Vimy Ridge

The Battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place 100 years ago this coming week, represented an allied victory over the Germans during the First World War. In particular, according to Canadian historian Pierre Berton, it marked the moment when Canada “truly emerged as a nation” – the four Canadian divisions coming together to take a fortified knoll outside Givenchy-en-Gohell and capture some 4000 prisoners. Wikipedia suggests that the nation-building story only came about during the latter part of the twentieth century (i.e. during the 1960s, when the Liberals were trying to downplay Canada’s British connection). Be that as it may, it is clear that the battle, as a rare victory in an otherwise disastrous and pointless war, has become important to Canada’s psyche. The British commanding officer, Field Marshall Julian Byng (elevated to the peerage in 1919 as Baron Byng of Vimy) was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1921, and Vimy Ridge was one of the eight sites granted to Canada for the construction of memorials; Walter Seymour Allward’s winning design was opened by King Edward VIII in 1936.

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Wikipedia.

And check out the Vimy 100 page at the National Post, whose current top story relates the news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and 25,000 other Canadians are headed to France for ceremonies marking the centenary.

UPDATE: Dartblog covers Vimy Ridge also. Check out the photo of the current $20 bill and the link to Coach’s Corner.

UPDATE: This morning I discovered my Vimy pin. These appeared in the wake of the refurbishment of the monument in 2007.

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Gift of Ron Good.

I also noticed that Mike Babcock was wearing one last night as his team made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. (I don’t know why he wasn’t smiling more).

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Apparently the Vimy pin is now “April’s poppy,” according to the Vimy Foundation website. It proceeds to explain that:

The four coloured boxes represent the four Canadian divisions which fought together for the first time on April 9, 1917 at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The red represents the First Division, the dark blue the Second Division, the grey-blue the Third Division, and the green the Fourth Division. The order of the ribbon’s colours (left to right) reflects the positioning of the four Canadian Divisions facing the German defences on the day of the battle.

Disasters

• What caused the Bronze Age Collapse? Eric Cline, author of 1177, gives an interview about it:

The urge to find a single explanation as the cause for such calamitous events seems to come from a modern human need for an easy explanation as often as possible. Certainly some of the members of the general public who have left reviews of my book on Amazon seem to want that still, and are miffed that I even-handedly go through the evidence and then conclude that there isn’t a simple solution. I actually think that it is far more interesting to delve into a multi-causal explanation, because in this case Occam’s Razor (that the simplest solution is the most likely) just won’t cut it. Although I think it seemed very logical to early scholars like Gaston Maspero and others to blame the Sea Peoples, they originally formulated that hypothesis based on Ramses III’s inscription at Medinet Habu and not much else. But, it has long been clear that it took much more than a single cause to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations. As you point out, the mere fact that the inland empires like Kassite Babylonia, Elam, and Assyria also declined shows that we can’t just blame the Sea Peoples for everything, much as one might want to do so.

Thus, my main thesis is that there must have been a ‘perfect storm’ of calamitous events at that turning point in order to cause the Late Bronze Age civilizations to collapse shortly after 1200 BC. There is both direct and circumstantial evidence that there was climate change, drought and famine, earthquakes, invasions and internal rebellions, all at that approximate time. Of these, I would rank them in that specific order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession?

• From the National Post:

Everyone was dead: When Europeans first came to British Columbia, they stepped into the aftermath of a holocaust

Everywhere they looked, there were corpses. Abandoned, overgrown villages were littered with skulls; whole sections of coastline strewn with bleached, decayed bodies.

“The skull, limbs, ribs and backbones, or some other vestiges of the human body, were found in many places, promiscuously scattered about the beach in great numbers,” wrote explorer George Vancouver in what is now Port Discovery, Wash.

It was May 1792. The lush environs of the Georgia Strait had once been among the most densely populated corners of the land that is now Canada, with humming villages, harbours swarming with canoes and valleys so packed with cookfires that they had smog.

But the Vancouver Expedition experienced only eerie quiet….

“News reached them from the east that a great sickness was travelling over the land, a sickness that no medicine could cure, and no person escape,” said a man identified as Old Pierre, a member of what is now the Katzie First Nation in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

After an emergency meeting, the doomed forebears of the Katzie decided to face the coming catastrophe with as much grace as they could muster: Every adult returned to the home of their parents to wait for the end.

“Then the wind carried the smallpox sickness among them. Some crawled away into the woods to die; many died in their homes,” Old Pierre told the anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1936.

• Just over one hundred years ago, the steamer Eastland overturned in the Chicago River, killing some 800 people. From the History Channel website:

The disaster was caused by serious problems with the boat’s design, which were known but never remedied.

