Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Canadian Vimy Ridge Memorial

The Shell scared landscape of Vimy Ridge -90 years later

Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial
The Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial is a stunning piece of artwork and a landmark that looks over the Douai Plain and the Artois Region. The Vimy Ridge National Historic Site is visible for miles away, it towers over the landscape, the white granite monument is visible from the Notre Dame de Lorrette - France's largest National cemetery, which contains 40,000 French dead.

Notre Dame de Lorrette - France's largest Cemetery

This entry will showcase the Vimy Monument;  created by Walter Seymour Allward. Designer and Architect Allward was a renowned Canadian artist. Allward created monuments for the War of 1812, Boer War (South African War), Bell Telephone, Stratford War Memorial (1922), Brantford War Memorial (1933), and the Peterborough Citizens' Memorial (1929).

Mother Canada Mourning her lost sons.

Allward was a busy artist, while he was busy designing the Brantford and Peterborough Memorial, Walter Seymour Allward was also busy working on his latest commission from the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission in 1925 - Vimy Ridge. Allward and his labourers spent 11 years constructing Canada's largest Great War monument, on ground that many Canadians consider sacred. In the next few years Canadians will become very familiar with Allward and Vimy Ridge; Allward's work is now on the $20 tender.

New Canadian $20 tender
Credit: Bank of Canada & Global TV

                                          Walter Allward posing infront of his incomplete Vimy Ridge Monument
                                Credit: Library and Archives &

Aerial view of Vimy Ridge dedication, 1936.
Credit: Library and Archives &
Early 1930s - Laying foundation.
Credit: Library and Archives &

Inscribing names of 11,000 Canadian soldiers that died in France with no known grave.
Credit: Library and Archives &
Progress on the monument.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada &

Early 1930s - In 1922 France donated 245 acres, centred on Hill 145 to Canada.
Credit: Library and Archives &

Laying the base of the 24 foot tall monument base.
Credit: Library and Archives &

Monday, 5 November 2012

Peterborough’s Youngest Lost Soldier: Anthony Skarrizi

Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery
Credit: Royal British Legion

The expression “old men declare war, but the youth who must fight and die,” comes to mind when visiting any Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery.  Rows of white tombstones mark the last resting place for a generation of young men of the British Empire. Studies of death records have found that the majority of soldiers died in their 20s, with the median age being 22-26 years old. Most of the soldiers were cut down in the prime of their lives, leaving young wives and children to cope with the loss of a missing partner and father.

14 year old and 8 month old Anthony Skarrizi

Researchers have come across the graves of soldiers from the Great War that were too young to marry, or even shave. Recently I have come across the story of Peterborough’s youngest fatality of the Great War, Anthony ‘Tony’ Skarrizi who died during the last days of the Battle of Passchendaele. Private Anthony Skarrizi was 16 years and 11 months old when he died on 3 November 1917 outside of Passchendaele, Belgium.
Peterborough Examiner,
 22 November 1917

Government Records show that Anthony Skarrizi was born in Italy in November 1900. Like many Italian immigrants at the turn of the last century, the Skarrizi’s moved to Canada in 1907 hoping of finding employment as labourers. The young Anthony Skarrizi decided to join the military in August 1915. Private Skarrizi falsely attested his birth year as 1897, making the adolescent appear to be 18 to the Recruiting Sargent at the Peterborough Armouries,  in all likelihood he was only 14 years and 8 months old.

Canadian Military Police Corps (Provost)
Private Skarrizi completed his military training in Canada, and embarked for overseas service. After sailing to Liverpool, England he was found to be underage and redeployed for permanent base duty. Military law states all soldiers must be 18 to enlist in the military and 19 years old for overseas service. Once his age was discovered, Skarrizi spent 6 months on base duty being assigned to several guard and provisional units; he became an unruly and irresponsible soldier. His young age combined long rotations in the much hated “bullrings” (reinforcement camps) likely contributed to his declining morale.  By the winter of 1916-1917, Private Skarrizi had several run-ins with the Canadian Provost Corps.

Great War Military Depiction of
Field Punishment No 1
He was arrested and court martialed four times for: neglecting to obey an NCO, absent without leave on two occasions, and absent from parade. The young soldier was punished by being restrained, having his pay docked, and after his second conviction for being absent without leave, he was given the dreaded Field Post No 1. According to the Manual of military law, the Field Post No 1 punishment consists of restraining an individual at the feet and hands and attaching the convicted soldier to a wagonwheel, or fencepost in a public area, whereby all other soldiers could witness the punishment.

Two months after the last conviction, Skarrizi was transferred to France with the 21st Battalion. One month after landing in Boulogne, France, the young private was attached to Kingston’s 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion billets in Villers Au Bois.  The question arises: why and how would a known underage soldier allowed to be sent overseas? No one knows. It is likely that Officers decided to send Skarrizi to France because serving at the front would stop the adolescent Italian-Canadian soldier from running away from the Canadian military camps.
Picture of Passchendaele
Credit: Archives of Ontario/RCL

Terrain of Passchendaele
Credit: Library and Archives Canada
Unfortunately for Private Skarrizi, he joined the 21st Battalion only several weeks before the Canadian Corps moved into Belgium to take part in the Battle of Passchendaele. The four month long British led Passchendaele offensive had almost ground to a halt. The British High Command jointly employed their “shock troops” of Australian and Canadians to help resolve the political and military mess that the British Generals had created in attempting to take Passchendaele. The Canadian Commander, Arthur Currie, planned to win the battle but slowly and in several phases in order to insure that the Canadians did not suffer needless losses of men. This article will not go into the general history of the Passchendaele campaign. It is interesting to note that during the research for this entry, I found there was a lack of contemporary historical analysis into the Canadian involvement at Passchendaele.

