On 16July 1936, 6,200 pilgrims departed the port of Montreal, embarking onthe Vimy Pilgrimage, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean as they had done just two short decades ago. The unveiling of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial was to be a massive event, full of both boisterous revelry and solemn commemoration. We have covered the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1936 extensively in our 100 Days of Vimy posts leading up to 9 April 2017 andthey can be read again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/tag/100daysofvimy/. However, alesser known story in the history of the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1936 is that of the Canadian Pacific Steamship’sSS Montrose, a namesake of a pre-war ocean-liner that fulfilled a critical humanitarian role in the early days of the war in 1914.
Launched in 1897, the first SSMontrose served as an ocean-liner between England and Quebec before becoming a troopship in the South African Boer War of 1899-1902. In 1903 the Montrose was acquired by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (CPS) and again reverted to transatlantic voyages. During the chaotic “race to the sea” in 1914, the Montrose was moored at Antwerp along with the CPS’ SS Montreal as the German Army closed in on the critical port city. The Montreal was loaded with coal, but its engines were not serviceable, while the Montrose was empty of coal, but seaworthy.Captain H. G. Kendall, best known as ship masterof the RMS Empress of Ireland, was working in Antwerp in a supervisoryrole at the time, not having mastered a ship since the Empress’ fateful day in the St. Lawrence River. Captain Kendall, sensing the urgency of the situation, had the coal transferred from the Montreal to the Montrose, and the Montreal taken in tow by the seaworthy Montrose. Working with the British Consulate, Kendall loaded both ships with Belgian refugees and sailed themto safety in England.
TheMontrose was later sold to the Admiralty to be used as a blockship at Dover, where it broke loose and was wrecked. In 1920, a second SS Montrose was built and launched by the CPS, serving many years as an ocean-liner, including as one of the esteemed ships of the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1936. Carrying on much like its namesake predecessor, the second SS Montrose would serve in a time of crisis as well, being requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1939 and retro-fitted to serve as the HMS Forfar, an armed merchant cruiser of the Royal Navy. On 2 December 1940, HMS Forfar was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland while joining up with a transatlantic convoy. One-hundred and seventy-two crew members perished in the sinking of HMS Forfar, a sad final chapter in the Montrose saga.
In the coming weeks, we will be starting a new series on Fridays, called “Slang of The First World War”, revealing words, sayings and names created or adopted by those in the trenches to describe aspects of what had become a very absurd “everyday life”. In light of our posts this week referencing “Blighty” and “Bomb-Proof Jobs”, it is fitting we define those here.
Blighty – the origin of this word is unclear and various explanations exist. It appears to be a corruption of the Hindi word ‘bilayati’ or ‘bilaik’, meaning a foreign place or country, or from the Arabic term ‘beladi’ meaning ‘my own country’ (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 38). In British India during the 1800’s “Blighty” became a term of endearment for home and/or English things. This carried through to the First World War, and a number of secondary uses evolved depending on the context as a noun, verb or adjective, “such as ‘This is like real Blighty bread.’ “, “a Blighty one”, and a “Blighty bag” (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 39).
Bomb-Proof Job – referred to any one of a myriad of support roles that men could be posted to in the rear areas, usually far from danger and consequently “bomb-proof”. Those who made a military career of “Bomb-Proof Jobs” during the First World War were usually disliked by frontline troops – they were often seen as cheats who received frequent and unwarranted leave passes, broke into and stole the men’s mail parcels, and who often received official recognition and medals “for bravery” whilst miles from danger.
In today’s post on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission we continue our discussion from last week, looking at the tension that was rising from Sir Fabian Ware’s desire to keep all graves near the battlefields. Ware’s small team found itself battling with wealthy and influential families who wished to have their relatives exhumed and repatriated to England for a family burial.
The debate between repatriation and equal treatment of graves carried on after the war and Sir Fabian Ware was prompted to release official statements to the press, outlining the Commission’s vision, stating: “a higher ideal than that of private burial at home is embodied in these war cemeteries in foreign lands, where those who fought and fell together, officers and men, lie together in their last resting place, facing the line they gave their lives to maintain” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
The issue eventually came to a head in a parliamentary debate in May 1920. Commission advocates insisted that the war had “fused and welded into one, without distinction of race, colour or creed”, men from all over the Empire who were “ready to die for one common cause that they all understood” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25). Countering, critics of the Commission called it “a terrible confusion of thought… the idea that you are entitled to take the bodies of heroes from the care of relatives and build them into a national state memorial” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25). In advocacy for the additional memorials, Burdett Coutts, MP for Westminster, noted that there were parents with no grave to visit. “Their boys were missing and their bodies remained undiscovered. For those parents the bitter reality was that they would never be able to have a name inscribed on a headstone in a known resting place” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
Ultimately, the House voted in favour of the Commission, believing it represented the desires of most of the Empire’s citizens. The vote had finally ratified the last six years of the Commission’s work (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 25).
Today we begin a series on rest periods and leave during the First World War.
The hopes of being granted a leave pass to “Blighty” was often a point of contention amongst front line troops. Those in the trenches felt they were constantly losing out to the officers and troops in support roles – those who weren’t doing the fighting; instead occupying “bomb-proof jobs” always seemed to be getting the leave. In addition to being passed up by officers, (who as per their rank were afforded more frequent periods of leave), the luck of the draw never seemed to fall in the favour of the “old timers” or “originals”. Victor Wheeler of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion gave the following account resenting the distribution of leave in his unit:
‘The Originals, we who had enlisted when the Battalion had first been organized, had the numbers 434 as the first three digits of our serial dog-tag numbers. We were jealously proud of having the lowest numbers in the Battalion and resented privileges being accorded to men who enlisted much later while members of the original contingent were passed over… Time after time I had been “due” for a leave to Blighty, but each time it was my turn, someone had been given priority. I pencilled [sic] : “I was again up for a Blighty leave, but some ‘435er’ got ahead of me…” ‘ (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 132).