The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and made money ferrying people from Chicago to picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. When the Eastland was launched in 1903, it was designed to carry 650 passengers, but major construction and retrofitting in 1913 supposedly allowed the boat to carry 2,500 people. That same year, a naval architect presciently told officials that the boat needed work, stating unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident.

On July 24, employees of Western Electric Company were heading to an annual picnic. About 7,300 people arrived at 6 a.m. at the dock between LaSalle and Clark streets to be carried out to the site by five steamers. While bands played, much of the crowd—perhaps even more than the 2,500 people allowed—boarded the Eastland. Some reports indicate that the crowd may also have all gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photographer, thus creating an imbalance on the boat. In any case, engineer Joseph Erikson opened one of the ballast tanks, which holds water within the boat and stabilizes the ship, and the Eastland began tipping precariously.

Some claim that the crew of the boat jumped back to the dock when they realized what was happening. What is known for sure is that the Eastlandcapsized right next to the dock, trapping hundreds of people on or underneath the large ship. Rescuers quickly attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people alive. More than 800 others perished. Police divers pulled up body after body, causing one diver to break down in a rage. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent bodies from washing out into the lake. Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.

John Diefenbaker

From the National Post, re: John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada 1957-63:

The bizarre reason John Diefenbaker is entombed in concrete: He was afraid enemies would steal his corpse

There’s only one definite way to figure out if John Diefenbaker really did father illegitimate children; dig him up, extract a DNA sample and perform a paternity test.

It’s unlikely that any judge would allow the exhumation of an official National Historic Person. But there’s another, more technical, barrier at play: John Diefenbaker cannot be exhumed.

After the 13th Prime Minister was consigned to the earth on August 22, 1979, the coffins of he and his wife Olive were then covered over with a healthy layer of wet cement — at least according to one account of his life and well-choreographed funeral.

In the 1995 book Trumpets and Drums, Diefenbaker associate Dick Spencer wrote that “the final service rendered Dief by Saskatoon funeral attendants was the pouring of wet cement into his grave, around and onto the casket below.”

Spencer’s description remains one of the only surviving accounts of the unusual measure.

The reason, according to the book, was that Diefenbaker was worried about having his body stolen. Specifically, he had been spooked by an 1876 criminal plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body that was foiled at the last minute by an undercover Secret Service agent.

After that, Honest Abe was interred in a steel cage encased by concrete.

“What many weren’t aware of was the Chief’s fascination with Abraham Lincoln’s rites,” wrote Spencer.

“Lincoln had been so protected in his final resting place. Dief requested, and was given, the same precaution.”

More at the link.

Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion

My friend Bruce Patterson sends me a blog post about the Canadian Cyclist Corps in the First World War.

The Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion was formed from the Canadian Divisional Cyclist Companies and existed from May 1916 until the battalion was disbanded on 15 November 1920.  Ironically, the “gas-pipe cavalry” was done-in by peace and not war.  As has been outlined in other historical texts, the Cyclists were an instrumental unit of Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel’s “Independent Force” (also known as the Canadian Automobile Machine Gun Brigade or simply “Brutinel’s Brigade”) in the 100-Day offensive which brought about the conclusion of the First World War, and the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion distinguished themselves in the offensive.  Today, the Intelligence Branch of the Canadian Armed Forces perpetuates the Canadian Cyclists as they were originally formed from the Corps of Guides troops massed at Valcartier Camp, outside Quebec City, and were intended to fill what we would recognize today as a tactical field intelligence/reconnaissance role on the battlefield.

Of particular interest is their recruiting poster. Bruce writes: “In terms of sugar-coating the reality of the Western Front, this can’t be beat.”

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Desiring a Better Motto

The Order of Canada was established in 1967 as part of Canada’s centennial celebration. It was to be a native equivalent of the various British orders of merit, in particular the Order of the British Empire. If you’re interested, see my friend Chris McCreery’s book for more.

The motto of the Order of Canada is “Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam,” that is, “They desire a better country.” If you’re in the Order at any level, and you’ve got a coat of arms, you can insert a circlet bearing this motto around your shield. This is a British tradition: motto-circlets were invented so that members of other orders (e.g. the Order of the Bath, the Order of St. Michael and St. George, the Royal Victorian Order, etc.) could have something to put around their shields parallel to the Garter, the device of the oldest and most prestigious order of all; Canada continued this tradition, especially after the establishment of the Canadian Heraldic Authority in 1988. From Wikipedia, two illustrations of this phenomenon:

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Coat of arms of HM the Queen in right of the United Kingdom. As the Queen is sovereign of the Order of the Garter, the Garter, bearing the motto “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense,” encircles her shield.

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Coat of arms of HM the Queen in right of Canada. