From Books To Battlefields

July 1, 2004 by Dan Black

photos by Dan Black

Royal Military College officer cadets (from left) Michael St. Pierre, Neil Pettitt, Andre Gascon and Karla Lyster emerge from a pillbox that has fallen from its wartime position overlooking the beach at Puys. France.

Step beyond the lines you’ve read and venture onto the fields or beaches. Feel the ground beneath your feet and take a deep breath. Look around; orient yourself to the complexities of the ground and try to figure out what was at stake. Now listen to the people who not only teach military history, but know what works and what doesn’t from a tactical point of view.

It’s the perfect learning opportunity if you’re interested in Canada’s military past, especially if you’re studying to be an officer in the Canadian Forces.

Take this morning—Feb. 16, 2004. You’re standing on a hill with 14 officer cadets from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. The sun is barely up over Vimy Ridge, but shafts of light are angling toward you through the mist. Above and behind is the sound of dozens of pigeons roosting in the upper reaches of what’s left of the old abbey at Mont St-Éloi. Before you is the vast plain you’ve read about, and you can see mist rising from the furrows. Off to the east is the faint, uneven line of the famous ridge that rises 110 metres above the surrounding lowlands. It is where, they say, Canada became a nation April 9-12, 1917.

The speaker is Major Michael Boire, a professor of history at RMC and an officer of the 12e Régiment blindé du Canada. “This is the first of the big symbols,” he explains while staring up at the abbey’s twin towers. “It is a symbol because it breaks the battlefield for you—the soldier. Because once you come up from the rear area here up onto this ridge line and this line of villages from St-Éloi, you are in the battlefield. You are under observation from the Germans on Vimy Ridge. And so the abbey is a symbol to you. It is also a tactical indication that life is about to get a little more dangerous.”

The young students of military history are eating the info up in large doses. Adds Boire: “Imagine you’re a soldier in the Canadian Corps. You are moving through this area—right down there in front of where we are standing. It is the first time you see the ridge and it looms up at you. And as you go by Mont St-Éloi, these towers are in back of you and the ridge is in front of you. You know where you are on the battlefield because of this reference point—this symbol.”

Boire urges everyone to “absorb it–get a feel for it.”

“When you read a book you don’t get to live what the soldier lived on the line,” says officer cadet Benjamin Richard, 22, of Ottawa, while looking out across the land. “You know what the basic strategy was and you know where they were advancing. You know what kind of objective it is they wanted to capture, but you never get the right feeling of the soldier on the ground.”

Richard says by combining his military training with being “here–right now” and seeing what the soldiers had to take as their objective, makes him feel more of what the soldier felt in 1917. “Knowing this is very important to me because I am an infantry officer and I want to know—as best I can—what it was my predecessors felt when they were in one of the biggest wars of our time.”

As we move along, Boire carefully lays out the battlefield, explaining its history and the location of things. “In front of you and all around you are the gun lines for the attack. There are piles and piles of artillery being delivered to the gun positions by miniature railroads…. The great advantage of a static battlefield is that it makes logistics easy.”

He points out where the first and second large French attacks occurred in the summer and fall of 1915 while the Canadians were busy elsewhere. Those attacks claimed the lives of approximately 150,000 French and roughly 80,000 Germans. “It is so hard to comprehend those numbers,” says officer cadet Nicholas Wheeler, 23, of Stellarton N.S. “A hundred and fifty thousand—that’s like three times the number of people serving in the Canadian Forces today. Imagine losing that many over such a short period of time.”

Blood is blood and the impact of the carnage hits home when you visit the cemeteries. The students are amazed by the size of a German cemetery near the village of la Targette. Shrouded by mist, it is an incredibly sombre place with rows and rows of black crosses stretching to the horizon. “I am just shocked to see this,” says 23-year-old Peter Musters, a Queen’s University student who through an agreement between the two universities is taking the second of two RMC military history courses. “The size of this place is just tremendous, and when I realize there are four men in each grave, I just don’t know what to say except that everyone has paid a price—and far too much.”

Canada suffered more than 10,600 casualties, including nearly 3,600 killed, during the battle for Vimy Ridge, which marked the first occasion when all four Canadian divisions operated as a complete corps. To understand the significance of the objective, you have to get your feet dirty. You have to walk the land and see the ridge from all angles.

