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!

Lest We Forget

lest-we-forgetHey all! Just wanted to do a late trip update and let everybody know I’m still kicking, and to share some of the many experiences that were had so far on this trip. It’s been almost two weeks now since the family and I departed from Vancouver Island and landed on the Continent, and try as I might, I’ve been unable to resist my internet fix! So as long as I was surfing, checking messages and doing a little messaging myself, I figured I could at least post an update or two.

Currently, we are in Paris, where we arrived on Sunday after dropping off our rental car at Charles de Gaulle Airport. After finding our hotel in the Latin Quarter, we began taking in the local sites and sounds, which included the Tour Eiffel, the Arc de Troimphe, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and la Maison de Verlaine, a restaurant that is famous for having been frequented by countless literary, political and showbiz personalities (Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy’s, to name a few).

battle_of_vimy_ridge_field_gun_firingBut before that, we were in the Flanders region of Belgium and the Normandy region of France. We began with Ypres, a small city in Belgium that was the site of three major battles during the Great War. This began in 1914 when the Allies retook the town from the Germans after their great sweep into northern France failed. The second took place five months later when the Germans, hoping to break the stalemate in Belgium, used chlorine gas for the first time. It was during this gas attack that the Canadian 1st Division distinguished itself by holding its ground and repelling the attack, despite the fact that they had no gas masks. The third and final battle took place east of the city and is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest of the war.

These and other terrible sacrifices which were endured during the war are all commemorated on a daily basis in the town. Every night, wreaths are laid at the Mennin Gate at one side of the old city where the names of the dead are inscribed and people gather to hear The Last post played. Having attended it on both a Saturday and the following Sunday, I can tell you that It is a very beautiful and moving event.

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarWe were also sure to visit the cemeteries, battlefields and memorials at Beaumont-Hamel, Concrete Farm, Langemarck, St. Julien, and Tyne Cot. This last cemetery, which is the largest World War I cemetery ever, has a small museum where the names of every soldier who died in the Battle of Arras is named. The recording plays on a loop, and takes FIFTEEN YEARS to finish!

I should also note that within this landscape, visitors and farmers are routinely still finding small pieces of the battles that took place over a century ago. These include unexplored munitions – which have to be carefully removed and disposed of – and shrapnel, which my father and I found quite miraculously. I say this because the field we were going to search was being tilled by a large machine, forcing us to search at the very edge. But even with this small space to work with, we still managed to find a large chunk of a shell and some small pieces of shrapnel.

Vimy RidgeAfter that, we visited the Vimy Memorial in France, one of the greatest to come out of the war. This site, and the many preserved trenches, tunnels and craters that mark the landscape are preserved and attended to by Canadian students who hope to keep the memory of this historical battle alive. Not only was it a major victory for the allies – the first decisive offensive of the war – it also defined Canada as a nation. While being guided through the trenches and tunnel, my father and I once again paused to pick up some keepsakes. This time around, it was a piece of chalk and flint (which the ridge is made of) and a small bit of ceramic, possibly from an old teacup.

We then travelled to Dieppe in Normandy and began visiting the World War II sites and memorials. This included the beach of Dieppe where the ill-faired raid performed by the Canadian 2nd Division, British, French and Polish Commandos, and American Rangers. We then drove to the French countryside to the town of Grangues to see where my Grandmothers cousin (an RAF pilot who died on D-Day) was shot down.

dieppe-dsThis was perhaps the most interesting part of our journey since it involved retracing the path of an actual family member. His name was Wilmot Pettit, and on June 6th, 1944, he was shot down while towing a glider full of British Commandos into the Normandy countryside.  The mayor of Grangues was extremely helpful, and drove us to where the crash took place, told of how the survivors had been captured and executed by the SS, offered to send us some photos of the downed plane, and told us where Wilmott had been buried. We then drove to the cemetery at Ranville to pay our respects, before heading on to Bayeux.

From here, we visited Juno Beach, Gold Beach, and saw the museums set up at both that commemorated the D-Day landings of the Canadian, British and Commonwealth troops. We wanted to get around to seeing Omaha, but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time. We also visited the war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer, where the many Commonwealth troops who died during the Battle of Normandy were laid to rest. We also managed to walk inside the still-intact coastal batteries at Longues-sur-Mer, and took in the Bayeux Tapestry before leaving for Chartres.

Which brings us by commodious vicus back to the present. We still have a few more nights here in Paris and we intend to see as much as we can before leaving on Friday.  And when I get home, I hope to write about my experiences here in more depth. Trust me when I say that this is the explicated version. The full-length one comes with way more background info, and pictures! Until then, take care, and take care to remember…

BookofRemembrance_pg.479

Remembering Vimy Ridge

The_Battle_of_Vimy_RidgeHello all! Today has been rather a busy one, and show’s no signs of slowing down just yet! In spite of that, I would be remiss if I did not take the time to acknowledge the rather special anniversary which falls on this day, of which some people may not be aware. You see, today is the 96th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a major event in my nation’s history and a defining moment for all Canadians.

Though many people outside of Canada may not know much about it, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the most significant battles of World War I and a key moment in Canada’s history. Taking place between April 9th and 14th of 1917, it was not only a Canadian-led offensive, it was also the only Allied offensive victory in the war to date. And just as importantly, we in Canada consider it a defining moment in our history, when our country ceased being a colony and became a nation.