Aerial Photograph of Passchendaele,
displaying location of Crest Farm
On 30 October 1917, the first phase of the Canadian assault at Passchendaele ended. The Canadians launched the second phase of their attack on Passchendaele after the PPCLI and the 72nd Battalion provided miraculous results for the Canadian Corps. The 3rd Division captured two German strongholds, Meetcheele crossroads, which was lined with concrete bunkers and Crest Farm, a swampy redoubt of trenches and shell holes that overlooked the advances to the town of Passchendaele.

On the night of 3 November 1917 the 4th Canadian Brigade relieved the Canadians that captured the lunar swampy landscape that was Crest Farm at 2:45 AM. The relatively fresh 21st Battalion was sent in to guard the recently captured Crest Farm by the 4th Division. On the right was the 19th Battalion, and on the left the 21st Battalion was on left of Crest farm.

1917 Map and Location of Crest Farm
Credit: McMaster Archives
Contemporary Photo of location
 of Crest Farm Credit: Google Maps
At 3:45 AM, the German started to bombard Crest Farm and reserve and support areas. At 4:50 AM, Brigade HQ witnessed the 21st Battalion sending off  red S.O.S. flares. The attack by German Stoßtruppen (Storm Troops - Specialist Assault Troops) breached the Canadian wire charged right into the 21st and 19th Battalions. The 19th Battalion made quick work of the German attackers, while on the left; the 21st Battalion had to call in a reserve company to help dislodge the enemy. By 6:45 AM, the Germans had launched two small isolated attacks on the 21st Battalion, both of which were halted. Canadian After-Battle reports state German infantry laid in shell holes in front of the Canadian position but were unable to advance. During the defence of Crest Farm, the 19th Battalion provided valuable assistance to not only the 21st Battalion, which suffered 203 causalities, but also to the Australians on the right flank.  The 19th Battalion sent almost a company sized force to help shore up the Australian defences.

Menin Gate, Leper Belgium
During the defence of Crest Farm, 16 year old Private Anthony Skarrizi went missing. There is no record in existence that tells historians what happened to the young inexperienced soldier. All we know is that he never answered his company roll call again. His name is engraved at the monument to the missing at the Menin Gate at Leper (Ypres), Belgium. Like most of the missing of the Great War, Private Skarrizi was likely killed by a direct hit by an enemy shell. The impact of the explosion, and the confusion that followed the battle hampered efforts by stretcher bearers to retrieve the body of Private Skarrizi. After the battle, Anthony Skarrizi’s family at 656 Reid Street, Peterborough, would receive several telegraphs and letters informing them that their son was missing, and eventually declared dead. 

Author would like to acknowledge the assistance and great research work provided by the 21st Battalion Website. Please visit them at

Monday, 29 October 2012

Peterborough's Confederation Square: Winter 1914 - 1915.

Here is an image of B Squadron, of the 8th Canadian Mounted Rifles.

The picture is taken on the North-east corner of Confederation Square - facing the George United Church (then a Wesleyan Church) 

Untitled Photo. The picture fits the period when B Squadron of the 8th Canadian
Mounted Rifles was raised in Peterborough in December  1914  -  March 1915.
Credit: Peterborough Museum & Archives, Balsallie Collection of Roy Studio Images, 2000-12 (2634-1)

14 years after this photograph was taken, Peterborough's cenotaph would be unveiled at this very location. On 29 June 1929 by the Commander of the disbanded Canadian Corps, Sir General Arthur Currie, helped unveil the cenotaph. The monument to Peterborough's dead was designed by Walter S. Allward. After completing the Peterborough memorial, Allward sailed to France for his next project. Canada's national war monument - the stunning Vimy monument.

The Alderville First Nation Cenotaph and War Monument: An Architecturally Unique Memorial

First Nations communities in
Central Ontario. Credit:  Ontario Aboriginal Affairs 

The areas that comprise Peterborough, Northumberland, and the Quinte region sent thousands of men overseas during the Great War.  Enlistment for service on the Western Front was not limited to men of European ancestry. Many local Ojibway, and Mississauga Aboriginal people from the Curve Lake, Hiawatha, and Alderville First Nations served overseas.

Alderville Cenotaph. Credit: M. Ferguson

After the war had ended, The First Nation of Alderville erected a War Monument in 1927 to honour their 35 war volunteers and 9 sons that were lost in the war. Alderville's contribution to the Canadian war effort was extensive and  admirable. From the tiny reserve, Alderville had sent 35 soldiers off to war, from an adult male population of 63 men. The Ojibway soldiers went to defend the ideals of democracy even  though as 'Indians' they were not entitled to vote.

The tiny aboriginal reserve rests on County Road 45 connects Peterborough to Cobourg. The monument is located adjacent to the highway. The cenotaph for the small community with a population of 313  is a local attraction and landmark. It is not uncommon to see automobiles parked on the side of the road with amateur photographers taking snap shots of the unique monument. 

