Back from Europe – Part the Third…

remembrance-dayAnd we’re back with the third installment in the Williams’ Family Eurotrip 2014! As I’m sure I’ve said a few times now, this trip could hardly be summed up in a single post. Even with two posts – a sum total of 6000 words – I’ve managed to cover only the first five days. I might be able to cover the rest with an additional two, but I can’t promise a thing! Nevertheless, the next segment of our trip, which took us from Ypres to Dieppe, was a very interesting time.

Not only did we learn about some very interesting battles, which included a major victory for a Canada and a national tragedy, this part of our trip also served as a transitional point between the time was dedicated to World War I sites and those dedicated to World War II. In between all that, we also got to enjoy ourselves in the scenic Normandy countryside. Here’s how it all happened…

Monday, April 14th – The Vimy Memorial and Dieppe:

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in the distance
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in the distance

Monday morning, we packed up, ate our last breakfast at the Albion Hotel, told them how much we enjoyed staying with them (my parents wrote a three page stellar review!), and prepared to head out again. This consisted of stopping by the market to get some sandwiches and bottles of water for the day, a necessity when you’re doing walking tours, and then see the Ypres Market, Cloth Museum and Cathedral one last time.

We then packed up the car and began driving for the French border, got on another toll highway, and drove through the sunny, canola flower-filled countryside. Eventually, we made it to The Vimy Monument, the last World War I site on our trip and the only stop along our way to Dieppe along the northern Normandy Coast. Long before we arrived, we could see the monument cresting the Ridge where it is located, not to mention the many slag heaps that mark the landscape.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack
The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack

Again, a little background on this historic battle is in order. As part of the Battle of Arras (April 9th to May 16th, 1917), the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was part of an allied offensive against German positions around the town of Arras. The objective of the Canadian Corps was the high ground at the northernmost end of the front, an area which had remained in German hands despite previous offensives by both French and British forces.

By taking this position, the Canadians would ensure that the Germans would not be to observe the French and British advance further south, or direct artillery fire along the long axis of their advance. Supported by a creeping barrage, the Canadian attack would begin on April 9th and aimed to the fortified German positions along the ridge, as well as the  strategic town of Thélus and Givenchy-en-Gohelle. Thanks to a combination of factors, the attack went off without a hitch.

Battle_of_Arras_-_Vimy_Ridge_mapUltimately, the success of the assault was due to a combination of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training. For weeks prior to the offensive, Canadian soldiers underwent training using models to represent the battlefield, and General’s Sir Julian Byng and Sir Arthur Currie made sure that every single soldier had a map of the ridge and knew exactly what would be needed of them.

The artillery support would rely on a relatively new tactic known as the creeping barrage, rather than the standard preparatory bombardment. In this latter case, artillery would shell the enemy line for days or weeks in advance of the attack, and then stop as the soldiers went “over the top” to charge the enemy positions. By contrast, a creeping barrage would begin shelling No Man’s Land to take out enemy barbed wire, and then crept forward to keep pace with the advance of the infantry.

battle_of_vimy_ridge_field_gun_firingIn so doing, the Canadian’s artillery support was able to catch the German defenders as they were coming out of their dugouts to set up their machine guns and defenses. New methods and equipment were also used to triangulate the positions of the German artillery guns and take them out in advance of the attack. This way, the Germans had no reprieve from the bombardment, and no way to shell the Canadians as they moved up the ridge.

Within three days, the Canadians had secured the entire ridge and their objectives and forced the Germans to retreat to the Oppy–Méricourt line some five kilometers away. In addition, they took 4000 German prisoners and inflicted an estimated 20,000 killed or wounded, while suffering 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded of their own. This too was a first, in that all previous offenses of the war involved the attacker sustaining far greater losses than the defender.

