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.

Monday, 27 October 2014

We Stand on Guard for Thee

It has been a difficult week in Canada.  Two separate attacks have left two members of our armed forces dead and a country in shock. 

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in trying to figure out how my voice, within this space might make an appropriate tribute to the sacrifice WO Vincent and Cpl Cirillo made.  Perhaps it is best to help understand the significance of where Cpl Cirillo had been performing his duty, as an Honour Guard at our Monument to the First World War’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The First World War was the first large scale conflict to pitch countries at a new industrial peak against each
other.  Industrialisation dictated the scale and the method by which the war was fought.  Death was essentially manufactured and delivered by the benefits of what had been, until then, a benevolent development which had promised so much for the positive advancement of mankind.  That so many were killed and wounded in such a conflict was shocking, but if regarded objectively against numbers of people involved overall with the methods and machines employed on the battlefield, not surprising.  What remains such, even one hundred years on is the outstanding numbers, from all nations, who are still counted as “missing” or graves which are “unknown.”  Historian and author, Norm Christie, speaking at a recent First World War Symposium in Toronto reminded his audience that “of 70,000 Commonwealth deaths, half have no known grave, and a quarter of that number have not been found.” Part of the melancholy of World War One may not lie in the broader ideals of an inconclusive conflict, but perhaps within the lives of those touched by an individual inconclusive fate.[1] That figure indicates 87,500 individuals who’s final resting place is not identified.

The chief cause of casualties in the war was artillery.  In the siege atmosphere of the Western Front, big guns were used to destroy defenses, give cover to the infantry and silence enemy artillery in “counter-battery” fire.  Large shells made to burst overhead to distribute fragments or use the concussive force of high explosive do not create antiseptic casualties.  Quite often, men were obliterated.  These soldiers became missing not because know one knew where they were, but because their bodies no longer existed in any recognisable sense.

Adding to this is the need -both pressing and humanly towards our sympathy and reverence for our dead and practicalities involving hygiene and morale- to bury the dead as soon as situationally possible.  With the static nature of the war, and the speed of which these burials were made, often the battle would revisit these sites, churning and disinterring these hasty graves; or burial sites themselves would become lost.  Mr Christie’s “latest project is the investigation of and search for a burial plot, designated as CA40. It is known to be the last resting place of 44 individuals of the 16th Bn (Canadian Scottish). The exact location having been lost over time, it is believed to be a mass grave made from a mine crater in no man’s land somewhere in the Vimy area of operations. With adequate funding the possibility of surveying with ground penetrating radar might provide the exact location, probably at a depth of 7-10 metres.[2]

All of the missing was to leave an immense sentiment of a lack of closure.  This need eventually became intrinsically linked with the body created first to establish permanent grave sites for the war dead.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was established by Royal Charter in May, 1917 (initially as the Imperial War Graves Commission).  By 1918 its members had identified 587,000 graves and determined a further 559,000 dead with no known grave.[3]Their service continues today, as illustrated by the mission statement posted on their website:  “The Commonwealth War Graves Commission ensures that 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. We care for cemeteries and
memorials at 23,000 locations, in 153 countries. Our values and aims, laid out in 1917, are as relevant now as they were almost 100 years ago.”[4] Part of this manifesto is that every individual be remembered, regardless of their status of having an identified burial or not.  In the decade following the war, great monuments would be erected to the missing, each one differing in style but including a common theme- the engraved names of those still not found. At the dedication of the Menin Gate Memorial Field Marshal Lord Plumer said: "He is not missing, he is here.”[5] The Memorial bears the “names of more than 54,000 officers and men, including almost 7,000 Canadians and 6,000 Australians.... Some of these men may still lie where they fell in what was once a battlefield a century ago.[6]