Canada's Most Decorated
Aboriginal Soldier, Francis
Pegahmagabow Credit: Wikipedia
Several academics have constructed careers out of studying loss and mourning by studying French war memorials. I doubt Art Historians and Cultural Studies professors would be able to make sense of Alderville’s cenotaph. It is a monument without a cross, brooding soldier, or shield and sword. In fact, the monument looks like a tribute to the emerging Art Deco movement of the 1920s, or at the very least, inspired by abstract modern art. Historian Jonathan Vance, a Canadian War and Society scholar attempted to make sense of the monument in his 1997 book Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War. In the book he writes, “one especially bizarre design exists in Campbellford [sic], Ontario; a massive column with three huge orbs suspended from a cube-topped platform, it is less a war memorial than a monument to the ingenuity of the stonemason. (202)”

I have personally seen my fair share of monuments and cenotaphs in Canada, France, Belgium, and England. Without a doubt, Alderville has one of the most unique war memorials I have seen. 

Alderville War Memorial. Credit: M. Ferguson June 2012
                                                      The Alderville Cenotaph reads:

The cenotaph was constructed in 1927 by Alf McKeel and Son of Campbellford who supplied the design and donated the materials for the project while the hard physical labour was supplied by many local volunteers. The native Indian men of Alderville used hand shovels and a lot muscle power to stir the cement which makes up the cenotaph. The women spent hours cooking and supplying meals for these hardworking volunteers.
The cube on top symbolizes the four corners of the earth. The three globes beneath the cube symbolize the holy trinity. The three large pillars supporting the above symbolize the three holy virtues of faith, hope and charity. The square base on which the cenotaph stands, symbolizes the four freedoms – freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from fear and freedom of the press.
The nine large cubes situated around the cenotaph represent the 9 men who were killed in World War I. The chain that comprised of 35 links the encircles the cenotaph and is attached to the 9 cubes represent the 35 residents that served in the war and at the same time represents eternity.  

Want to learn more about this monument? Visit the Alderville First Nation Cenotaph website. 

In the next entry I will be looking local Peterborough and surrounding area Aboriginal contributions to the First World War. Also, in the near future look for the launch of Peterborough and the First World War Map - a digital map that shows where over a thousand local soldiers lived before enlistment.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Book Review: For Love and Courage: the Letters of Lieutenant Colonel E.W.Hermon, From the Western Front 1914 – 1917.

As the centenary for the First World War approaches, first-person accounts have started to populate the shelves of book stores.  Anne Nason’s grandfather, Edward W. Hermon, left a collection of hundreds of letters that were sent to his wife, Ethel, before his untimely death during the Second Battle of Arras on 9 April 1917. This book gives historians and the casual reader a glimpse into the life of a Yeomanry cavalry officer in France and Belgium: from mobilization, training, and the inner squabbling between commissioned officers.  

Edward H. Hermon’s life does not reflect the typical life experience of many ‘Tommys’ of the Western Front.  Hermon was educated at Eton, served in South Africa with the 7th Hussars, and by all accounts was independently wealthy gentleman. His wife and four children, affectionately nicknamed ‘chugs,’ lived in a country estate that included servants. The family engaged in many idyllic activities such as sailing, leisurely drives, and horseback riding. After serving in South Africa Hermon transferred his commission to the Territorial Army to avoid further deployments to India or the Near East. As a reserve cavalry officer, Hermon was mobilized in July 1914 and landed in France with his personal batman (servant) and horses from the family estate in the spring of 1915.

The correspondence between Hermon and his wife in 1914 - 1915 reflects the personal impact that separation due to war can have on a couple. The reader quickly builds a great deal of sympathy. A husband at the front and a pregnant wife at home looking after four young children. Hermon’s correspondence quickly settles into a pattern of asking for jams, cakes, meats, and cigarettes, and requests for socks and jackets. Reading the repeated pleas for more comforts of home may cause reader’s eyes to glaze over; but these letters embody life in divisional reserve on the Western Front.

As the 2IC (Second in Command) for the King Edward Horse Cavalry Regiment, Colonel Hermon sent home letters of that described witnessing battles like Loos and Festubert from reserve. In a conflict of primarily of barbed wire, machine gun emplacements, and trenches; horses became less relevant as weapons of war.  King Edward Horse Cavalry would only be ordered into the battle once the enemy line was breached. Hermon spent much of his time complaining to his wife about being sidelined while the infantry were in the thick of combat. The early letters (1915 - 1916) capture the dire situation on the front lines. The British were struggling to meet the changing technological demands of modern war.  Hermon wrote home retelling his wife that soldiers were using lacrosse sticks to scoop and throw back German grenades, and noting how his men were receiving homemade gas masks  in June 1915. Not to mention the Shell Shortage of 1915, when British artillery batterys were only allowed to fire 6 shells a day due to the shortage.