The Vimy Monument, as seen from the west end
The Vimy Monument, as seen from the west end

In addition to being a victory for the Canadian Corps and the first successful Allied offensive of the war, the success of this assault – much their performance at the Second Battle of Ypres – was a defining moment for the fledgling nation of Canada. As Brigadier-General Alexander Ross would famously say of the battle: ” . . . in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” The triumph at Vimy also led to Byng’s promotion out of the Corps, and to his replacement by Arthur Currie — the first Canadian commander of the Corps.

Another outcome of this victory was the reputation earned by the Canadian Corps as being the army that could get things done where others could not. This reputation would further be tested in ensuing battles – the foremost of which was the Battle of Passchendaele – and The Hundred Days Offensive, the last one hundred days of the war when the Canadian Corps led the advance against the crumbling German lines through France and Belgium.

Us posing together at the top of the monument
The four of us together at the top of the monument

Anyhoo, we arrived National Memorial in the late morning and were immediately struck by its sheer size. It’s two pylons, shown above, reach 30 meters into the sky, one bearing the maple leaf of Canada and the other the fleur-de-lis of France, symbolizing the unity and sacrifice of both countries. At the top of the two pylons is a grouping of figures known collectively as the Chorus, the senior of which represent the figures of Justice and Peace. The figures of Hope, Charity, Honour and Faith, Truth and Knowledge are located beneath (as seen in the image below).

Between the two pylons is the Spirit of Sacrifice,  a young dying soldier is gazing upward in a crucifixion-like pose, having thrown his torch to a comrade who holds it aloft behind him. A lightly veiled reference to the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae,  the torch is passed from one comrade to another in an effort to keep alive the memory of the war dead. Other figures around the monument include Sympathy of the Canadians for the Helpless, as represented by a standing man surrounded by kneeling people stricken by hunger and disease.

The Two Pylons of the Monument
The Two Pylons of the Monument

Two more representations, named the Breaking of the Swords and cannons covered in laurel, further symbolize the monument’s commitment to peace. Facing east from the monument is the saddened figure of Canada Bereft, also known as Mother Canada, which personifies the young nation of Canada mourning her dead. The Mourning Parents, one male and one female, are reclining on either side of the western steps on the reverse side of the monument.

Inscribed around the outside wall of the monument are the names of the 11,285 Canadians killed in France, and whose final resting place is unknown. Some 60,000 Canadians died in the First World War, but even after all these years, 11,169 still remain unfound. To see these names listed in a continuous band, and knowing that they represent only a fraction of all those who died, really serves to drive home the terrible reality of the Great War and its brutality.

View from the monument, with sheep grazing in the distance
View from the monument, with sheep grazing in the distance

Looking upon the field that surrounded the monment, we were also quick to notice how the land was gnarled and lumpy, similar to what we had seen at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. Also like the Newfoundland Memorial, the land is surrounded by an electrified wire fence and warning signs that caution against venturing into it, and the only things allowed to walk freely there are grazing sheep. As someone who raised sheep as a child, my wife was naturally concerned about their safety.

However, the guides were quick to confirm that not a single sheep had died in the twenty years that they had been conducting tours. This was certainly a relief to hear, but it didn’t really detract from the reality of the war that this display drove home. As soon as the war ended, the farmers and their flocks returned; and over the course of the years, unexploded mines and munitions accounted for more than a few lives – human, bovine and ovine!

The Mourning Mother, and sheeps grazing in the distance
The Mourning Mother, and more sheep grazing in the distance

After scaling the steps of the monument, we began placing Canadian flag pins here and there to pay our respects. We also snapped some photos of the monument, the surrounding landscape, and of ourselves as a family standing on it. After this, we ventured to the far end of the site to see the Grange Subway – a preserved underground tunnel and stretch of trenches – and the site’s museum. On the way, we saw plenty more trenches, shell holes, and one massive crater that had clearly been left by a mine.