Indeed, it is the intense blend of explanations and actual locations that puts the history into perspective, even if the surface of the old battlefields has changed to support modern highways, homes and agricultural operations. “Once you are here, you can see it for yourself,” says Wheeler. “You can see how hard it would have been for the soldiers to take this ridge.”

After flying from Toronto to Paris, the students, four instructors and the principal of RMC, Dr. John Scott Cowan, board a coach and head north to Arras, but before arriving at their hotel they tour the Somme battlefields of Courcelette, Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel.

Following their extensive Vimy Ridge tour, which included several stops that provided Canadian as well as German perspectives, the group hits the road again to study the battles at Moreuil Wood and Amiens. The last days of the week-long tour involve close examinations of World War II sites, including Dieppe, Juno Beach, Arromanche and Omaha, one of the American landing beaches. They also walk the ground at Verrières Ridge and the countryside in and around the Falaise Gap. Indeed, the tour through Normandy gave the students a much greater appreciation of the bloody cost of the victorious World War II campaign that began on June 6, 1944 and which in June this year marked its 60th anniversary with huge and colourful celebrations.

The other staff on the study tour are Assistant Professor Major Doug Delaney of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Associate Professor Michael Hennessy, head of the history department, and retired lieutenant-colonel John Marteinson, who served 35 years with the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. He also teaches military history at RMC.

With the focus shifted to the fighting in and around Moreuil Wood, Marteinson explains how the Germans had been attacking since March 21 and are on the verge of taking the vital rail centre of Amiens. “Probably as important is the fact that they are on the verge of splitting the British Army, which is up there, from the French army, which is over there. The French are talking about pulling back and defending Paris. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig is seriously considering asking British Prime Minister Lloyd George for authority to pull back to the English Channel…. A lot of British units have simply disappeared. However, the Germans are running out of steam.” He notes that the enemy had overextended itself by using up a lot of troops and outrunning its logistics. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade, meanwhile, was busy maintaining the vital link between the British and the French armies.

Marteinson says spring is in the air by March 30. The leaves are budding. “Moreuil Wood has a lot of undergrowth in it…. Visibility in the woods is probably about 10 yards.”

Colonel J.E.B. Seely—a Brit—is in command of the Cdn. Cavalry Bde., and his headquarters is roughly 1,500 yards from the wood. Marteinson says Seely can only see the top half of the trees from his lower position. He cannot see the ground and he knows there are Germans in the wood, but he doesn’t know where or how many. The squadrons are sent into the wood independently, and when they arrive they have to dismount because of the undergrowth. “There are three squadrons of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, all advancing quite independently from each other and not knowing where the other guy is going. We get two squadrons of Fort Garrys deployed in the same way and two squadrons of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse.”

Marteinson then takes the group on a hike into Moreuil Wood. We get there by following a long, muddy track that skirts the far side of the small, dense forest. As we march along, a huge field stretches out on our right. Back in March 1918, the field was a forest.

After leaving the path, we work our way through the underbrush, where we discover a number of shell holes. The officer cadets also find rusted shell casing and other World War I debris. These finds come as no surprise because the day before—in a field facing Vimy—the group found shell casings, large pieces of shrapnel and at least three hand grenades. We are told that people and farm animals are killed or seriously injured each year by encountering the live stuff after the frost heaves it to the surface.

“The intention in here,” explains Marteinson, “is to drive the Germans out of the woods. What they didn’t know at the time was that there was a whole bag full of German machine-guns in here.” The RMC instructor and editor of the Canadian Military Journal says the number of Germans only became apparent when one of the cavalry squadrons involved in the March 30, 1918 attack—

C Squadron of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse—came around the corner and confronted them. “Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew was leading the squadron and he was in charge mode at that stage. C Sqdn. did indeed charge through the machine-guns, turn around and charge back at them….”

Marteinson says roughly 70 per cent of C Sqdn. were killed or wounded during the attack, which caused the enemy to break and retreat. Flowerdew was wounded and died the next day. “This was a (cavalry) charge with sabres. They succeeded in killing a whole lot of Germans in the course of the charge…. Eventually the squadron got around this end of the woods and tried to recover what men they had left, and tried to pick up the wounded. Almost all of the horses involved in the charge bled to death.”

The lesson for the students was clear: “To deploy an entire cavalry brigade—one squadron at a time as they did here—with no coordination, is not the way to run a railway…. You don’t do that. It is a guaranteed way to lose a battle,” explains Marteinson.