As the war progressed, Hermon tired of waiting for orders to charge on horse into battle. His letters denote a growing hostility to many commanding officers, mainly the regiment’s Commanding Officer, and General Haig. Luckily, Col. Hermon was afforded the opportunity to advance in rank after organizing and commanding the divisional Grenade School.  After a failed bid to become the next regimental commander, , Hermon begged his superiors to transfer him to an infantry battalion. The popular 37 year old officer was transferred to the 27th Battalion, replacing the Commanding Officer, whom Hermon calls "the commercial traveller with diamond rings."
Arras in 1919: Lt. Col. Hermon spent many weeks in Arras in 1917
Credit: Wiki Commons

 On 9 April 1917, the newly promoted Lt. Col. Hermon took part in his first over the top assault. The 27th Battalion along with support from tanks took their objective. Hermon and his adjutant and was walking forward to his newly captured position when a German machine gun opened up. Eyewitness describe  the German machine gun raking an abandoned British tank with fire, before  taking aim at Hermon and his entourage. The enemy gun crew sprayed the officers with gun fire, and the newly promoted battalion commander  was hit in the chest. Days after his death, Hermon's wife received a grief stricken letter from the batman. In the letter, Ethel Hermon was told how in her husband's last moments the mortally wounded officer told his men to 'Go On' and showed remarkable stoicism. 

Ethel Hermon kept the hundreds of letters her late husband sent to her. They were stored in a dusty dresser for years. Granddaughter and editor Anne Nason provided a valiant effort in organizing the letters, and providing the basic background information and adding context to Hermon’s letters. There are very few footnotes in the book, but Nason’s work provides great contribution into the life of a mid-war cavalry officer. A highly readable book, and a valuable source of personal documents for any Military Historian interested in the BEF battles of 1915 - 1917.

Monday, 27 August 2012

15th Battalion, 48th Highlanders Demobilization

Here is a 13 minute video clip of the homecoming of the 15th Battalion in 1919. The 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders) was a unique Scottish kilted battalion in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The 15th Battalion was apart of the 1st Division, and served in the 3rd Brigade (nicknamed the Highland Bde). They served with distinction throughout the war from 1915 - 1918 and took part in almost every major Canadian operation in France in Belgium. As a battalion, their most famous action was at 2nd Ypres in 1915, where they were gassed and overrun by the enemy, yet fought vigilantly until the bitter end.

The 48th Highlanders had a special connection to Peterborough. In researching Peterborough's contribution to the war, I have been able to find that over 40 young men travelled by train for 2 hours to Toronto to enlist in the 48th Highlanders. For many recruits, there was an attraction to joining a Highland battalion; the skirl of bagpipes, the regimental links to Scotland, wearing a kilt as part as battle dress, and having the unique identity as a Highlander - and not just another Poor Bloody Infantryman would be enticing to any enlisting man.

Video from almost a 93 years ago shows these veterans before heading to 'civvie street.'

- 15, 38, 58, 73, 92, 134 Battalions Marching
- Train pulling into Union Station shows lots of chalk writing, indication where the men had served (France, Rhineland) or where they were from (Hamilton, Toronto) 
- Mayor of Toronto Meeting Tom Longboat, native soldier, long distance runner, and war hero.
- March down University Avenue and Queens Park.

Please check out the newly launched 15th Battalion website, run by former members of the Red Watch/Kilted Ladies. 

-  I must apologize for not updating very often. I have been working on several projects and trying to enjoy the most of summer. In the next few months I will release a geo-map of all locations of where all Peterborough Soldiers lived prior to enlisting in the Great War. - M.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Peterborough Armouries and Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School - Then and Now

Two photographs of the Peterborough Armouries and Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School                                            
                                                                1919 - 2009.        
Credit: Google Maps (2009) and Library and Archives Canada (1919)
The Armouries building (on the left) was the base for the pre-war 57th Peterborough Rangers militia unit and during the First World War it was the home for the 93rd (Peterboro) Infantry Battalion. The Armoury also acted as recruiting depot for enlisting soldiers the Peteroborough area during the Great War and the Second World War. The Armoury is the current home to the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment.

The Peterborough Armoury was constructed between 1907 - 1909 during a period of great expansion and improvement to the Canadian Army. The Government of the time, led by Wilfrid Laurier, allocated more funding for the Department of Militia and Defense after the Boer War (South African War). Contracts were signed for new rifles, uniforms, and numerous armouries were built. During this period Canada also created its own Navy (1910). Laurier's cabinet Minister for Militia and Defense, Frederick W. Borden (cousin to future war-time PM Robert Borden), was in Peterborough for the opening of the architecturally stunning drill hall. 

The building on the right is Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School. It  was constructed at the same time as the Armouries in 1908.  The two building share some similarities in both structure, height, and colour. Local Peterborough historian and professor, Ellwood Jones, has noted that the location of the armoury, school, and nearby churches show that the city-planners wanted to centralize the Peterborough civic power one  location. During the First World War, the headmaster of PCVS, Principal Kenner, complained in the local newspaper, regarding the regularity of fire drills at the armoury; and is quoted to have said at one City Council meeting that many "young pupils are too keen on soldiering rather than studies." Principal Kenner's assessment of the level of distraction found around the PCVS and the Armoury during 1915 - 1916 seems accurate. It is not hard to imagine young pupils stuck in class, periodically gazing out to the recruits drilling on Confederation Square. During this awkward arrangement between academics and warriors, the children had to learn over the noise of rifle practice, band practice, and the bellowing of orders from the cantankerous Regimental Sargent Major.

