After great success at Vimy Ridge and Hill 70, the Canadians were called upon to relieve the Australian and New Zealand troops in Flanders, Belgium. Many preparations were made under the careful eye of General Currie, and on October 26th the attack was launched. The Battle of Passchendaele lasted until mid-November, at the expense of 15,654 Canadian lives. Following is an except from the memoir of a South Peace soldier, Lance Corporal Edward Joseph Heller.
It seemed to be the policy then and there to have comparatively few in the front line, for if the enemy counter attacked he would probably overrun it anyway. We did some digging during the night, connecting shell holes, deepening ditches that were supposed to be trenches, etc. to make room for the extra men… The ground, as at Vimy Ridge, was all torn up. I am sure not a square foot being in its original condition or position. We suffered a few casualties during the night, subjected to what was called a harassing fire: the artillery mow and then dropping a shell here, one there. Our artillery did that too. When morning came, we settled down into the ditches… We lay where we were, in the mud of course, all day of the 29th. If one wanted to change position, get a hard tack out of the haversack, or move for any reason at all, one had to move very slowly… Of course we couldn’t move very fast anyway, as we were chilled to the bone.
There was a sort of step at the dead end of this ditch, so I sat upon the step. I probably dozed off (for we hadn’t had much sleep for some time), for the next thing I knew, I was laying in the mud up out of the ditch, in a sort of bewildered way, thinking perhaps something had happened, for it seemed the right half of my head had been shot off (how I thought I could still be alive after that?) and 72 bones (that’s about 1/3 of them, isn’t it?) were broken. Apparently a shell passed just in front of me… and exploded. How deeply I was buried or how long it took to dig me out was not thought of then, so I never found out, which never worried me any… Two fellows helped me start walking… perhaps to some dressing station… there is a flash of a few seconds of memory… there was this railway car, low sides but no top. How and why I and others were there, I didn’t know or care… Next I was lying on a stretcher in a large marquee. By evening I was in a cot, nice white sheets, hospital pyjamas so clean and dry.
Edward Heller had in fact sustained a gunshot wound to his left leg at Passchendaele. Later in the war, his right leg was also wounded. Heller survived the war and returned to his homestead near Beaverlodge.
Photograph: SPRA 194.03, from Edward Heller’s fonds, likely taken at Passchendaele
To get an idea of the devastation they fought through, consider attending the Passchendaele movie screening at the Grande Prairie Regional College on Friday October 27 at 7:00. We will also have a small display honouring our South Peace veterans who played a role in this important battle. Click here for more information on this event.
Considering the many new developments in weaponry, equipment, and military tactics during World War I, it is certainly not surprising to see how many new words and phrases that were coined during this time. Some of them were based on words from other languages as men representing various cultures and backgrounds rubbed shoulders on a day to day basis, others were made up and offer a glimpse into the humor that the soldiers employed to face the horror of life in the trenches. Enjoy this selection of ten slang words from the Great War, and be sure to check out the sources below for more.
Napoo derived from the French term “il n’y a plus”, which the Canadian and British soldiers took to mean ‘finished’, ‘dead’, or ‘completely destroyed’
Pogey-bait the Canadian and American term for any sweet snack
Spike-bozzled usually used to describe completely destroyed aircraft
Potato Masher slang for German hand grenades
Whizz Bang nickname for a small-calibre shell
Barkers trench slang for army sausages, which soldiers believed contained dog meat
Thingamajig a made-up trench word used to refer to the new devices invented during the war
Bumf originally slang for toilet paper, but later on referred to any communication from headquarters
Blighty another word for “England”; a ‘blighty wound’ would be wound that got a soldier sent back to England
Strafe this could mean anything from bombardment to a severe reprimand; it came from the German propaganda slogan “Gott Strafe England”, meaning “God Punish England”
Sir Samuel Hughes was Canada’s Minister of Militia & Defense until November 1916. While some of his equipment choices ended in embarrassing fiascoes, he was the driving force behind Canada’s war effort early in the war.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was the Canadian physician who penned the iconic war poem, In Flanders Fields. McCrae suffered greatly, both physically and mentally, as a result of his war experiences, and died as a result of fatigue and pneumonia in 1918.