Even before this occurred, there was felt a need, even if it were mostly symbolic, to alleviate the sense of unrecovered loss.  A clergyman deeply affected by an anonymous grave began to push for the notion of a formal interring of an unidentified body to represent all who shared this fate. “A chaplain at the Front, the Reverend David Railton (1884-1955), when he noticed in 1916 in a back garden at Armentières, a grave with a rough cross on which were pencilled the words ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’ In August 1920 he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, through whose energies this memorial was carried into effect.”[7]

This notion was carried on by other countries wishing to make a similar tribute.  Canada was no exception to this, selecting one of the 1,603 graves of unknown Canadians buried in the vicinity of Vimy Ridge.  “In May 2000, the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier who died in the First World War were repatriated from France and, with great ceremony, were buried in a special tomb in front of the National War Memorial in Ottawa”[8]

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was created to honour the more than 116,000 Canadians who sacrificed their lives in the cause of peace and freedom. Furthermore, the Unknown Soldier represents all Canadians, whether they be navy, army, air force or merchant marine, who died or may die for their country in all conflicts - past, present, and future.”[9]  Which means that Cpl Cirillo, in performing his duty was doing so in honour of WO Vincent who had been killed earlier in the week.  Now as we go forward, Cpl Cirillo himself is honoured by those who continue to stand where he was.  Let it ever be so.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Faithful Forever

Last week’s post, “Extended Family” which briefly investigated the essential nature of the regimental system has become one of this site’s most well-received essays.  With that in mind and that this past Friday, the 17th of October was the 123d anniversary  of the establishment of my Regiment, the 48th Highlanders of Canada, I’d like to continue my examination of this system which links and bonds present to past in a more intimately personal way.  Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcome, and this space can be followed through Twitter and Facebook.

On the evening of October 4th, I travelled into Toronto to attend, at St. Andrew’s Church on King St, a
Photo courtesy Marika Pirie
program of remembrance titled “Voices of War, Dreams of Peace.”  St. Andrew’s, founded in 1837 is stone building which has had the entertainment district of the city spring up around it.  The interior, with a huge cantilevered ceiling and a gilded, domed nave is about as ostentatious as a Presbyterian church is allowed to be.  During the war, 166 men, some twenty-five percent of the Church’s congregation volunteered for service overseas.  Twenty-eight never returned, but it struck me that the line from then to now is quite probably maintained by those present who descend from that congregation-as well as me by proxy of sharing a regimental link to many of those men.  The observance began on a solemn note with a reading from a list of the 28 parishioners who had died; all but one was younger than I am now.

Reverend Will Ingram, St. Andrew’s presiding minister told the audience that this event “Draws together significant strands and strains of the community,” that we should “consider the ways (the war) touched the congregation.  We as a nation are wrestling with our duality of a peaceful nature and war even now.”  Responsible for organising the event was the 15 Battalion CEF Memorial Project, who have sought to install plaques commemorating the Battalion’s efforts in Belgium and France in WWI.  It’s certainly no co-incidence that St. Andrew’s was chosen as the venue.  Not only has it served as the Regimental Church of the 48th, its members were instrumental in the founding of the Regiment in 1891.

48th Highlanders departing for Valcartier, Sep 1914
A group of prominent Toronto businessmen with strong Scottish associations, including membership of St. Andrew’s had wanted to establish a Highland regiment as part of the Active Militia.  Earlier that year, these men formed a Regimental Committee, petitioning the government in Ottawa to authorise the formation.  To be named “The Queen’s Highlanders”, the Committee selected the Davidson tartan, a badge of a falcon’s head and the motto Dileas Gu Brath (Scot’s Gaelic for “Faithful Forever”) in honour of the family heraldry of John Irving Davidson, a Scots-Canadian banker appointed to be Colonel of the Regiment.[1] The name as requested wasn’t available and as such the Regiment was named numerically on its precedence of establishment-48th.  Authorisation was published in the Oct 17th 1891 edition of the Canada Gazette:  “Authority having been granted for the raising in the City of Toronto, of eight companies of Active Militia of the strength of 42 non-commissioned officers and men per company, to be formed into a Battalion wearing the Highland dress, the Deputy Adjutant General of Military District No. 2 will submit Service Rolls of those persons volunteering for service in those companies.”[2]