The photos were taken 90 years apart. The 1919 photograph was shot from an WWI era RFC airplane (from Camp Borden) during the early years of aerial photography  (wing is visible in the left of the picture). The 1919 photo contrasts the 90 years of growth in Peterborough. A few hundred yards behind Murray and McDonnel Street, you can see farm fields. In 2009, all those family farms are gone, replaced by asphalt streets and homes.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Gegenangriff zum Fresnoy – 8 May 1917

The genesis of the second Battle of Fresnoy began on 5 May 1917. Orders were received by the 5th Bavarian Division to prepare for a counterattack (Gegenangriff zum Fresnoy). Fresnoy and surrounding wooded area was an integral piece of the Oppy-Mericourt defence line. After the successful capture of the village, the British and Canadians were in possession of a minor salient that had the potential to breech the fortress that was the Hindenburg Line. The German High Command knew that in a worst case scenario, if the defence network was overcame, then the allies would have a opportunity to change the nature of the conflict from trenches to a war of rapid mobile warfare. Fresnoy had to be recaptured.
German Prisoners captured by Canadians in the Arras Sector, May 1917
Credit: Veterans Affairs Canada

The two prior attempts to re-take Fresnoy on May 3rd were repulsed with artillery and defensive fire; the attacks were hastily planned and were aimed to simply overwhelm the battle fatigued Canadians. The renewed attack by the 5th Bavarian Division was planned to be a more organized push, involving a heavy reliance on artillery and additional soldiers. The Germans planned to launch their assault only after weakening the lines with artillery, identifying defence strongpoints, and isolating routes where re-enforcements could be brought into the battle. Starting on May 6th the Germans began to shell the vicinity around the objective. In a span of two days, German artillery fired over 100,000 shells into British and Canadian sector. 

German Photograph of the Arras
Sector. Credit:, Paul Reed
To the north of the German objective was the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade. They were stationed north of Fresnoy Wood and were scheduled to be relieved by the 4th Brigade on the night of May 7/8. The British 95th Brigade, 12th Battalion Gloucester Regiment occupied the shelled out remains of the town of Fresnoy. The British had constructed gun pits, dugouts, and 2 lines of trenches. The landscape of the village had changed drastically in the previous month. The town had been shelled on a  consistent basis since mid-April. Famous German author Ernst Junger was stationed in Fresnoy before it was turned into a rubble heap. Junger wrote: “As I entered the village at the end of one of these ordeals by fire - as that's what they were - I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform.” From the 6th of May to the 8th it was the Tommy's turn cower in the ruins of village.

On the rainy evening of 7 May reports were received and 2nd Canadian Division’s HQ at 7:20 pm that the German bombardment had intensified, with heavy calibre shells hitting positions between Acheville in the north and Oppy in the south. Around the same time, the German artillery began firing gas shells at suspected targets where Anglo-Canadian artillery guns were located. Gun crews were forced to wear gas masks to minimize the effects of the chlorine gas. The masks saved the lungs of the artillerymen, but it greatly reduced efficiency and ability to rapidly fire the guns.
Map of Canadian Corps Operations,
Fresnoy located on right. Credit: WFA

As the Canadian units were finishing their rotation to the front, all hell broke loose. At 3:45 am, the German attack began. German artillery launched a terrific final bombardment on the town, and then began gassing all nearby road junctions. The rain and mist that night made for very limited visibility for the British defenders. The German commanders picked the most opportune time to attack. They had launched their counter-attack when the weather favoured an assault with poor visibility. Many of the Canadian defenders that were at the front were unfamiliar with their new trenches. The Canucks were unacquainted with this new section of the line. To make matters worse, roughly 1/3 of all the Canadians that were in the trenches that night were fresh faced re-enforcements. They had just come over to France in the days after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and now these green soldiers would face their first fight.

The Bavarian 7th, 19th, and 21st Regiments launched their attack primarily on the British lines and were able to infiltrate the British trenches on the north east section of the line. As the Germans approached the British lines, the rain soaked Lewis Gunner Sgt. Henry Civil went into action. He saw enemy running towards his line in mass formation and he opened fire. Sgt. Civil recalls hitting plenty of Germans that dark early morning, but his efforts could not stem the tide of the attack. The Germans poured down the trenches tossing grenades and firing upon opposition that they encountered. Civil soon realized he was alone, he had held up a platoons of enemy, but he was running low on ammunition and his gun had been damaged beyond repair. He withdrew to the sunken road, which lay to the west of the village (near Arleux).

Map of the German Attack. 8 May 1917
Credit: Google Earth
The Canadians on the left of the British line encountered the Germans at roughly 4:00 am. The enemy had snaked their way up through the British trenches, and were now starting to flank the Canadians. As the flares lit up the night sky, survivors of the battle recall hearing comrades shouting  “there they are!” The Canadians watched the Germans head westward (toward Arleux) in a bunched formation. Private Deward Barnes was Lewis Gun re-enforcement  that arrived in France after the battle of Vimy Ridge with the 19th Battalion. He was ordered to put the Lewis Gun on the parados (on top of the trench) and fire into the backs of the Germans. Eventually Pvt. Barnes was ordered to withdraw to a more defendable position, but after a while the enemy was on the cusp of over running their new line. The officer in-charge of the remains of Barnes' company said, “well boys, we are done, do your duty and fight to the finish.” The Germans entered the trench, and after fierce hand to hand combat and bayonetting, the surviving men were able to retreat further back to a position known as Winnipeg Road where they met up with other men and formed a more stable defence line.