We reached the Grange Subway and booked a tour, and a kindly guide gathered us and about ten others and brought us inside. I can tell with you with no trace of shame that the place was pretty claustrophobic and I might have had some trouble if we hadn’t kept moving. Still, it was extremely impressive to see this tunnel that the Allies had dug during the course of the war. In addition to the walls carved from the chalk and flint that make up the ridge, the tunnel was replete with dugouts, side tunnels, officers messes, and message stations.

The German trenches
The preserved German trenches and mortar position

And of course, the whole place stunk of mold, wet stone and chalky residue. Our guide then took us back outside, to where the tunnel ended in a recreated section of Canadian trench that overlooked another massive crater. Here too, a mine had been exploded just short of the German front lines, which also had a section of preserved trench that showed us how well dug in and fortified their positions were. Unlike the Allied lines, the Germans had had time to pour concrete and build outposts and “pillboxes” to both observe and shoot from.

After the tour finished, we headed back to the museum to take one last look around and then eat our lunch. On the way, we found some additional artifacts, which included a piece of chalk and flint (pieces of the Ridge) and a piece of what appeared to be ceramic with a letter B stamped on it. From its size, contoured shape, and the way it was marked, we could only guess what it was. But the prevalent theory was that it might have been an officers china cup.

The cliffs of Dieppe
The cliffs of Dieppe

And then it was to Dieppe for the night! Despite some problems with our GPS navigator – whom we named Betty since of the female voice – we made it to the hotel down by the beach. Kudos to my mother for her good job of booking the place! After getting into our rooms, we had a nice beer down at the hotel bar, and then decided to get in a beach walk before dinner. Now I should note that this walk, despite the lovely sand and stone beach, was not strictly for enjoyment. You see, a lot happened on that beach some seventy-years ago…

In 1942, this region of France was still firmly in the hands of Nazi Germany. In addition, the Germans were still occupying much of Russia and had the British tangled up in North Africa. The United States had just entered the war and was facing a fight on two fronts – Europe and the Pacific. And with Russian losses numbering in the millions, a great deal of pressure was on the Allies to open a “Second Front” on the Continent again.

Dieppe_raidTo test the German’s coastal defenses, and evaluate the likelihood of making a successful amphibious assault, the Allies began making plans for a raid against the Atlantic coast. In what would come to be known as Operation Jubilee, a force of 6,000 infantrymen – predominantly Canadian and supported by a Canadian Armoured regiment and the Royal Navy and Air Force – the plan was to seize a port town, destroy the military facilities, and then evacuate before a German counter-attack could arrive.

Commander by Lord Louis Mountbatten, a British Admiral and 1st Earl of Burma, the attack was also intended to show that such an assault – which was the first step in liberating Europe – could be done. On August 9th at 5:00 am, the assault began as Canadian and British troops, as well as 100 US Rangers and Free French Commandos, began landing on the beach. By 10:50 a.m., the Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat.

dieppe-dsThe Dieppe Raid, or the Battle of Dieppe, would go down as one of the greatest blunders in military history, and is considered a national tragedy here in Canada. After less than 10 hours since the first landings, the last of the Allied troops had either killed, evacuated, or left behind and captured by the Germans. All told, a total of 3,623 of the 6,086 men who made it ashore were either killed, wounded, or captured, and demonstrated that the Allies could not hope to liberate Europe for some time.

There are several reasons why the raid was a failure. For starters, Allied fire support was grossly inadequate and failed to take out the German defenses. As a result, the advancing infantry was quickly trapped by machine gun fire, mortars and coastal batteries that sighted them as they tried to run up the rocky coastline. The Royal Air Force also failed to lure the Luftwaffe into open battle, and took some heavy losses themselves (96 aircraft compared to 48 lost by the Germans).

Dieppe Raid by Charles Comfort
Dieppe Raid by Charles Comfort

What’s more, the operation was repeatedly downsized, reducing its troop strength several times before it was approved. The Allied commanders, most notably Mountbatten, claimed that this would not be a problem as the attacking force would have the element of surprise. However, this was immediately squandered due to the British government openly talking about the raid for weeks before it happened. In short, the Germans knew they were coming.