General Sir Arthur William Currie became commander of the Canadian Corps after his success at Vimy Ridge, and he held that position for the remainder of the war. Currie’s fastidious planning in preparation for battle led to him being known as one of the finest generals of the war.
Private John Chipman Kerr of Spirit River, Alberta, was awarded the Victoria Cross at Courcelette for single-handedly capturing 62 prisoners. There is a mountain named after Kerr in Jasper National Park.
Pte. Price was a Canadian soldier in the 28th Battalion, Saskatchewan Regiment. During the liberation of Mons, Price was shot in the chest by a German sniper and became the last Allied soldier to be killed before the Armistice. He died at 10:58am, November 11, 1918.
Though not a Canadian, Edith Cavell was a figure who received international attention during the war. The courageous British nurse aided some 200 Allied soldiers in escaping from German-occupied Belgium and was shot by a German firing squad as a result. Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park is considered to be one of the greatest climbs in North America.
William George Barker was Canadian flying ace who achieved the status of “ace” during a 10-month stint on the Italian front. But it was on the Western front, near the end of the war, that Barker won a Victoria Cross for shooting down three of fifteen enemy aircraft that attacked him. Billy Barker is to this day the most highly decorated serviceman in the British Empire.
Although Arthur Roy Brown had only ten aerial victories during the war, he was officially credited with having shot down the Red Baron. It remains controversial to this day whether it was in fact Brown who downed the Red Baron, or if it was ground fire. Regardless, the gallant manner in which he defended his friend Wop May in the dogfight earned him a Distinguished Service Cross.
Major Margaret MacDonald was the Matron-in-Chief of the Canadian Army Medical Corps Nursing Service. She was one of the founding members of the CAMC’s nursing service, and by the end of the war, more than 3,000 nursing sisters had served overseas.
Above photograph: H.P. Keith sitting in front of his tent, reading, ca. 1915 (SPRA 282.13, cropped from original)
Hindsight is 20/20, or so the old saying goes. Here are ten books about the Great War experience. Some are general histories while others delve into specific aspects of the war. The authors used a variety of documents to explore a wide range of ideas and topics related to the period. Most of these books are available at the Grande Prairie Public Library, and the call number is listed at the end of the title.
Canada’s Great War Album: Our Memories of the First World War
edited by Mark Collin Reid, Canada’s History Magazine, 940.371 CAN
This is an intensely beautiful book and not just because of the large collection of personal photographs and documents prominently displayed throughout. In 2012, Canada’s History Magazine called for contributions from the public for their stories and photographs about the Great War. Organized by topic, each chapter features an essay by an established historian, writer, or journalist, including Charlotte Gray, Tim Cook, and Peter Mansbridge along with accompanying images. While the book does provide a brief timeline of major events, this is really the story of the people who lived through this terrible conflict.
For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War
by Timothy C. Winegard, 940.3089 WIN
Timothy Winegard chose the word “Indian” carefully in this text. Noting that it was the common terminology of the time, used by Whites and Indians alike, Winegard also makes clear that this history does not include non-status Indians, Métis, or Inuit Canadians, all communities now contained within the terms Indigenous or Aboriginal. Nor does it include many status Indians who “snuck into” the army in the early days of the war or Indians from the Northern Territories. As he clearly lays out, Indians were not initially welcomed with open arms and when they finally were, they were carefully documented. But only status Indians. For this reason, Winegard limits his analysis to the experience of “Indians.”
Winegard explores the racism, acceptance, and mythology surrounding Indian soldiers and their shameful treatment upon their return home from the war. He does this with an examination of official documents and personal stories. The many images featured throughout help personalize the story of these men and certainly helped me to better visualize and conceptualize the contributions they made in the war effort. It also sheds light on the beginnings of Indian activism following the war. This book is highly recommended for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of both Canada’s role in the Great War and the conflicted relationship between White and Indian Canadians.