Battle_of_Arras_-_Vimy_Ridge_mapSurprising then that it is often considered a footnote to the larger campaign known as the Battle of Arras or the Nivelle Offensive, one of many disastrous offensives fought by the Allied armies during the war. Like all offensives of its kind, the purpose of the assault in the north-eastern region of France was to break the stalemate that had existened between the Allied and German lines since 1915.

It was believed that if this could be achieved, the numerically inferior German forces would finally be beaten and the war ended. And after so many bloody battles and worsening situations on home front – with shortages setting in and morale running short – the allies were desperate for their big breakthrough. Relying on armies fielded by the French, British, and all her dominions – Newfoundland, New Zealand, and Canada – the attack would take place in several key sectors along the Western Front.

vimy-ridge-875While the French struck at German positions along the Chemin des Dames ridge, and the British and most of the Dominion armies struck at positions around the town of Arras, the Canadian Corps – led by General Arthur Currie – was to take the highground known as Vimy Ridge. Despite promises of a speedy battle after a massive bombardment, the French made little gains against the dug-in defenders and lost almost 200,000 men. The British fared slightly better, achieving some gains but at the high cost of 158,000 men.

Only the Canadians achieved their objectives completely and promptly, taking the Ridge in just three days and with acceptable losses. Of the five divisions totaling nearly 170,000 men, only 3,598 were killed with another 7000 wounded. On the other side, the Germans – who were well dug-in and defending an elevated position – suffered at least as many killed and wounded, plus an additional four thousand captured. This was made ever more impressive considering that the French and British, during a previous attempt to take the Ridge, had lost a good 150,000 men.

vimy2

This was unprecedented for a World War I battle, and earned the Canadian Corps the status of elite “Shock Troops”. For the remainder of the war, Arthur Currie and the soldiers under his command would be the ones who were seen as being able to “get things done”. During the battle of Passchendale, a brutal, bloody, muddy offensive, the Canadians were called in to accomplish the offensive after the British efforts faltered. During the final 100 days of the war, when the German lines were collapsing, the Canadians led the way for every single push.

And yet, all of this was made possible due to one simple thing: sound planning. As the first offensive action that Canadian commanders were able to plan on their own, they took advantage of some rather novel ideas and technologies to overcome the problems of trench warfare. These included the rather revolutionary concept of using triangulation and wind measurements to determine the position of enemy artillery, and destroy them ahead of time.

battle_of_vimy_ridge_field_gun_firingCreeping barrages were also planned to give the advancing troops continuous fire support, rather than simply laying down a barrage and then stopping it before the infantry began to march. This tactic had already been proven ineffective, as the Germans simply dug in deeper to avoid preemptive barrages and also had time to emerge from their dugouts once the shells stopped falling to shoot at the advancing troops. By timing the artillery with the advance, any Germans brave enough to fire on the Canadian Corp risked being blown to pieces.

But most importantly, the planned offensive had been meticulously planned for month. Spotters mapped out 80 percent of the Ridge in advance, full-scale replicas of the terrain were built to rehearse unit tactics, and individual officers were assigned maps and time tables. All of this was a break from conventional philosophy, which held that troops did not need to be familiar with the grand strategy and should march as one.

Model_reproduction_of_German_linesThough many a military “expert” of the time found much of this suspect, they admitted dubiously that the Canadians’ plan couldn’t be any worse than the British tactics at the Somme, which cost the lives of 623,907 troops, 24,000 of which were Canadian. As such, the Canadian Corps got the go ahead. For weeks, Canadian and British artillery began pounding the German positions in preparation for the assault. Then on April 9th, an Easter Monday morning amidst rain and freezing cold, the Canadian Corps struck.

By the end of the first day, they had accomplished most of their objectives, but fighting and consolidation would continue for another four days and Canadians mopped up the German positions and took prisoners. When the dust had settled, the valour of the troops, the originality of the plan, and the success where larger, more established armies had failed all contributed to a new nation’s pride. The battle was hailed as the first allied success of the long war, achieved mostly due to the innovation of using a creeping, continuous massive artillery barrage to protect squads of advancing troops. Both sides used the tactic in future battles.

Vimy RidgeToday, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands as a proud reminder of what Canadians accomplished at Vimy and throughout the war. As a young nation, nominally independent but still very much tied to the British Crown, we had done what others could not and earned a reputation as stalwart soldiers and faithful allies that is still acknowledged to this day. The monument, as well as many of the wartime features of the Ridge, are maintained by an army of committed volunteers and government assistance.

And I for one very much look forward to visiting it in the spring of 2014, when the centennial of World War I is being marked all over Europe, and legions of Canadians and other nationals descend on Flanders and Northern France in order to pay their respects. In addition to the many monuments which mark the landscape, it is a testament to the futility of war, but also a symbol of a nation born in fire.

Today, it is especially important that we remember what happened not only at Vimy, but all over Europe and the world at large during those fateful years. Since the last living veteran of World War I, a British man named Florence Green, died on February 4th 2012 at the aged of 110, there is no one left who experienced that terrible war directly. And as we near the 100 year marker of the Great War and the battle that defined Canada as a nation, I hope and pray the lessons will not be forgotten! They simply cannot afford to be repeated…