Having gained official recognition and responsibility for their tasks in February 1915, the Graves Registration Commission set to work with great expediency. Despite entire sections of the country being occupied by enemy forces, Sir Fabian Ware had to begin negotiating with France for the acquisition of lands for burial. The land and care of graves was offered in perpetuity, but the Graves Registration Commission accepted only the land, choosing to keep maintenance of the graves a British responsibility (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15). In cooperation with the French, the cemetery sites were chosen, giving consideration to post-war agricultural needs and proximity to housing. Furthermore, regulations regarding the space between graves and width of paths between rows were determined, in order to reduce the amount of space taken up by the dozens of cemeteries that would surely occupy the countryside after the war (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
After gaining official recognition in February 1915, the work of the Graves Registration Commission had become well-known in the Commonwealth, stirring both positive and negative reactions. Although not the Commission’s responsibility, public requests for information and photographs soon followed. By March 1915, Ware agreed to assume this task, and by August, 2,000 photographs depicting four graves in each had been printed, to be dispatched to enquiring relatives. These were sent along with information cards that listed the grave’s condition and directions to the nearest corresponding railway station should anyone wish to visit after the war (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
Meanwhile, the desire to treat all as equals in death had drawn the ire of various wealthy and influential families. They rebuked the idea that officers and men should share common graves and many were initially successful in exhuming and repatriating remains to the United Kingdom. These repatriations had largely been carried out clandestinely, as an order banning exhumation had already been issued in March 1915 by the French Army’s Commander-In-Chief Marshal Joffre. In perhaps one of the most macabre aspects of the war, the Graves Registration Commission now had to contend with not just the perils of war, but also clandestine “grave robbers” hired to exhume bodies in the dark of night and sneak them back across the English Channel.
We will look at the conclusion of this debate in next week’s post.
In our post from 26 May 2017, Canadian Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, made reference to a Bruce Bairnsfather comic, “Well, If You Knows of A Better ‘Ole…”, while recounting an experience in No Man’s Land. Read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/raid-reconnaissance/
Bruce Bairnsfather was a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment when he was hospitalized for shell shock and hearing damage after the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. While recovering, Bairnsfather developed a cartoon character called Old Bill.
Overwhelmingly ill-tempered and surly, humourous “Old Bill” featured in his own comic series, his adventures and misfortunes depicting everyday life at the front for the regular soldier. The “Old Bill” series became a massive hit with the troops and those at home by putting a humorous spin on the war. Recognized for its effect on morale, 2nd Lt. Bairnsfather was commissioned by the War Office to continue publishing the cartoons for the duration of the war. His comics were reproduced both in print and numerous other daily items.
Below is one of the most well-known Bairnsfather comics, printed on a dinner plate, featuring Old Bill and another soldier, huddled in a shell hole while shells burst all around. The soldier has grumbled to Old Bill on the state of his shell hole, to which the veteran provides the wisdom: “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.”
In 1917, July 1st marked the 50th Anniversary of what was then called Dominion Day. The Canadian Corps HQ issued orders that at 12:00 noon “all guns on the Canadian front shall fire” totalling three salvos in two-minute intervals (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 129). From the memoirs of Victor Wheeler, of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion:
‘ “All guns” included those of the Heavy Artillery, Field Artillery, Siege, Field, Howitzer and Anti-Aircraft Batteries. In addition, thousands of machine-guns, trench mortars, bombs and grenades of all descriptions, plus two million rounds of .303 bullets from thousands of Ross and Lee-Enfield rifles thundered magnificently. This was truly the grandest of all sounds ever to simultaneously belch from the barrels and muzzles of Allied guns and trench pieces!’
‘If Orpheus’ music could move trees and rocks, the exquisite music of Canada’s massed guns, played a few short bars at two-minute intervals, must have flattened all the trees and pulverised all the rocks that afforded shelter to the enemy on the Canadian Corps Front. The synchronous delivery of our terrific fire must have convinced l’Armee allemande that Canada had become a Nation that memorable Dominion Day! Bienvenue aux Allemands!’ (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 129).
1July1917 – 2017 Memorial Day – Newfoundland & Labrador
Today we gather with our families and communities to celebrate Canada Day, marking the 150th Anniversary of our nation. In the midst of these celebrations, it is important to note that for some this day also marks sadness. In Newfoundland & Labrador, July 1st marks a sombre anniversary; that of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s massive losses at Beaumont-Hamel. On 1 July 1916, the youth of Newfoundland went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In just half an hour, the entire regiment would be destroyed, suffering 324 killed and 386 wounded. Of 801 available men, only 68 volunteers could answer roll call the next morning.
In response to these great losses, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador established their own day of mourning, actually preceding Remembrance/Armistice Day of 11 November, by marking 1 July 1917 as their Memorial Day. Consequently, 1 July 2017 is not just the 150th year of Canada, but also the 100th Anniversary of Memorial Day. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 1 July is first and foremost Memorial Day, marked by the observance of solemn ceremonies at cenotaphs, honouring the province’s immense sacrifices. Only after these sacrifices have been mourned does the province begin the transition to the celebration of Canada Day in the afternoon.