Three Day Road
by Joseph Boyden, FNMI BOY
The main narrative of this novel takes place after the war as a physically and spiritually wounded Xavier recounts his war experiences on a three-day healing journey. Xavier’s narrative shows two extreme reactions to the horrors of war: his growing dread and his friend Elijah’s growing relish for the death and destruction. The novel was inspired in part by real-life aboriginal World War I heroes Francis Pegahmagabow and John Shiwak.
In the course of the novel, Xavier’s aunt Niska recounts her own tale of the death and destruction of her way of life. I would highly recommend reading both For King and Kanata and Three Day Road for a better understanding of the war and its aftermath in Indigenous communities.
A Doctor in the Great War
by Andrew Davidson, 940.40092 DAV
Based on three photo albums left to the family by his grandfather, Andrew Davidson presents a beautiful written account of Dr. Frederick Davidson’s experience as a doctor in the British Army. Davidson never met his grandfather, who died shortly before his birth. Bequeathed the albums, along with a set of binoculars, Davidson was prodded for years by friends to do something with them. That something was this book. Lacking his grandfather’s personal testimony, beyond the photographs, Davidson turned to official government records, secondary sources, and published and unpublished memoirs, letters, and diaries, to piece together this beautifully crafted account of one man’s life in the Great War.
Of course, like any life story, it contains many life stories intersecting throughout and Davidson takes pains to include many anecdotes about the men his grandfather befriended. Along with the images, this is a very personal account of the war in the trenches through the eyes of a man not there to take lives but to save them.
by Timothy Findley, CLA PB FIN
Written by thespian turned author, Timothy Findley, this is one of my favourite books. The narrative is told in first, second, and third person and moves back and forth in time as a historian tries to piece together the story of Robert Ross, a physically capable but emotionally scarred young man who enlists in the First World War. Ross, like many of his contemporaries, does not weather the war well, breaking down fatally and tragically. The novel examines the traumatic effect the war had on his already troubled psyche and challenges assumption and universality of military comradery. My favourite line in this book, which I’m going to paraphrase, comes from one of Ross’s friends while visiting him at his trench: “I retain the human right to be horrified by all that I see.”
The Journal of Private Fraser, 1914-1918: Canadian Expeditionary Force
by Donald Fraser, 940.4817 FRA
Private Donald Fraser writes vividly of his wartime experiences in this war diary. Like most soldiers of the initial Canadian Expeditionary Force, Fraser was an immigrant who enlisted early to fight for King and country. He served until wounded at Passchendaele. This is a no-holds-barred first person account of training and life in the trenches.
Drawing Fire: The Diary of a Great War Soldier and Artist
by Len Smith
Note: this book is not available through the library, but used copies can be purchased at reasonable prices through Bookfinder or AbeBooks and it is a worthy addition to your personal collection – too good to miss!
This is probably one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Illustrated by Len Smith, a British soldier and artist, the book features exact reproductions of his handwritten memoirs. Most of the handwriting is replaced by a regular font but some pages are reproduced in the original to get a feel for his style of writing. The book is interspersed with Len’s original drawings and memorabilia.
Len kept his diary on scraps of papers hidden in his pants, which he later collected and wrote out in long hand. Len notes in his introduction that he made no corrections or additions, wanting the reader to feel the immediacy of his original words. And you do. With his sense of humour and his generous understanding of the emotional toll on his fellow soldiers, Len comes across as a gentle and practical person. He was also ingenious, as his artwork sprinkled throughout and accounts of creative endeavours for the war effort will testify. My favourite inventions are the two-yard panoramic map of the enemy troop lines at Vimy Ridge which he created while dodging front-line enemy fire; and the fake, hollow spy tree. Len had crawled within yards of the enemy line to draw a real dead tree in exact detail. He recreated the tree with stairs inside and a window for the observers. During the night, the real tree was removed and the fake tree installed, along with an underground tunnel leading to the tree.