Germans Marching British Prisoners.Survivors of
Fresnoy may be in marching in this group.
 Credit:, Paul Reed
By mid-day it was obvious that Fresnoy was lost. The 12th Battalion Gloucester Regiment lost 288 men, and the 19th Battalion (Central Ontario) lost 236 men, plus another 16 were taken as POWs.  In the aftermath of the battle, several theories were put forth as explanations for the loss of ground. In the 12th Gloucs Official Records, they list several factors such as: “Lack of artillery support of any kind, Lack of aeroplanes, bad weather. . . visibility being NIL, Attempting to hold an impossible salient as a defensive position.” In the Canadian Official History of First World War, the blame falls squarely in the lap of the British artillery. The British narrative assigns guilt to the poor quality of British re-enforcements, noting that the Canadians had men in better physical condition.

Ultimately, the blame for the poor defence should be attached to the commanders, from brigade up to the divisional level. The 2nd Division commander, Gen. Burstall, made the mistake of not launching an immediate counter attack. The wet and muddy conditions on May 8th were advantageous for a counter attack. In a post-battle report, the 5th Bavarian Division noted that almost all machine guns were inoperable due to mud clogging the barrels. Even greater than the mistake of not launching a rapid counter attack, was the pre-battle deployment of nearby units and poor coordination between neighbouring artillery batteries. The 2nd Division held several brigades and batteries behind the relative safety of Farbus Wood. Once the German attack on Fresnoy began, they shelled all routes leading to Fresnoy, cutting off the potential for any substantial reinforcement and counter battery fire. Without reinforcement, the under strength 19th Battalion (at the time of attack it had 687 men - at full strength it was supposed to have roughly 1,000 men) was forced to try and save Fresnoy, which was an near impossible task.


Friday, 11 May 2012

3 May 1917, Fresnoy - 3rd Battle of the Scarpe

Photograph of Vimy Ridge monument
with battlefield in the foreground.
Credit: Anglo-celtic-connections

2012 marks the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Arras. The British led offensive started on the 9th of April and concluded on the 16th of May 1917. Historians predominately from the United Kingdom have led the charge in commemorating the anniversary of the Arras campaign.  As for my fellow Canadians, our interest in the campaign starts and ends with the battle of Vimy Ridge (9 – 12th April 1917).Vimy’s importance to the psyche of Canadians is measured by our national First World War monument that was constructed on Vimy Ridge. As for the 3rd Battle of the Scarpe or the other 34 days of the Arras offensive? Canadians know very little if anything at all; even Canadian Historians have very little interest in studying or writing about the Arras Campaign after the Canadian victory at Vimy.

Another View of Vimy Ridge Memorial.
Credit: Google Images
Many English tourists that travel by ferry over the English Channel often make their first rest stop at Canada’s monument at Vimy Ridge. Even the most uninterested of visitor, laden with sandwiches in the French countryside cannot help but be amazed at the representation of Mother Canada mourning her sons. Vimy is a tempting subject for historians; it was an overwhelming surprise victory that took place on Easter Monday, with Canadian Corps losing 10,602 men (3598 KIA).  The battles that followed on the Douai plain like Fresnoy seem like an operational maneuver compared to Vimy. In my view, the Battle of Fresnoy, is just as important as Vimy. The attack and defence of Fresnoy demonstrates that the Canadian victory at Vimy was not luck or a one off victory. By May 1917 the Canadian Corps had become one of the premier fighting forces on the Western Front, comparable with the ANZACs and our British counterparts.

Aerial view of the Hindenberg Line and
Bullecourt, taken in 1920. Two years after
war had ended, the line was still a powerful
defensive position. Credit: Wikipedia
Before proceeding, a brief overview of situation on the ground is needed. By late April 1917, the British Arras offensive had almost run out of steam. On the other side of no man’s land, the Germans had moved to the vicinity of the Hindenburg line, and refused to give more ground. The Hindenburg Line was an impressive constructed network of German defensive fortifications, tunnels, trenches, barbed wire and bunkers. In the north, the Canadians had captured Vimy Ridge overlooking Douai Plain and the German lines. Allied artillery now had observation of enemy movements, trenches, and supply columns for several kilometres. In the centre, the British had launched two separate offensives with very limited results. At the southern flank, the Australians were stuck in pitched struggle at Bullecourt and Lagnicourt.

Happy Canadians who captured Vimy Ridge
returning to rest billets on motor lorries, May 1917
Credit: Library and Archives
On 3 May 1917, the 3rd and final Battle of the Scarpe began. After the war, a British military historian wrote that the first day of combat as “a day which many who witnessed it considered it to be the blackest day of the war.” The British continued their attack in the centre, with minimal results, and the Australians resumed the near suicidal battle of Bullecourt. The Canadian objective on 3 May was to capture a village of Fresnoy, a 1000 yards to east of Arleux.

Map of the Battle of Fresnoy, 3 May 1917.
Credit: Official History of the Canadian
Army in the First Word War: Canadian
 Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, G.W.L. Nicholson
The red-roofed village of Fresnoy was positioned between two wood lands. The 1st Canadian Brigade (Ontario) was assigned the objective. The 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario) was to capture the town, and the 1st and 3rd Battalions were to secure the wooded areas located on the sides of the town. The Canadians rehearsed the assault for two days on mock enemy positions, akin to the operational preparation to the attack on Vimy Ridge.