By 1914 the young Regiment had already established tradition and a growing reputation.  Reaching into the martial heritage of like units from the home country, a close link of its members to the city it was raised from and service in the overseas contingent in the South African War all ensured a unique identity.  Thus, when designated as the 15th Battalion at Valcartier, they eschewed the enforced numeration except for official purposes.  “In an example of the men’s resistance to the new system, many numbered battalions refused to mask their former militia names.”[3] It may seem presumptuous for a formation of only twenty-three years to cling to heritage; it actually speaks towards the Regiment’s established obstinacy, as illustrated in a photograph of 15 Bn men cadging beers outside of a dry canteen in the training camp.

Professor Tim Cook, on the nature of retaining Militia identity states that “Such allegiances were soon largely artificial”[4] due to loss of men in battle.  I challenge that.  Trappings and traditions generate a homogeneity which would integrate reinforcements into a cohesive structure.  The absence, through death and wounds of the progenitors of the old Militia allegiances in fact would help to strengthen the resolve and purpose of those following as an example to live up to, thus inspiring continued excellence in service in the field.

Second Ypres would be the first, the worst, but by no means the only challenge to maintaining this lineage. 
The Battalion War Diary for the 24th of April states, tersely “Enemy attacked our line of trenches; attacked front line, advanced HQ and St Julien.  Heavy casualties.”[5] A comparison of effective strength returns; that is those available to report for duty lists the numbers of 18 April as 27 Officers, 953 Other Ranks; for 25 April 3 Officers, 316 Other Ranks.[6] The Battalion was shattered in its defence of St Julien and desperate hold of the line in the face of chlorine gas and dedicated German attacks.  The men’s Ross Rifles had failed, Colt machine guns had overheated but they had carried on regardless, and mostly leaderless.  To have done otherwise would have been a disservice to the traditions so strongly held.  The centre line at 2nd Ypres wasn’t maintained because the consequence of failure would allow a German breakthrough, but because the men of the Battalion wouldn’t let each other down.

The Battalion was first reinforced by “holding companies” which had been left in England, and received
further reinforcement throughout the remainder of the war from the 92nd and 134th Battalions which had been raised in Canada as subsequent Battalions of the parent regiment.[7] All of these subsequent reinforcements would wear the same tartan, display the same badge and be held to the same motto.  It would, time and again, rebuild and carry on in the same spirit, accumulating twenty-one battle honours throughout the war.

The 48th continued in its own way to establish itself beyond its reputation in Flanders hard won.  During the Second World War, with service in Italy and Northwest Europe a further twenty-seven battle honours would be bestowed, along with the nickname “Glamour Boys” for the often noted big city swagger brought to British dance halls.  Today, our slightly cheeky rakishness has lent to a less polite sobriquet, often muttered in exasperation “The F-in’ Forty-Eighth.” The Regiment has continued in their legacy with members serving in Korea, West Germany, Peacekeeping Operations, Afghanistan and several emergency responses domestically.

 Historian George Beal sums up what composed the Regiment and what continues to hold it together in this thought “What has made the Regiment?  What has seen it grow and succeed throughout the years?  Two attributes are the foundation, volunteers and family.”[8]

I am honoured to count myself among individuals such as these.
The Author, prior to Change of Command Parade, June 1995

Dileas Gu Brath

[1] Beal, George W. “Family of Volunteers” An Illustrated History of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, Robin Brass Studio 2001 pg. 11
[2] Canada Gazette Vol. XXV, No. 16, 17 October 1891, pg. 659 Ottawa, Brown Chamberlin, Queen’s Printer
[3] Cook, Tim At the Sharp End Penguin Group (Canada) 2007 pg. 40
[4] Cook, Tim, ibid.
[5] Army Form C 2118 War Diary, 15Bn. CEF report date 24 April 1915
[6] Beal, George W. ibid. pg 45
[7] Beal, George W. ibid. pp 51-2
[8] Beal, George W. ibid. pg 7