While a more recent interpretation of the raid – which claims it was done as part of a clandestine operation to seize a four-rotor Enigma machine – have reevaluated it’s purpose, the outcome of the operation was anything but successful. In the end, the only good to come of it lay in the fact that it taught the Allies precisely what not to do when staging a coastal assault. These lessons greatly influenced their preparations when drafting Operation Torch (the landings in North Africa) and Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings in Normandy).

Carla, my father and I taking our shoes off to walk into the surf. Photo by Rosemary Williams
Carla, my father and I taking our shoes off to walk into the surf. Photo by Rosemary Williams

While walking the beach, my father and I noted the way that it sloped upward and was covered in r0und stones. It wasn’t hard to see at all how tanks would be immobilized by these once they got stuck in their treads. What’s more, the thought of charging up the inclined beach with a rifle and sixty pounds on gear on our backs seemed like absolute folly. Especially if we knew there were machine guns and cannons aimed at us.

Such was our attempt to understand what it must have been like for the young Canucks, Brits, French and Americans who were expected to capture this town. And when we mounted the top near the breakwater, we came to a couple of monuments dedicated to the soldiers who fell on the morning of the 19th of August. This included the Red Beach Monument, which honors the members of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment, and all those who fell on the eastern sector of the beach.

red_beach_monumentFinanced by members of the Windsor community in Ontario, this monument was erected at town’s edge overlooking the beach and was carved from black granite with the cutout of a maple leaf in it. This cutout is aligned so that when the sun shines at 1 p.m. on Aug. 19 — the exact hour that the regiment stormed the beach — it will cast a perfect shadow of a maple leaf on the ground below. Farther down, we found another monuments commemorating the units that fell in other sectors of the beach. At both, we laid a Canadian flag pin and paid our respects.

Then it was back to the hotel for some much needed grub and some sleep. It had been quite a long day, as you can no doubt tell from the lengthy recap. And we certainly needed plenty of rest, because what came on the next day would test us both physically and emotionally. But more on that later, as it deserves a separate post for sure. Thanks for reading, more to follow, and stay tuned!

Back from Europe!

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarHello all! It’s good to be home, and though I am nursing the worst case of jet lag I’ve experienced since… well, two weeks ago, I felt the time was right to let people know how my trip went. As I was sure to have said in my last post, things were mighty eventful and we saw some truly amazing things. In addition to the preserved battlefields, war memorials, war cemeteries and museums, there was also the staggering amount of preserved history to be found in every corner of the places we visited.

We also got a chance to sample some interesting food, delight in the customs and practices of the Belgian, Norman and Parisian people, and drink some very good beer (more on this last aspect of things over my beer blog). Point being, it was a life-changing experience and one which we agreed as a family we needed to do again someday. Only this time, we would pace ourselves a little better so we wouldn’t be spending the first day driving on no sleep! 😉

Us at Beaumont-Hamel
My mother, father and I at Beaumont-Hamel. All photos, unless otherwise indicated, by Carla Jack

To break it all down, we started by visiting cemeteries, memorials and museums in the Belgian countryside that commemorated the Great War and marked the centennial of its outbreak. We also managed to track down the last resting place of a relative of my mother’s, a young man named Wilmot Pettit who was shot down on D-Day over the Normandy countryside. And last, we visited two of the Normandy Beach landings and saw several museums and memorials that honored those who died during the Battle of Normandy in World War II.

This was the precise order of how we did things, which took us from Ypres to Dieppe, Bayeux to Chartres, and ended with us staying in Paris for several nights to take in the culture and history of the French capitol. Really, we couldn’t have packed more in, and now that this precis is over, let me get into the nitty gritty of this trip, with full background info and pictures. And since it’s too much to talk about in one posting, I’ve decided to break it down into a couple posts. Hopefully, I can cover more than a single day at a time, but no promises!

