If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Lost in the Woods

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To carry forward the notion of a continued spirit of Remembrance,I’m going to digress from my usual style of offering a discussion piece on the First World War, and tell one of my own stories.  On the most part, my military background is merely anecdotal, but the majority of my experiences in this environment seem to involve to some degree my Company Sergeant Major, now Captain Ron Alkema.  It seems his name has been coming up recently as there is an effort under way to help find a photograph of him and his son taken at a rather precious moment during the Regiment’s Remembrance Parade. 

CSM Alkema was a wiry, tough man who had a long service of experience and great knowledge of his trade.  He was assigned as the Platoon Warrant (a Warrant Officer serving as second in command to the platoon’s officer) to QL2 9411, my basic training serial.  My first day in the army, the first words Warrant Alkema said to me were “fix your fucking headdress, troop.”  Over the course of my training, and beyond when I was assigned as a rifleman in A Company, where he was the Sergeant Major, there developed a number of times in which our interactions are cause for thought.  A running joke about chicken stew or the incident where I went into the field wearing a pair of puttees come readily to mind
However, it was a force on force patrolling exercise that I address this public column as until now, much like a certain Douglas Adams story involving cookies, the other half has never heard the punch line.  I was tasked to bring my three man reconnaissance (recce) patrol to a particular patch of a distant grid square.

My navigation, I would like to think, is tight.  I’ve taught lectures on use of map and compass, so to figure a route based on a staggered approach, with way-points including the ruins (MTSC Meaford near Collingwood, Ontario has a wealth of stone foundations left from the farm buildings that used to dot the area) where we would hold up until dark, with a separate return route was an easy affair.  On paper.

Soon after we set out, the man I had assigned as the pacer (an independent counter of distance) told me he didn’t know how to pace.  That was a minor concern as it quickly became apparent that despite shooting proper bearings we had come off course somehow.  Two problems could be to blame.  The map might be sufficiently out of date so as landmarks and features may be different, or the compass might be set to a different magnetic declination than the area calls for. (there is a difference in declination between Meaford and CFB Borden, the two bases we went to for exercises, enough to require an adjustment.  If a compass is set for when while at the other, it’s fair easy to get lost.)

My little band never quite made it to our objective.  Even after cheating by closely following roads and trails in a fashion known as “handrailing”, we got close, but had to turn back due to time concerns and the fact that besides all else, the radio wasn’t working.

Turns out that the “enemy” was exactly where I was supposed to be looking for them.  As our two other patrols had made their objectives and found nothing, process of elimination put them in my patch.  Our objective was to move out as a platoon, lay up in the woods down a slight rise about fifty meters from the supposed position and assault at first light.  Small problem being we didn’t know how they were laid out and what assets they had, as it would have been my job to provide that information.

All things considered the assault went well, having caught the enemy after they had gone into morning routine following the first light “stand to.”  After the exercise was called over, Sergeant-Major Alkema pulled me aside to have a word.
“I understand you had some problems getting to your objective, Corporal Harvie.” He said by way of prodding me to give my input.

“I can’t figure it Sar’nt Major, could be an old map, or the compass declination.”

“It’s a poor navigator who blames his map and compass.” And that, to him is the end of the story, as he walked away after making that statement. 

The real problem, I found out later, had to do with the fact that I am left handed.  Now, CSM Alkema is left handed himself, so just on the face of it, the explanation requires further background.  When I was fourteen, I broke my left arm in a spectacular fashion.  A metal plate affixed to the ulna with six screws was required to properly set the fractures.  Years later, attempting to shoot bearings with a compass in my left hand would result in a seemingly unfathomable inconsistency between my class work and field craft.

If you see Captain Alkema, could you please set him straight on this?

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