What Len has produced here is nothing short of miraculous and it is baffling that he is so relatively unknown and undecorated. The best way to rectify this injustice is to read this book.
inside “Drawing Fire”
In Fear of the Barbed Wired Fence: Canada’s First National Internment Operations and the Ukrainian Canadians, 1914-1920
While Canadians were fighting the good fight for democracy overseas, fear led to some very undemocratic activity against one particular group of Canadians. Luciuk illuminates this dark chapter of Canada’s war experience largely through the judicious use of photographs, letters, newspaper clippings and official documents. The actually text in the book is fairly brief, with the images and the footnotes taking up the bulk of the book. The footnotes, however, pack a lot of informational punch. For me, the most telling testament of the prejudice of the time occurs on page 98: “… as many as 10,000 Ukrainian Canadians volunteered for service…From among the Canadian volunteers, all men with German names were, on orders received from the War Office, placed under arrest…” This seems like duplicity of the worst kind. I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to understand how fear compromises our democratic ideals.
First World War for Dummies
by Dr. Seán Lang, 940.4 LAN
I guess there really is a Dummies book for everything. For those of us who are chronologically challenged, this is a great starter book. It is based on the British and European experience, but it lays out concisely and in an easy to follow format the events and issues leading up to the war, social changes during the war, the experience of women and civilians, the aftermath, and finally, how we remember the war. The book is text heavy but still an easy read. The format lends itself to quick dives in and out so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. The last chapter includes four top ten lists for generals (including our very own Sir Arthur Currie), films, wartime writers, and enlightening places to visit.
Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars
Okay, I’m fudging a bit here on the book part. Cook’s book examines the why and how of what we know about both World Wars. The first two chapters of this book are relevant to the First War. They explain the great chain of activity set in motion largely by two men – Sir Arthur Doughty, First Dominion Archivist, and Max Aitken, First Baron of Beaverbrook – that led to the intense document creation and collection researchers rely on today to study the Great War. Cook’s book places more emphasis on Aitken’s contribution to our military documentary heritage while McIntosh’s essay gives both men fairly equal weight. Besides helping us to understand the fluid role of archivists, document creation, and historical activity, these two works also help us to understand why and how World War I helped forge our distinct Canadian identity.
On a side note, McIntosh writes absolutely the best sentence to sum up the Great War: “The war’s most immediate consequence was mass bereavement.”
Ypres was the only significant Belgian town remaining in Allied hands, and it was here that the Canadians took part in their first major engagement. It was also at Ypres that the Germans launched the first gas attack of the war. The Canadian troops earned the reputation of being staunch and stalwart soldiers, but at the cost of some 6,000 soldiers over the course of the four day battle. Also of note, In Flanders Fields was penned by John McCrae at the Second Battle of Ypres.
When the Canadian troops arrived to relieve the British, they found few trenches to occupy, but rather inhabited the enormous mud-filled mine craters. After two weeks under heavy enemy fire, aerial photographs revealed the unfavorable positions and the battle was halted. No progress was made in this atrocious attack where one man reported “we were walking on dead soldiers.”
In this battle, it was the Germans who attacked. Mont Sorrel was a strategic and commanding position overlooking the city of Ypres. The Canadian positions were devastated in the early days of the battle, and the Germans took over the hill. However, the Canadians were determined to gain back the ground they had lost, and with careful planning were able to do just that. The Battle of Mont Sorrel lasted almost two weeks and the Canadians suffered more than 8,000 casualties.
The Somme offensive lasted five months (though the Canadians were involved only in the final three months) and consisted of many ‘smaller’ battles, including Beaumont Hamel, Courcelette, Thiepval, Ancre Heights, and Regina Trench. The offensive ended in a complete stalemate in which each side suffered over 600,000 casualties.
For more information on the South Peace region’s contribution during the Somme offensive, visit Remembering the Somme
The first time tanks were used in World War I was at Courcelette, where they accompanied the Canadian troops to assist with cutting barbed wire and subduing enemy machine gun fire. Courcelette was a rare victory for the Allies at the Somme, and was captured in one day, but cost the Canadians several thousand casualties.
Canadian soldiers take cover behind a boiler as they storm the German stronghold at the sugar factory at Courcelette on 15 September 1916. Notice the close-quarters fighting, including the use of rifles, bayonets, and hand grenades.