Wednesday, April. 9th – Friday, April 11th
(Nanaimo, BC to Ypres, Belgium):
Before the adventure could begin, there was the little matter of me and my wife meeting up with my folks and then flying to Paris. Now, this is not as easy as it sounds. First off, if you’re flying internationally from Vancouver Island, you either need to get to one of two cities (Comox or Victoria) or take the plane or ferry to Vancouver International Airport. And even then, there are likely to be one or more connecting flights along the way before flying the 8 or 9 hours to make it to Paris.

And once you get there, you’re nine hours ahead, which means you are stepping off the plane in midday when it feels in your head like its the wee hours of the morning. And chances are, you haven’t slept much the night before or on the plane, so you got a big ol’ sleep deficit to start with! Needless to say, that’s what happened to us. After meeting up with my folks the day before, we slept light the evening before the flight, and then set out on Thursday to the local airport before the sun was even up. After a quick trip over to Vancouver, we boarded our first flight, transferred in Montreal, and rode another plane into the sun for another nine hours.

French windmills, by Carla Jack
A few of the many wind turbines we saw

Upon our arrival, we were tired, greasy, and running on fumes. Nevertheless, we managed to grab a rental car and GPS at Charles de Gaulle International and started driving for the Belgium border.This took us through vast stretches of grassy green land, countless fields of golden canola, and many, many wind turbines. This was something that I noticed multiple times while touring the French and Belgian countryside, the large turbine operations that hovered above the flatlands like skyscrapers. I’m thinking we should get in on this in BC, and soon!

After driving northeast for several hours, we arrived in Belgium and began searching for our first set of sites. Having learned of some really cool stops during their previous visits, my folks wanted us to Avril Williams Guesthouse and Tea Room (no relation), a small BandB run by a British lady in the small town of Auchonvillers in the Somme region. In addition to providing food and accommodations, her business is also a de facto war museum due to its very interesting history.

town cellar used during the Great War
An Auchonvillers town cellar used during the Great War. Courtesy of http://www.avrilwilliams.eu

Having been built in the 17th century, graffiti found on the cellars walls and artifacts found on the floor indicated that the building served an important role during the Great War. Apparently, the cellar was one of 140 in the town that was used alternately by the French and British for ammo storage, signalling or for stretcher bearers. After the Armistice in 1923, the villagers returned and the house was rebuilt over the original cellar. It was the only one to have survived intact in Auchonvillers.

The cellar was rediscovered in 1992 when Avril Williams bought the property and some renovations were made. Artifacts found in the floor of the cellar – which included helmets, shell casings, swords, bags, insignia, and a slew of other items – have since been placed on display in the Tea Room itself behind plate glass. What’s more, out the back, a number of old trenches were dug up, restored, and incorporated into the place as part of its historical tour.

After lunch, we toured these and tried to imagine what it was like to have this kind of history in your own backyard! I should also note that Avril had some sheep grazing out the back, as well as several chickens and some very friendly cats. It was a strange and delightful pleasure to be seeing it all and talking to British and other tourists as we walked around and experienced all the reminders of such terrible events, all of which happened roughly 100 years ago but are a permanent part of the landscape. This is something we could to experience a lot on this trip.

Beaumont-Hamel Memorial
Beaumont-Hamel Memorial

Then, it was off to Beaumont-Hamel, one of the many preserved battlefield parks within driving distance from Avril’s. For those who don’t know, it was here that the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (“The Blue Puttees”) fell during the Battle of the Somme. It was during this battle, which took place between July 1st and November 18th, 1916, that this small group of volunteers from the Dominion of Newfoundland (not yet part of Canada) stepped into No Man’s Land and was all but wiped out.

