her most famous quotes was, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hate in my heart”

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Nurse Edith Cavell. Photo Public Domain

Further Reading
Wikipedia – Edith Cavell


War Horses in World War I

February 22, 2018

World War I saw the use of trucks, tanks, machine guns and airplanes, but it also relied on the horse. An estimated 8 million horses were used by all combatants during the conflict from 1914-1918. This is considered the first and only time horses were widely used in a global conflict.

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Pack horses taking ammunition to front at Vimy Ridge April 1917. Photo Library & Archives Canada, PA-001229

Horses and mules proved more reliable than mechanized transport and it took far less to look after them. They served as pack animals hauling food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to troops at the front. Horses proved invaluable moving artillery pieces around in the mud and slime of the battlefield.

The Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) Veterinary Services tended to sick and wounded horses. They had a Mobile Services group to look after horses in the field. There was even an evacuation station at the rear where sick or wounded animals could be taken for care. The British and the Germans also had units assigned to tend to horses.

At Vimy Ridge for example some 500,000 horses pulled artillery pieces into position, brought supplies, ammunition and shells from the rear to forward positions in preparation for the attack. To keep the horses going about 600,000 gallons of water per day was required.

Conditions faced by horses in World War I were harsh, Many died from starvation, disease and exhaustion while many died from artillery fire.

The British Army used over 1 million horses and mules during the war. More than 400,000 of them were killed. In one day at the Battle of Verdun more that 7,000 horses perished.

Horses became more difficult to replace as the war went on. In order to meet the need horses were purchased from Australia, Argentina, Canada and the United States. In Britain horses were conscripted from farms but that supply was soon exhausted.

At the end of the war many horses were put down as too ill or too old. Many were sold to slaughterhouses or to locals in the war zones. Quarantine restrictions also prevented many from being returned to their countries of origin.

Cavalry units did exist and were used at various times. It became clear horses were vulnerable to trenches, machine guns and barbed wire. Soldiers on horseback were dismounted and fought as infantry.

The British mounted a cavalry charge early in the war near Mons in 1914. It was a disaster. Later in 1918 they charged at the German lines once again it was unsuccessful. Out of 150 horses only 4 survived the charge the rest cut down by German machine gun fire.

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Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron. Photo of painting by Alfred Munnings. Photo Canadian War Museum.

Canada’s most noted cavalry unit was the Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Most of their war was spent as infantry, but they did mount a charge in the Last One Hundred Days of the war with minor success. At the Battle of Moreuil Wood mounted cavalry of 100 horses and men charged the German lines defended by roughly 300 enemy. The Germans surrendered but three-quarters of the cavalry were killed or wounded. The success of the attack was due to the complete surprise of the Germans seeing the mad charge of the horse soldiers bearing down on them at breakneck speed. This became known as the “Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron” after the commander who was killed in the attack. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for this action.

“War Horse” a 1982 book by British author Michael Mopurgo and later made first into a stage play and then a movie by Steven Spielberg depicts the life of a war horse quite graphically. It also shows the love and affection many of the soldiers had for these valiant beasts.


German Sabotage in WW I: Vanceboro railway bridge bombing

January 3, 2018
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L. railway bridge at time, R. Werner Horn and Deputy Ross (on right)

At 1:10 am on the morning of February 2, 1915 a bomb exploded on the Vanceboro railway bridge between the United States and Canada. It shattered most of the windows in structures in the Town of Vanceboro, Maine and St. Croix, New Brunswick.

Where is Vanceboro you may ask and what was its importance? The Town of Vanceboro is located at the headwaters of the St. Croix River which forms the boundary between the State of Maine, USA and the Province of New Brunswick, Canada. It is 111 miles northeast of Bangor, Maine. Originally a logging camp and trading post established in 1871, Vanceboro incorporated as a town on March 4, 1874. Today it’s at the eastern end of Maine Route 6 and has 24 hour customs stations (Canadian and American) to manage the international border crossing. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the town was quite prosperous with railway, lumbering, hunting and fishing being prime employers. There were also industries, a tannery, a wooden ware company. The railway was key as it provided the link to the outside world. The population of 147 as of the 2000 census is small compared to those glory days.