Flowerdew was presented with the Victoria Cross, posthumously.

Aug. 8, 1918—the beginning of the Battle of Amiens—was one of the finest days for the Canadian Corps in World War I. This is because it took just a few hours for the Canadians to drive the enemy an unheard-of eight miles into German-held territory. More than 5,000 prisoners and 161 guns were captured. They had literally crushed the German forces that had faced them. Delaney says the key to victory was the “synergy of combat arms.” He says all the lessons learned up to then came into play. “It is a very modern army at this point. They are constantly on the move, constantly attacking…. Everything clicked.”

For the Germans, the defeat at Amiens was a devastating blow. “August 8 was the black day of the German army in the history of the war,” wrote Germany’s quartermaster general, Erich Ludendorff, who was the de facto commander-in-chief on the Western Front.

With the focus shifted to World War II, the officer cadets visit Dieppe. The Aug. 19, 1942 raid is something they’ve read a great deal about, but nothing compares to getting onto the rocky beach where you can view the promenade and jetty, as well as the towering east and west headlands. Delaney gives a brief history lesson and then describes what the soldiers faced that day. “There is fire coming at them from four different directions when they arrive on this beach. There are guns in front of them, guns on the east and west headlands and guns behind them on the jetty. It is interlocking arcs of fire…. It is not a very good place to be…. This is a daylight attack on an opposed, defended beach. There is very little fire support—four destroyers is not much at all.”

Marteinson says 17 or 18 tanks got up onto the promenade. However, communications broke down. The tanks could not break into the town because the Germans had blocked the roads. All they could do was roll up and down the promenade, shooting at Germans and trying to help the infantry. “There was only a limited amount of what they could do because the guns didn’t have any high-explosive shells. They only had solid shot. The machine-gun was the only useful thing they had to assist the infantry.”

“This really has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had,” says officer cadet Marc Wallis, 23, of Milford, N.S., after walking the beach and venturing out onto the jetty. “I now have a better understanding of what they went through when they landed here, but just how sad it must have been for them and for those bringing the (landing) crafts ashore—opening those doors and realizing there was no chance for them. It is a very powerful image.”

“Being here gives you a greater appreciation for what happened, especially for us today when we can go out and see what they were supposed to do and see how unrealistic their objectives were,” says officer cadet Jaime Phillips, 21, originally from Fredericton.

“We are all military, and because most of us are going to be officers we owe it to the guys who died here—who fought here—to not let something like this happen again,” says officer cadet Reginald McMichael, 22, of Sarnia, Ont.

After touring the main beach, the group visited nearby Pourville and then Puys where descriptions of the bloody raid continued. The stop at the Dieppe Canadian Military Cemetery was both disturbing and heart-wrenching. A lot of good men died, and among them were graduates of RMC. “This is a very difficult place to be for a Canadian,” says Principal John Scott Cowan. “We often ask what business we have in being involved anywhere outside of Canada, but very few had doubts about the Second World War. What we did then was important, but the consequences in part are here and it is very difficult to take….”

Officer cadet André Gascon of Gatineau, Que., could hardly find the words. In his hand he clutched the miniature medals of Fernand Mayer, a family friend who served in World War II. “The biggest thing that hits me is the age of the people. After that you think about their families and the fact that their son was maybe 19 or 20. Maybe younger…. They did their best for us and now it is our turn to do our best for Canada.”

The Dieppe experience seemed to galvanize the student’s resolve to be the best officers they could be. These feelings were strengthened by the lessons learned—and by walking the ground on Juno Beach and visiting the cemeteries in Normandy. “This (the campaign in Normandy) was probably the biggest accomplishment of our armed forces,” adds Richard who in February was trying to imagine the spectacular celebrations that would take place in June. “And so it is important that we learn it and understand it properly; and what better way to understand it than to see it up close and to listen to how the campaign was fought and what the Canadian contribution was.”

Boire and the other professors were impressed by the students. “On a technical and analytical level they understand now that there is much more to the accounts they read—and what they have been able to read between the lines. The trip has given them a better understanding of how operational history is written, and how different sources of information are brought together to weave an account.”

Boire says they have also seen what sacrifice is. “They are seeing that battles are about people, especially people getting hurt and people dying…. I hope they realize there is more to being an officer than simply giving orders or looking good in a uniform, and that there are results to giving orders and results of situations. That’s the reality of it…. That’s why we visit these places.”

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