 In the German trenches, soldiers were on a high state of alert after nearly a month of combat. German intelligence sensed another push after witnessing a build-up of troops along the Allied lines. At roughly the time as the British offensive began, the Germans began to shell the British and Canadian lines. A duel between the German and British heavy and medium artillery commenced.

As both sides shelled each other, the signal was given to launch the attack. The Canadian rolling barrage hit Fresnoy at 3:45am, cutting much of the enemy wire. Many Germans from the 25th Reserve Division were forced to seek shelter from the inferno of shells and shrapnel. The artillery pounded and careened into the trench network that surrounded the French village. Following behind the screen of exploding earth and sandbags was the attacking Canadians. In effort to repulse the attack, German machine gun fire raked the approaches to the village; luckily the darkness hid the Canadians as they approached Fresnoy.

Examining a Skull found on a battlefield
of Vimy Ridge. Credit: Library and Archives
Once the Canadians had breached the wire in front of the village, the 3rd Battalion swung south, clearing out the German trenches with enfilading fire. The 3rd Battalion had captured 500 yards beyond their objective (support lines), but in the process they had sustained high losses, losing 1 of their 3 assault companies, roughly 200 men. In the northern sector of the attack, the 1st Battalion quickly overcame the enemy wire, and advanced upon the trenches parallel to the woods known as Fresnoy Park. The 1st Battalion had the easiest task of the 3 units on 3 May, their assigned objective was lightly held and quickly taken.

Canadian writing home from the line, May 1917
Credit: Library and Archives
In the centre of the attack, the 2nd Battalion’s attack was carried out with surgical pin-point accuracy. The three machine gun posts that guarded the town had been silenced within minutes with the use of rifle grenades and covering fire as the assault squads advanced upon the German guns. After cleaning out the trench network, the battalion proceeded to secure the town, neutralizing any remaining resistance that they encountered in buildings. By 6am, the battalion was consolidating their newly won position and digging new defences 250 yards east of Fresnoy.

British Stokes Mortar Crew, 1918.
Once enemy commanders realized the nature of the rupture of their line at Fresnoy, two rapid counter-attacks were ordered. Around 10am, the Canadians received a peppering of high explosive shells on Fresnoy. After the shelling had subsided, units from the German 15th Reserve Division were spotted advancing upon the village from the north east. The enemy counter attack was quickly broken up after the British and Canadian artillery unleashed a torrent of shells and machine gun fire among the attacking infantry. In the early afternoon two more units, the German 4th Guard Division and 185 Infantry Division, were ordered into the fray. The second German attack was able to enter into the Canadian lines, but after the arrival of a stokes mortar crew and a liberal use of grenades, the enemy attack could not advance any further and withdrew.

German Prisoners of War helping a
wounded Canadian, Arleux 1917.
Credit: Library and Archive
As the sun set on 3 May 1917, the Canadians had been involved in nearly 16 hours of strenuous defense and assault. They had lost 1,269 men taking Fresnoy. On the German side, the first day of the 3rd Battle of the Scarpe, official records list their deepest losses occurring at Fresnoy. The loss of Fresnoy did not sit well with the German High Command. One German regimental historian wrote that the Canadians had knocked Fresnoy, “out of the German defensive wall which had to be replaced without delay.” The Allies occupying the town had a commanding sight over sections of German trenches in the Oppy-Méricourt line and the Hindenberg Line (Wotan Stellung).

Canadian identifying a deceased
 German soldier, Arras Sector 1917.
Credit: Library and Archives
 In my next entry, I will look at the second major German attack to re-capture Fresnoy on 8 May 1917 and its impact on the Canadian and British lines.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Major Bennett, Peterborough's first war casualty

Credit: Major Bennett Bus,, VB5215

The white and green buses operated by Peterborough Transit are on nearly every major arterial road in the city. The Major Bennett #12 bus is a familiar sight on Aylmer Street and near the newly renovated Lansdowne Place Mall. The commuters that use the Major Bennett route likely haven’t considered the origin of the name. Major Bennett Drive was named after Peterborough’s first casualty of the First World War, Major George Bennett.

Photograph of Major G.W. Bennett,
Credit: Peterborough Examiner, 1915

George Bennett was a prominent resident of the small city of 18,000 people. He was born in 1864 in North Monaghan Township and worked a civil servant for the Government of Ontario. He rose to the prestigious rank of Superintendent of the Department of Public Works overseeing provincial roads in Northern Ontario.  The tall dark haired 49 year old bachelor had served with the local Peterborough militia for over 25 years. After many nights at the Peterborough Armouries on George Street, Bennett received his officer’s commission with the 57th "Peterborough Rangers" Regiment.
Picture of troops in Ypres in June 1915 with bayonets.
Note how the Belgian countryside still had
 trees - not yet mud and siege warfare.
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, 115 soldiers from Peterborough’s 57th Regiment rushed to volunteer for overseas service. The eager Peterborough volunteers that were selected for service were to be led by Peterborough’s own Major Bennett. The first batch of Peterborough recruits were assigned to the 1 Company, 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario) in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After months of training in Quebec, and in England, they took their place in the front line against the Germans.