Several factors were to blame for this debacle. In the first place, the French and British plan of attack against the German lines was meant to take place in late June, but was postponed due to bad weather. Combined with the heavy bombardment which preceded the assault, the field between the German and British trenches was turned into mud. What’s more, the German troops on the other side had been occupying their position for 20 months, and used that time to fortify their positions against bombardment.

The Hawthorn Ride Mine exploding. Photo by Ernest Brooks
The Hawthorn Ridge Mine exploding. Photo by Ernest Brooks

The British attack began with the detonation of a large mine under a heavily fortified positing known as the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, which was caught on film and remains one of the most iconic bits of footage from the war. The explosion destroyed a major German strong point, but also alerted the German troops of the coming attack and led to their deployment. Moments later, when the British 29th Infantry Division advanced into No Man’s Land, they foundered due to German barbed wire, machine gun fire and artillery.

Back at the Divisional HQ, the British received confused reports, some of which stated that the German lines had been broken. To exploit this, General Beauvoir De Lisle ordered the Newfoundland Regiment and other units that were in reserve into the fray. Moving up from St. John’s Road, a support trench 230 meters (250 yards) behind the British forward line, the Newfoundlanders soon found that movement forward through the communication trenches was not possible because they were congested with the dead and wounded, and under shell fire.

The trenchlines and shell holes that still mark the lanscape
Note how the trench lines and craters still mark the landscape. Photo by Theitalinpen

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Lovell Hadow, the battalion commander, decided to move immediately into attack formation and advance across the surface. As they moved out in the open, they were effectively the only troops moving on the battlefield and clearly visible to the German defenders. As a result, most of the Newfoundland Regiment who had started forward were dead, dying or wounded within 15 to 20 minutes of leaving St. John’s Road trench.

Most reached no further than the Danger Tree, a skeleton of a tree that lay in No Man’s Land that was being utilized as a landmark. As part of one of the most disastrous offensives during the war, the destruction of this regiment serves as a stark and sobering reminder of just how destructive the Great War was. Of the 780 men who went forward only about 110 survived unscathed, of whom only 68 were available for roll call the following day.

View of the battlefield, with the Danger Tree in the right hand
View of the battlefield from the memorial. The Danger Tree is visible on the right near the small group of visitors

As you can probably tell from the photographs, the area in which this battle took place is really not that big. Having seen it close up, I can tell you that it is astounding to know that so much death and destruction happened within such a small area. But such was the nature of battles like the Somme. So many men died brutally and senselessly for the sake of a few meters, and every position taken on the field was paid for with thousands of lives.

The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is a testament to one of the greatest wastes of life of the war and in human history. Officially opened by the British in 1925, the memorial site is one of only two National Historic Sites of Canada located outside of Canada. The other is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, which we visited a few days later. This symbol of sacrifice is staffed by Canadian students and civil servants, and remains a symbol of Newfoundland’s identity.

After taking this all in, we went back to our car and set off for the town of Ypres where we would be staying for the next three days. For most of us, this consisted of sleeping in the car while my father had to slap himself to stay awake. But in the end, we made it to the Hotel Albion located in the city’s old quarter and quickly climbed into our beds. Carla and I slept while my folks chose to nap and head on out for some proper dinner.

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And that is what we did for the first two days of the trip. If it sounds like a lot, then I’ve conveyed the experience properly! Needless to say, it was all quite overwhelming and we were all emotionally and physically exhausted afterwards. Just telling it again now makes me feel like I’m trying to cook an elephant! Basically, the only way I’m going to be able to do it is a bit at a time. So stay tuned, because there is plenty more to follow.

Up next, our adventures in and around the historic town of Ypres, Belgium! And in the meantime, please listen to this lovely song – “Recruiting Sergeant”, by the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea. It is a lovely song that commemorates the sacrifice of these brave young men, an entire generation of young Newfoundlanders. The video consists of images compiled by Dr. Death1020, who used RNR pictures of Beaumont-Hamel and of the Battle of the Somme to set the tone. Enjoy, and may we never forget!