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

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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


Vimy Ridge: Canada’s Defining Moment

April 8, 2017
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Canadian stamps issued to commemorate Vimy Ridge. They show the Vimy Memorial and preserved trenches nearby. The memorial was completed in 1936. 

This post is one in my continuing series related to World War I or The Great War as it is also called. It has been 100 years since these events took place that still impact us today.

One hundred years ago on the morning of April 9, 1917 the Canadian Corps consisting of four divisions commenced the attack on a key high point in the Arras sector of the Western Front. This was Vimy Ridge a strategic point held by the Germans since the early days of the war. Numerous attempts had been made to capture it before without success now it was Canada’s turn.

Within the first two days it was captured and in the hands of the Allies thanks to the detailed planning and execution of the Canadian Corps. The cost was high, 10,600 casualties including 3,598 killed.

Canada’s victory gained us much respect and admiration from the world. There is no doubt in this writer’s mind it was a pivotal point in the history of our nation. We became more than just one of the colonies. We became proud to be Canadians.

Today we do not celebrate a victory so much as we remember the sacrifice of the men who gave their all serving Canada. We remember and mourn those who paid the ultimate price on the battlefield of Vimy. May we never forget these men.

My thoughts are with them today. I am proud to be Canadian.


Vimy Ridge: Personal connections.

March 21, 2017
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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.


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