The railway bridge crosses the St. Croix River, the boundary between Canada and the United States. This was an iron railway bridge measuring about 100 feet in length. The opening ceremony in 1871 of the railway line and bridge between Canada and the United States was attended by Governer-General of Canada Lord Lisgar and the President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant.

At the time the Canadian Pacific Railway operated the main link between Saint John, New Brunswick (an ice free port) on the Atlantic Ocean and Montreal and Quebec City. This link was the shortest route connecting the Atlantic port of Saint John to Montreal or Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River. During the winter months it was especially important as the St. Lawrence was usually frozen and didn’t allow shipping access to Montreal or Quebec City.

The United States was neutral during the First World War from 1914 until they entered the war in late 1917. Under the Neutrality Act it was illegal for the railroad to carry war materials or troops through the United States and across this bridge. However, the Maine Central Railroad operator of the line allowed Canadian Pacific to do this. The German embassy in Washington, DC became aware of this practice and protested loudly to no avail. For this reason they wanted the bridge destroyed to cut the link.

When war broke out in 1914 the Germans had staffed the embassy with several spies. The goal was to disrupt port shipments from the US to Britain and its allies. The military attaché at the embassy was Captain Franz von Papen who was in effect the chief spymaster. He directed propaganda and acts of sabotage on American soil during the war.

Werner Horn, a German reserve lieutenant, was not in Germany when war broke out in 1914. He managed a coffee plantation in Moka, Guatemala. He tried twice to return to Germany but both times could get no further than New York City. The British blockade of North Sea ports prevented sailings to Germany. While Horn was in New York City Captain von Papen recruited him to destroy the Vanceboro bridge and thereby stop the trains. He paid Horn $700 US to carry out the attack and provided the explosives.

Horn arrived in Vanceboro December 31, 1914 and stayed at the Exchange Hotel. He was seen hiding the suitcase of explosives in a wood pile outdoors and also scouting out the bridge. At least three Vanceboro residents reported Horn’s suspicious behaviour to the American immigration inspector. He then interviewed Horn at the hotel.  Horn assured him he was a Danish farmer looking to buy land in the area. Horn spent the next few days keeping a low profile and watching the rail line to try to determine the schedule of trains.

February 1, 1915 Horn checked out of the hotel saying he had a train to catch that evening. He went to the bridge sometime after midnight. Horn positioned the suitcase full of explosives on the Canadian side of the bridge. Interrupted by an approaching train he had to reposition the suitcase but again was interrupted. Finally after he was sure the trains had passed he positioned the explosives on a girder. Horn shortened the fuse from 50 minutes to about 3 minutes. Lighting the fuse with a cigar he worked his way back to the hotel through gale force winds and -30 F temperatures. At 1:10 am on the morning of February 2, 1915 the bomb exploded shattering windows in Vanceboro and St. Croix. This woke all the residents who were also now exposed to the frigid winter air.

Horn’s hands were frostbitten. The hotel owner helped him and allowed him to check back in for the night. After the explosion the owner became suspicious and informed the CPR. They closed the bridge and rerouted trains. Inspection was done the next morning. Some beams on the bridge were twisted or bent but otherwise damage was minor. The bridge was out of service for only a few days.

Vanceboro Deputy Sheriff George Ross and two Canadian police officers from McAdam, who crossed the border to help, detained Horn at the hotel.  Horn had changed into is German army uniform to avoid being arrested as a spy. He then surrendered to American authorities. The explosion took place on the Canadian side of the bridge so the Americans could only charge him with mischief at first for breaking windows in Vanceboro.

He was moved to jail in Machias, Maine. Canadian authorities began extradition proceedings. At Machias he was interrogated and signed a confession with a statement-of-facts detailing his act of sabotage.