Route of 2nd Battalion on 22 April 1915
Credit: The History of the 2nd Canadian Battalion
(Eastern Ontario Regiment), C.E.F., 1947
At 7pm on 22 April 1915, the Bennett’s battalion witnessed the first use of chlorine gas in warfare. Click here to read about the attack. Bennett and his men were stationed in reserve in rest billets (huts) in the town of Vlameringhe, Belgium. Witnesses from the 2nd Battalion recall watching French troops stagger past the Canadian lines in full retreat; some soldiers “dropping into ditches in convulsions of vomiting.” By 8:30pm, the commander of 3rd Brigade, war hero and holder of the Victoria Cross, Richard Turner was in a complete panic. He ordered immediate assistance to help launch an attack that would get the Germans out of Kitcheners’ Wood. It would take several hours of marching on Belgian roads, stopping intermittently to let ambulances with wounded soldiers pass, before the 2nd Battalion arrived at the designated rendezvous point.

Photograph of the remains of
 Kitcheners' Wood, taken in 1918.
Credit: Great War Forum
Photograph of Kitcheners' Wood,
 June 1917.
At roughly 10 pm, the first two Canadian units attempted to retake Kitcheners’ Wood. Attacking from southerly direction, the 16th Battalion and 10th Battalions made a 200 yard running charge over open ground, facing fire from the chattering German machine guns as they entered into the woods. Within minutes the attack had stalled, the commander of the 10th Battalion lay bleeding to death after receiving 5 bullets to the groin. His men were now engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with Germans in the east, west and in the interior of the wooded area. By the time roll call came next morning, the 16th Battalion only had 193 men out of 813. The 10th Battalion’s casualties were much worse, in a report made three days after the battle; an officer wrote that the unit only has “a small party of men” left.

Location of Kitcheners' Wood and
 Canadian Monument.
Credit: Google Maps
By 1:30am on the morning of 23 April 1915, the 2nd Battalion reported for duty at Mouse Trap Farm. After a quick debriefing of the situation in the woods, it was decided that 2nd Battalion would link up with the units that were already in Kitcheners’ Wood and revive the faltering attack. Three of the four companies of the 2nd Battalion were assigned roles in the attack. No. 3 Company to take the left flank, and No. 2 Company was to swing to the north east (on the right) and link with the men already in the forest and help defend the line.  Following in support was Major Bennett’s No. 1 Company. Bennett’s unit was assigned the task of following the other units (down the middle) of the battalion and act as fire support.
Map of 2nd Battalion Advance. Includes location of No. 1 Coy
attack. Credit: Google Maps

As Major Bennett and his men felt their way forward in the dark, they could see and hear the muzzle flashes and sound of gun fire on their left flank. They knew that their comrades in No. 3 Company needed assistance. After reaching cover of a hill, Bennett ordered a scout to report on the developing situation. After examining the terrain and referencing his position on a map, Major Bennett crawled back to his men. The battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Watson, approached Bennett’s lagging troops.  Watson bellowed to his subordinate that an attack must be carried out before morning. Major Bennett lay on his stomach on the side of a hill with his men awaiting orders, he may have thought of the irony of being in a farm field similar to his own, only thousands of miles away from North Monaghan. Bennett was told to attack, and as a good soldier he would follow that order.

 As dawn began to break the night sky over Langemarck, Major Bennett prepared to meet his destiny. Bennett put his whistle to his lips, grabbed his service revolver out of the holster, and ordered his men to fix bayonets. After the 15 inch steel blades snapped onto the rifles, the Major stood up and ordered the men to get up. He inhaled.  Waving his arm forward he blew his whistle and charged over the hill.

The German troops in Kitcheners’ Wood saw the soldiers from Peterborough as they descended down the sloping hill. Within seconds, the Germans unleashed a storm of bullets against the Canadians as they ran directly at the German line. As a leader of infantry charge, Major Bennett was one of the first men to be hit. Survivors of the failed attack on Kitcheners’ Wood wrote back to family in Peterborough that Major Bennett was killed instantly when he was hit in the head and stomach with a burst of machine gun fire. Private James Bills of Sherbrooke Street, who was wounded in the charge, wrote back home: “The Canadians did grandly the past few weeks, but our company lost every officer in one day. . . He [Bennett] was loved by all men in the company, and, believe me, they would follow him anywhere.”

             Photograph of George Bennett and No. 1 Company, 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion.
         The picture taken 3 days before the attack, 19 - 20th April 1915 in Belgium. Major
               Bennett is identified by his crouched stance in the front-centre of the photo.                    
Credit: Personal Collection published in Examiner, May 1915
The 2nd Battalion attack on Kitcheners’ Wood failed. Almost all of the soldiers No. 1 Company were killed or wounded in the charge.  After two days of fighting, the battalion had 494 soldiers at roll call; 540 of the 1,034 men in the unit had died, been wounded or captured. On April 25th 1914, the first news of the battle arrived in Peterborough. Initially, the news reported that the Canadians had succeeded; eventually word came to prepare for large numbers of causalities. On April 28th came the news of Bennett’s death. Letters of condolence poured in from the premier, Prime Minister, and city councillors. In early May a large Anglican memorial service was held in Bennett’s honour. The service included a solemn prayer for all the families in Peterborough that were in mourning or waiting to hear information of their relatives in Ypres. His death represented the war coming to Peterborough. For residents of the city, the Great War was no longer a European side show that they read about in the paper.