Vimy Ridge (April 1917)
The Battle of Vimy Ridge is considered to have been a turning point in Canadian history. For the first time in the Great War, all four Canadian divisions were fighting together. And with meticulous planning and intense training, they were able to take the ridge that no other Allies had been able to capture. The Canadian Corps suffered close to 11,000 losses, but the victory inspired a new sense of independence and national pride that is still present in Canadians today.
Canadian soldiers returning from Vimy Ridge in France
Hill 70 (August 1917)
In August of 1917, General Currie and his Canadian Corps were ordered to attack the city of Lens, France. But Currie considered it a far better strategy to capture the high ground just north of the city – Hill 70. He was correct. The hill was captured on the first day of the battle, and in the following four days, the Canadians withstood twenty-one German counter-attacks and held onto the hill. Lens itself, however, remained in German hands until their final retreat in 1918.
Canadians take a break in a captured German trench during the Battle of Hill 70 in August 1917. The soldiers on the left are scanning the sky for aircraft, while the soldier in the centre appears to be re-packing his gas respirator into the carrying pouch on his chest.
Passchendaele (October/November 1917)
Passchendaele was a horrible bog of shell holes, mud, and bodies. After months of fighting, and no success having been made, the British commander-in-chief ordered the Canadians to relieve the Australians and New Zealand troops. After careful planning, the Canadian troops attacked the ridge. The battle lasted more than two weeks and resulted in a staggering 15,654 casualties for the Canadians.
Construction of the Canal du Nord had begun in 1913, but was halted when the war began. During their retreat, the Germans flooded a large portion of the canal, leaving only a small dry section. But even that was a significant obstacle, with an embankment up to fifteen feet high. The Canadian Engineers spent almost a month building a bridge across the canal in preparation for the attack. The canal was captured, and the path was open for Allies to seize other strong points, sending the Germans into full retreat.
Canadians building a bridge across the Canal du Nord, France.
Mons (November 1918)
The day the Canadians liberated Mons also marked the end of the war. It was from this Belgian city that the British had staged a fighting retreat at the beginning of the war, and now the Canadians had the honour of taking the city back. Rumours abounded that the war was about to end, but the Canadian Corps had been ordered to attack Mons, and so they did. The troops fought their way through town – under constant machine gun fire – and when the battle finally ceased, the civilians poured out to celebrate with their liberators.
When Arthur Buck enlisted in Lake Saskatoon in 1915, he donated a little brown bear – who was dubbed ‘Lady Saskatoon’ – for the company’s mascot. Unfortunately, no mention has been found of the little bear’s war experience.
Grande Prairie Herald ~ July 27, 1915
Arthur Buck makes a bear cub stand on its hind legs, ca. 1912
Rin Tin Tin & Nanette
These two German Shepherd puppies were rescued in France by an American corporal in 1918. He named them after the very popular French good luck charms, Rintintin and Nenette. Rin Tin Tin became a television star in the USA after the war, as did some of his descendants.
Rin Tin Tin, right, and his litter mate Nanette at a U.S. Army base in France shortly after Lee Duncan rescued them.
Known as “Winnie”, this black bear cub was bought by Canadian cavalry veterinarian, Harry Colebourn, on his way to Valcartier. The cub accompanied Colebourn to England, where she resided at London Zoo. It was “Winnie” who was the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh.
Cher Ami was a carrier pigeon who was awarded the Croix de Guerre. On October 3, 1918, she saved the lives of 194 American soldiers by delivering her urgent message to headquarters despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and losing a leg.
During the Gallipoli campaign, Australian John Simpson spent three and a half weeks fearlessly transporting wounded soldiers on the backs of donkeys. He used at least five different donkeys, named “Duffy No. 1”, “Duffy No. 2”, “Murphy”, “Queen Elizabeth”, and “Abdul”. Simpson’s work was often done under fire, which led to his death on May 19, 1915.
Simpson (centre) with his donkey,bearing a wounded soldier.
John McCrae, the author of “In Flanders Fields”, was deeply affected by his war experiences. To assuage his grief, he spent long hours riding his horse, Bonfire, around the French countryside. His other special companion was his spaniel, Bonneau. Bonneau often accompanied McCrae while he made his rounds at the hospital.