A federal grand jury in Boston indicted him on March 2, 1915 for transporting explosives on a common carrier (passenger train). This was the most serious charge the US could try him on since the explosion was on the Canadian side of the border. Horn received a sentence of 18 months at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in Georgia.

After he served his sentence he was extradited to Canada in October 1919. Canada tried him for the sabotage and bombing in Court of Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick at Fredericton. Horn was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick. Canadian prison authorities assessed Horn to be insane in July 1921. He was then released and deported to Germany.

Author’s note:
I’ve visited Vanceboro on a couple of occasions. My grandfather operated a taxidermy shop there during the 1920s and 30s in the old tannery. Vanceboro is a quaint little town with a fascinating history and great location. The railroad is not the mainline anymore and it’s not on the main highway. Vanceboro’s website claims it’s “not quite the end of the earth, but occasionally the end can be seen from town.”

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Vanceboro today looking north. Railroad bridge is in foreground. Original bridge replaced with new one many years ago. Border crossing is where road crosses river at top. USA on left of river and Canada to the right.

Further reading
Wikipedia, Vanceboro Railway Bombing


The Missing of the Great War

April 10, 2017
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Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium showing interior wall with names of missing.

As I watched the 100th anniversary ceremonies at the Vimy Memorial in France and listened to news reports I noticed there was some confusion when discussing “missing” soldiers. I hope to clarify that in this article, another in my series on the Great War 1914-1918.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is charged with ensuring that the final resting places of the dead from both World Wars are preserved forever. After the November 11, 1918 Armistice the Commission’s work began. They began by recording the details of the dead from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and other countries of the British Commonwealth. Some 587,000 graves were identified and a further 559,000 casualties registered as having no known grave. Once land had been acquired they began constructing cemeteries. They consolidated smaller cemeteries into the larger ones and located as many battlefield burials as they could and interred them in the larger cemeteries.

The principles of the Commission mandated an identical headstone for every soldier regardless of rank, religion or race. Basic information where known was inscribed. Christian soldiers stones have a cross and Jewish soldiers have the Star of David. All cemeteries are well maintained. The Commission replaces about 20,000 stones every year due to weathering or damage or information correction. They also did not allow the reparation of any of the dead they were all to be buried where they died.

These cemeteries contain two types of burials, those containing identified soldiers and those graves containing remains of unidentified soldiers. The latter are the “Unknowns”. Finally all those killed, but where remains have never been located are the “Missing”. As can be seen from the previous paragraph this is a staggering number. In the war years of 1914 to 1918 soldiers were blown to bits in battle, sank into the deep mud and just disappeared. Over the years as bodies are found through various activities on the battlefields identification is attempted. If a name can be associated with the remains they are buried with that on the headstone, otherwise they are buried as unknown. They are removed from the missing list.

The War Graves Cemeteries commemorate the dead whose remains were located. The Commission also wanted to commemorated the “missing” in some permanent way so they decided to engrave the names on memorials. The Vimy Memorial walls contain the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France during World War I, but who do not have a known resting place. It should be noted there are no cemeteries at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, but there are a short distance away.

For those who died in Belgium (or Flanders) the Menin Gate Memorial was constructed in Ypres, Belgium. This memorial contains the names of over 54,000 soldiers from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who do not have a known resting place, the “missing”. Those Canadians who went missing presumed killed at Passchendaele for example are included at this memorial.

In my case I had a great-uncle, Herbert T. Waite, who was killed at Vimy but never found. His name is engraved into the Vimy Memorial Wall. I located him by searching the Commission’s database for all the surnames in my family I was researching. For common surnames you may need additional information to narrow the search results to the correct individual. You can also search for cemeteries. The search is free and easy to use.

So next time you hear about the “Missing” remember they have no known resting place, but their names are etched into the walls of Menin Gate and the Vimy Memorial and others so we can remember them always.

Should you wish to located the grave of a relative killed in the Great War or the Second World War here is the link to search. The results will tell you the exact location if it is a burial. If the person is one of the “missing” is will have under Burial “N/A” but will tell you where the name is engraved.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission


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