Monday, 13 October 2014

Extended Family

It is Thanksgiving in Canada this week, a time for reflection on the things for which we are grateful.  I am personally grateful for my family, and as I feel I will illustrate below, that is inclusive of far more than relations of blood and marriage.  With apologies for not posting last week, due to a minor surgery for which I took time to recuperate, expect to see new content here each week. Comments questions and suggestions are always welcome; please forward them to me through this space or by following on Facebook and Twitter.

The concluding part of the recent series on the formation of the Western Front looked at the role that the First Battle of Ypres played in the unfolding events.  It is hoped that the absolute desperation and near destruction of the BEF was expressed clearly.  For it was at Ypres that the culmination of two months’ 
campaigning had brought the British to a critical point.  Perhaps a good question to ask and shall be examined here is what prevented the British Army from total collapse in morale and effectiveness.  It is, in answering, to be found more a matter of sociology than psychology. 

“First Ypres,” says historian Basil Liddell Hart, “on the British side, was not merely a soldier’s battle but a family battle- against outsiders....when formations were broken up and regiments reduced to remnants, those remnants still held together....After the battle was over, little survived, save the memory of spirit.”[1] A key word in Liddell Hart’s observation is “regiment”; and it is this type of organisational system- often misunderstood or misrepresented, that screwed men’s courage to the sticking place.

The regiment, strictly speaking as a form of military organisation, has a particularly long history, and is a body of men comprised of a number of battalions, structurally below the level known as a brigade.  However, that is far too simplistic a definition; and can even be a bit confusing.  Regiments which have multiple battalions will often have one of these battalions formed with others from separate regiments to make up a brigade.  Within the British Commonwealth, it is more fitting to view the regiment as more of an entity rather than a set number in an organisational table.  Richard Holmes explains on the development of the modern regimental system “To boost recruiting...enhance the status of the soldier in society, and create a system which would link battalions serving abroad with their training and recruiting bases in the United Kingdom, the old numbered regiments of the line, with loose regional affiliations, were combined into county regiments.”[2]

Being set up in a geographical fashion can engender a strong tie between the regiment and the community from which it comes, often adding much to a particular sense of identity, not to mention that the men within would probably have social connections outside of their military association. “On the other hand, recruitment from a single community can lead to a concentrated and potentially devastating local impact if the regiment takes heavy casualties.” [3] One need only look at the devastating loss, still commemorated today of the Newfoundland Regiment on 1st July 1916 for a particular example of how tight geographical recruiting and association can have such an adverse effect.

Within this system, it is a regiment the individual joins when volunteering for the army.  High minded ideals and patriotism may be sufficient inspiration to get a man to the recruiter, but usually aren’t enough to be continually inspirational.  The regiment, due to its size and structure is less abstract than higher military formations and can offer a sense of belonging, of common purpose beyond national allegiance, “No one risks their lives for abstract things.”[4] The bonds formed by men in their training while being indoctrinated into a well established structure means that support in disagreements in the barroom can be transmuted into devotion on the battlefield.

Each regiment, while having commonalities which link it to others within the same national force has within itself unique symbology- in distinctive badges, headdress or uniform- and its own history and traditions which furthers the familial aspect.  “We are all familiar with the need of families to live together in clearly defined territories of dwellings; to take their meals together in a well defined routine; to freely communicate under well established rules; to share a common set of ethics developed in a well thought out doctrine; and to remember various family deeds, birthdays and other emotional celebrations in a well balanced program of work and play. These and other institutions and practices are required to preserve and maintain a healthy family life.”[5] A soldier is led to believe that his regiment is best- an attitude which is actively encouraged.  This may set a negative pretext for rivalries among regiments, but generally the effect is that in which if a man believes he is part of something highly valued he can be relied upon to perform as such. 