John McCrae, writer of “In Flanders Fields,” stands beside his horse, Bonfire, and his dog, Bonneau. The dog would often accompany McCrae as he tended to wounded soldiers.
On their journey across Canada, and ultimately to Europe, the 49th Battalion stopped in Lestock, Saskatchewan. There, a well-wisher gave the men a coyote pup. They adopted him as their mascot and named him after the town. Today Lestock’s face appears in the centre of the unit’s badge.
This black cat belonged to the crew of the tank Daphne. Percy went into action with Harry Drader, one of the crew, who was later awarded the Military Cross. Percy became famous for being in the 1917 war film entitled “The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks”. After the war, Percy resided at the Drader home.
To help you get into the heads of those who experienced the Great War, first-hand and second-hand, check out ten books published between 1915 and 1918. Written by Canadian, American, British, French, and Hungarian authors, these texts are examples of the conflicted ideas about war in general and the Great War Itself. The writing style is somewhat different to our modern sensibilities, being somewhat narrative heavy, but once you settle into them, I think you’ll find the experience rewarding.
All of these books are available online at various sites. The links are provided.
Herlandby Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Published in 1915, this American feminist novel explores the world of an all-woman society through the eyes of three men who discover it. The novel explores themes of motherhood, gender roles, and individuality as the three men adjust to their new life in Herland. The absence of violence and war are one of the notable features of this society, a topic that must have felt close to home as Gilman followed the war in Europe, a war the United States had yet to join. I read this book almost thirty years ago and it is still relevant today.
Aunt Jane’s Nieces in the Red Cross. This is one of a series of Aunt Jane’s Nieces books by Frank L. Baum, most well-known for his Oz books. It tells the story of three young women who volunteer to work overseas with wounded soldiers, long before the United States joined the foreign war. As a young adult novel, Baum reflected, “I wish I might have depicted more gently the scenes in hospital and on battlefield, but it is well that my girl readers should realize something of the horrors of war, that they may unite with heart and soul in earnest appeal for universal, lasting Peace and the future abolition of all deadly strife.” A good read to get a female perspective of the war.
A Bride of the Plains. Written by the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel, this romance takes place in Hungary and opens on draft day, a day when all the young men of twenty one are sent to fight in Bosnia “where ever that is.” Emmuska Orzky’s narrator tells the story of Elsa, separated from her lover, Andors by the draft, and how she navigates her life over the three years he is away. This is a good read to understand the Great War from the Eastern European point of view.
Under Fire, by French soldier, Henri Barbusse, is the fictionalized version of his first-hand experience with trench warfare. The novel takes the form of a journal. The writing is brutally realistic as the story follows a squad of French soldiers on the Western front in France after the German invasion. Barbusse served for 17 months on the front lines before being invalided out of active service. Like many soldiers, he became a staunch pacifist. His novel was widely criticized, especially after the war when the first rush of patriotic war novels were published. For an unflinching look at the war from those who really were fighting for life and country, this is the book to read.
Anne’s House of Dreamsby L. M. Montgomery. Published during the Great War, this part of Anne Shirley’s, now Blythe, story takes place years before the war. Anne and Gilbert are married and living in their “house of dreams,” meeting new people and experiencing the heartbreak and joys of starting a family. The novel must have seemed a refreshing antidote to the battles raging in Europe. While writing, however, Montgomery and her minister husband spoke at recruitment meetings and ministered families whose sons, brothers, and fathers had died in the war.
Oh, Canada! A Medley of Stories, Verse, Pictures & Music. The product of various authors living at the front (or maybe not, according to the Salut! Which introduces the book) this medley is exactly that – humourous stories, poems, songs and drawings reflecting on the overseas experience. The soldiers write and draw about homesickness, the French soldiers, front-line nurses, and writing poetry in the trenches. Bright in its dark humour, this little gem provides insight into the how Canadian soldiers viewed and dealt with their battlefield life. The CEF Alphabet on page 62-63 is not to be missed.
