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.


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Living Underground

I'd like to express my gratitude for all of your patience last week as I was preoccupied with yet another frustrating confrontation with my internet provider.  Wind Mobile seems to have far too many policies in effect which enable them to not deliver services paid for.  The upshot is they acquiesced (only after threatening them with the Better Business Bureau) and I have service well into March.  Shame on me if I fail to engage another, more reliable provider by that point.

On to some good news.  I've recently heard about Leadership Grants, a group designed to financially assist new and emerging small businesses, including ones geared to Not-for-Profit.  They make a review of submissions in April, so I've got a little time to put a solid business plan and proposal together.  It's just this kind of jump start that can get "If Ye Break Faith" under weigh.  It wouldn't be possible if there weren't people like you reading my work and supporting the ideals this project represents.  We're coming up on some interesting times real soon, so if you haven't, please follow along with us on Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date on things as they develop.

Not having tools, I've had a neighbour help to drive some screws to hang my paintings.  I'm grateful for that as now the print of "The Battle of Vimy Ridge" by Richard Jack is finally up on my wall.  It's taken a while because I'm generally not that handy; which is why I didn't join the Engineers.  I'm certainly glad of them, though.  Armies have used the asset of skilled labour since the dawn of warfare.  They built siege engines, forded rivers, prepared winter camps.  When taking a castle under siege, the engineers were responsible for digging ditches to approach the foundation under cover to attempt to breach the wall.  These ditches were called saps, and is why engineers today take pride in the title "Sapper."

There was no short need for engineers during the First World War.  Countries at a crescendo of the Industrial Revolution were waging an industrial conflict against the other.  Under expected circumstances engineers would have been called to keep lines of supply and transportation open.  Often supplemented by surplus labour from infantry units "at rest", they would build roads and lay rail line.  The war as it happened solidified into an extension of siege warfare from an age gone by giving opportunity for the engineers to be utilized to their fullest.

Trench systems, though begun at opportunity, must become well organised to provide protection for the troops and be as defensible a position as possible.  Engineers would have been responsible for designing trench layout and troubleshooting building issues like the high drainage in Flanders where a complex system of pumps and drains were needed to keep trenches dry.

It occurred at some level that frontal attack without adequate reduction of the enemy position prior to jumping off was just not on.  While the artillery went through it's own remarkable learning curve through the war to deliver death from above, some very special engineers were put to the task to deliver death from below.

It is difficult to remember a world that ran on coal, but the turn of the last century was an age yet to really come to terms with the potential of petroleum.  Many young men who left for the war came up from the mines only for many of them to wind up back down in them.

The purpose was to sink a shaft from friendly lines, tunnel towards enemy trenches, and clear a large gallery below a predetermined point.  The gallery would be packed with the high explosive ammonal and linked to an electronic charge for detonation at the right moment before an attack.  The mining was just as physically dangerous as going down a seam back home.  There was risk of collapse, ventilation problems, and, in Flanders, flooding.  Civil miners would have had some experience with explosives, but hardly on the scale they were called to in the war.  That, and the enemy was attempting the exact same thing.  The war underground escalated and developed in it's own way, much as the rest of the war shifted as the next ingenuity conferred advantage to the first side to use it.

Now tunnels were not only being built to destroy trenches, but to listen for and intercept enemy mines.  Weapons and equipment designed or modified to work best in cramped and dark conditions were quickly adopted.  At the same time, the method of how the tunnels were dug lent exclusively to the skills and technique of those most familiar with the work.

It becomes difficult to imagine.  As I said, I'm not that handy in the first place, and couldn't bear to be enclosed underground even in the best of circumstances.  Nor could I, for that matter, imagine the feeling of standing on a fire step, looking out into no-man's-land, never entirely certain that there wasn't several tonnes of explosive directly underneath me waiting for the word "go" to vapourise the immediate surrounding area.

And perhaps that's a good exercise for today.  Let's try to imagine what that must feel like.  There's no certainty of knowing, but an attempt at empathy will help keep current what immense sacrifices were made.