Rigid and pseudo-familial structure may instill an inflexible class structure which seems out of place in an egalitarian society, but it is a definite requirement to the maintenance of stiff discipline under extreme conditions.  “The ‘thin khaki line’ withstood a strain that lasted for weeks compared with the hours of the past.”[6] Liddell Hart credits the BEF’s battlecraft, particularly marksmanship coupled with high morale as the decisive factors to victory at 1st Ypres.  In a treatise on the regimental system, BGen DG Loomis corroborates these ideas: “In our volunteer force of citizen-servicemen the essentials of democracy have been maintained in our infrastructure (of) messes and institutes as well as our special culture of customs and procedures which cut across the formal lines of responsibility required for instant reaction under fire. In battle most effective combat units are those in which the social pressures generated by our mess and institutional life are blended with the military authority of our chain of command to form the right amalgam needed to master the situation of the moment.”[7]

“In Canada, the regiment is a formation of one or more units; existing almost exclusively for reasons of heritage, the continuance of battle honours and esprit de corps. Most Canadian infantry regiments are reserve units composed entirely of one under-strength battalion of between 100-250 soldiers. The three regular force infantry regiments each consist of three regular force battalions of approximately 600 soldiers, in addition to one or more reserve battalions. Canadian battalions are employed tactically and administratively within mechanized brigade groups for regular units, or light brigade groups for reserve units.”[8] Many of the pre-war regiments of the Active Militia which were to become part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First Contingent lacked requisite numbers to form full battalions.  As a result, and as part of a notion by Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia, to form an overtly Canadian force, regimental identities were disallowed, and battalions were organised with no reflection of regimental heritage.  A badge, in the form of a maple leaf embossed with the battalion number would become a rather generic identifier.  While the result of this was largely positive- inspiring men to think and identify in a more national sense than regional, it also casually discarded the benefits which come with a strong link to tradition and heritage.  This line may well be a farther reach than the young history of Canada allows as many of the country’s regiments take homage, name and tradition from existing British units. 

Not having strong ties to tradition and memory but unifying the Force under a national identity may have proven a positive influence in the long run, but certainly missed an opportunity to use the resources a strong
social bond the regimental system creates. While the lack of a long history within the newly raised, generically numbered battalions of the CEF can’t be conclusively applied as reasoning for confused performance at 2nd Ypres, it’s presence in some battalions may be indicative of the stalwart defense of the collapsing line.  The 15th Battalion was one of the few formations in the First Contingent which was formed using members of a single Militia regiment.  They disdained the generic badge and an officers’ council elected to retain the Highland uniform and traditional identifying badges off the parent regiment, the 48th Highlanders.  As such, with strong bonds of lineage, it can be deduced that the 15th Bn held the line for the same reasons their British counterparts had done six months prior, evidenced even further by “C” Company holding out to the last man in order to allow the other companies to redeploy.  The 15th’s stand had slowed the German advance and had bought time to form a secondary line of defense.  It cost the battalion the entire compliment of “C” Company, mostly as prisoners.  All told, the 15th lost 647 casualties, the worst single day’s loss by a Canadian battalion in the entire war.[9]

[1] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg 131
[2] Holmes, Richard “Tommy, The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918” Harper Perennial, 2005, pg 104
[3] Wikipedia.org, entry “Regimental System”
[4] Loomis, DG “The Regimental System” Royal Canadian Regiment Paper (.pdf), 1974, pg 7
[5] Loomis, DG, ibid, pg 9
[6] Liddell Hart, Basil, ibid, pg 130
[7] Loomis, DG, ibid, pg 9-10
[8] Wikipedia.org, entry “Regimental System”
[9]  Marteinson, John “We Stand on Guard”: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army, Ovale Publications, 1992,pg 113