Poems from the Press – by Canadian Henry A. Ashmead is a combination of patriotic, historical and humorous poems. Writing about the war, Ashmead calls women to duty, exalts soldiers and sailors, stresses the importance of honouring political agreements, praises Serbia, and chastises Germany. Poetry often gets to the heart of sentiment and opinion and these poems definitely catch the patriotic fever gripping many Canadians and most publications at the time.
Counter-Attack and Other Poems – by Seigfried Sassoon, a decorated British soldier and poet. An antidote to Ashmead’s unabashed patriotism, Sassoon’s poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirized patriotic jingoism. His poems are haunting with sometime explosive bursts of anger:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye Who cheer when soldier lads march by, Sneak home and pray you’ll never know The hell where youth and laughter go.
Excerpt from “Suicide in the Trenches”
Sassoon’s poems let the reader know that hell where his generation’s youth and laughter went.
The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rhinehold. The American author penned this novel about a shy young girl, Sara Lee, who manages, with some help from Methodist ladies and Englishmen, to get herself overseas to nurse soldiers because she believes it is the right thing to do. Eventually, she is “dragged” back home from by fiancé. In Sara Lee’s point of view, the war, where she developed skills and friends, was the amazing interlude from the unhappy life she was destined for back home. This is another great story about a woman’s experience of the war.
Maria Chapdelaine – first serialized in France, this French-Canadian pastoral by Louis Hémon is often viewed as a rebuke to English-Canadian arrogance towards Canada’s French-speaking citizens during the Great War. The novel celebrates the French and largely Roman Catholic sentiments toward a quiet, country life where family and family obligations are paramount. This is a great book for gaining some insight into the anti-war sentiment in Quebec that helped precipitate the conscription crisis.
O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear Above their heads the legions pressing on: (These fought their fight in time of bitter fear, And died not knowing how the day had gone.)
Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call, That we have sworn, and will not turn aside, That we will onward till we win or fall, That we will keep the faith for which they died.
(excerpt from “The Anxious Dead” , believed to be the final poem penned by John McCrae before his death)
Following the Canadians’ remarkable victory at Vimy Ridge, the British High Command decided to attack the coal-mining city of Lens with the purpose of diverting the attention of the German Army away from Passchendaele. The plan was to storm the city directly, but Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, the newly-appointed commander of the Canadian Corps, knew that such action would be far too costly and of little benefit to the Allies. Lens may have been heavily fortified, but Currie knew that if his men could take control of the high ground surrounding the city, particularly Hill 70, the Germans would have no choice but to counter-attack in order to defend their stronghold. As at Vimy Ridge, Currie’s judgement and planning proved to be impeccable once again.
In the early hours of August 15, 1917, Canadian troops began the attack by seizing the trenches around Hill 70. Though the Germans had predicted the assault quite accurately, most objectives were reached early in the day. By 9am, the enemy had begun to retaliate, but with no success. The high ground of Hill 70 was captured by nightfall. Over the next four days, there were 21 counter-attacks in which the Germans used mustard gas and flamethrowers in addition to machine gun fire and hand-to-hand combat. But the gallant Canadians remained impenetrable – they were not to be shaken.
While later Allied attacks on the city of Lens itself did not prove successful, Lieutenant-General Currie and his men had achieved the desired goal of diverting the Germans’ attention away from Passchendaele and weakening their defenses. An estimated 25,000 enemy soldiers were wounded or killed at Hill 70, while Canada suffered approximately 9,000 casualties.
It is rather ironic that this battle was staged in order to simultaneously succeed at Passchendaele, yet it was not until the Canadian troops were deployed from Lens to Passchendaele that Passchendaele was captured. A great tribute to the boys and men who became known as the “Shock Army” or “Storm Troopers” of the British Empire – epithets used not only by the Allies, but by the Germans as well!
To read about the experiences of South Peace soldiers who fought in the Battle of Hill 70, please visit our Soldiers’ Memorial page. Here are the names of a few men who were wounded, killed, or decorated during this particular battle: George Agar, John Cahoon, Donald Francis Coffey, Andrew Elliot, Lacy Gully, Henry Jack Head,Charles William Alfred Herbert, and John Jaundraw.