Thursday, 9 February 2012

Objective: Objectivity

It has been far longer than I had hoped between my last essay and this one.  I'd like to thank you all for sticking with me through this little rough patch; particularly those of you whom have followed me recently despite lack of addition of new content.  Both the Facebook Page and Twitter Feed for this work remain active, so please check them out and follow along to show your support.

Just what is it that I'm encouraging you to support, you ask?  "If Ye Break Faith" is many things.  Right now it's not much more than a showcase for an enthusiastic amateur historian keen on building his portfolio and expressing thoughts on the First World War.  "If Ye Break Faith" does have the potential to move beyond this and take on the mantle of a Not for Profit group dedicated to the cause of continual and analytical historical education.  We're a long way off from that.

On that note, I'd like to state that efforts on my part to expand the audience; a crucial step in moving this work forward, have not gone to plan.  As the plan was flawed, I'm not disappointed with the result.  I don't wish to force this project into a wider scope before it's ready and I still enjoy the grassroots effect of accepting new readers in a trickle rather than a flow.  The project retains an air of person-ability more so in this fashion than wanting to reach thousands at one go.  It will happen, just not yet; and I'd rather it come naturally than by coercion.

 When I say that "If Ye Break Faith" wishes to propagate historical education, I stand firm in the camp which believes that our current approach on the most part is incorrect.  The difficulty is that as history tells our stories of the past, it is nigh-on impossible to treat any study of the past without subjectivity.  The danger in this is any dissemination of fact not taken as objectively as possible risks losing a great part of what we might be able to learn.  The tautology is that in order to understand our present and be best prepared for the future, we should be incorporating the lessons history has given us.

If we, though, cling to bias on national, personal or creedal lines we fail to gain a complete understanding.  My thought is:  What we don't understand, we fear.  What we fear, we hate.  In order not to succumb to hatred we therefore must understand as much and as completely as possible.  Divesting ourselves of bias and prejudice in historical study would go a long way to rectifying cultural understanding.

It is not an easy task.  Looking at my library, I can point to any number of well written and researched books by prominent authors.  I continually use them for reference or read them for enjoyment.  However, most of these books treat the subject matter far more subjectively than otherwise; mainly a pro-British (and Empire) bias which can tend to overlook aspects which might influence thought otherwise.  At the very least, they do nothing to disabuse us of long held perceptions of our past rooted more in emotional ties than removed observation.  Two of my least popular posts, "Taking the Ridge" and "Over There" stand as proof that expressing ideas contrary to popular perception are not well received.  Books I have to hand which treat the subject with objectivity or set out to purposely disassemble preconceived notions are among the least popular and controversial titles I own; and even among those cultural and natural bias on the part of the author are still present.

I've engaged in debate with my peers on this topic, many of whom claim no qualms with history as it is studied today and has been studied throughout.  Some recognize the validity of my argument but maintain that emotionally removing oneself to view events objectively is just not possible.  I'd like to challenge that, with one sentence.

The first of July, 1916.  What did that inspire you to think about?  Perhaps the "Flower of British Youth" sent forward with cheerful naivete into an impossible attack by uncaring generals ignorant of the way in which war had changed and unaware of the conditions at the front.  How many of you accounted the overall situation of the war, Western Front and beyond which dictated the time and place of the British offensive at the Somme?  Haig had wished to attack in Flanders that spring but was held to obligations to directly support his French allies, necessitating an attack further south on ground unfamiliar to commanders and front line troops alike.  Working with undertrained assets of the New Armies, the offensive was slated to begin much later but the French drain on manpower due to the siege at Verdun dictated the British attack sooner rather than later.  Not to mention, of course, the actual returns of the day.  The rate of British units achieving their objectives on the first day may not have been stellar, but would probably stand to surprise a great many.

We hear "Sixty-thousand casualties", "Absolute slaughter", "Lost generation" and other evocative statements so often that is becomes a difficult task to divorce ourselves from an emotive response.  I'm guilty of it as well, but as much to be gained by attaching our emotional sensibilities to history, so much more is lost in lack of thoroughness.  Going forward, I hope I can deliver on my desire to take as wide and all-encompassing view as is possible.  There is so much more to learn that way.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on this, or any other subject I've touched upon.  Please post responses, questions or comments in the section below, via Facebook or Twitter, or by email to ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com.