Regimental Number: 7793 Rank: Private Branch: 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles; Reserve Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery; 1st Battalion, Canadian Garrison Regiment
According to the Canadian War Museum, some 619,636 Canadians enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, approximately 424,000 of whom served overseas. With such high numbers, one would expect that there were often soldiers with the same, or at least similar, names and initials. Sometimes these similarities resulted in cases of mistaken identities, which was never more distressing than when an incorrect name appeared on the casualty lists. Such was the case with Hedley Johnson.
Hedley was born in Brantford, Ontario on November 30, 1887. He came to Grande Prairie in October of 1910 and filed on a homestead at NE 34-71-5-W6. Hedley enlisted in February of 1915. On June 24, 1915, he married Carmelia “Carrie” Macklin in England. Hedley served only in England and Canada because of his flat feet and bouts of rheumatic fever. In June of 1915, there was some confusion as an H. Johnson was reported to have been killed in action. It turned out to be a H. Hugh Johnston (possibly referring to Norman Johnston, who is also listed on our memorial), and corrections were printed in the Grande Prairie Herald a week later. Hedley and Carrie arrived back to the homestead in February 1919, where they continued to live until they moved into Grande Prairie in 1928. In 1946, they moved to Rocky Mountain House. Hedley died in Edmonton on February 23, 1973.
Sources: Smoky River to Grande Prairie p. 215; Pioneers of the Peace p. 178-179; Grande Prairie Capitol of the Peace p. 70
Portrait of Fred Blanchard in World War I uniform, 1915
Regimental Number: 101077 Rank: Private Branch: 66th Battalion; 7th Canadian Area Employment Company
During the First World War, it wasn’t uncommon for young men to add a year or two to their age in order to get into the army. Quite a number of eager Grande Prairie boys lied about the year of their birth so that they could enlist, in spite of being under 18. Fred Blanchard lied about his age too – except that he made himself out to be younger so that he could join up in July of 1915.
Fred was born in Hampshire, England on March 6, 1862. He joined the British navy in 1878, only 16 years old, and served for nine years. His first military service was in Egypt; in 1882 he was presented a bronze medal for distinguished service by the Khedive of Egypt. From 1885 until 1887 Fred served with the navy in Burma, where he once again won a medal for distinguished service. Later in his career Fred was engaged in chasing slave traders along the east coast of Africa on board the HMS Turquoise. He left the navy with an honorable discharge around 1871 and, for a change of career, joined the Metropolitan Fire Brigade of London.
In 1909 Fred came to the Peace country. His wife Emily and their children joined him in 1910, and a year later he filed on a homestead at SE 17-72-7-W6, on the east side of Lake Saskatoon.
When fifty Grande Prairie boys left for Edmonton in July of 1915 to enlist in the 66th Battalion, Fred Blanchard was among them. He was 53 years old. On his attestation paper, he gave 1870 as the year of his birth and passed himself off as a 45-year-old. At some point his deception must have been discovered as the March 6, 1917 Grand Prairie Herald printed an article wishing Fred a happy 55th birthday as he celebrated in the trenches. According to two letters to the Herald from Frank Longair, Fred remained in high spirits and good humor during his military service. Upon returning to Lake Saskatoon after his discharge in January of 1918, Fred said that “he had helped Old England in every battle for the past decade and he must help her through this one.”
His loyal service was still remembered at the end of his life. Fred died on March 15, 1930 and was buried with full military honors in the Soldiers’ Plot at Hope, British Columbia.
Sources: Pioneers of the Peace p. 33, 34; Lake Saskatoon Reflections p. 101-103
August 8, 1916 ~ “Fred… never for a moment loses his temper or his inimitable stock of humor. He is always in good spirits and has proved his right to the title of ‘old war horse.'”
March 6, 1917 ~ 55 and “feeling fine, except for an occasional attack of rheumatism, but was holding his end up on the Somme with the rest of the boys.”
January 17, 1918 ~ “…he had helped Old England in every battle for the past decade and he must help her through this one.”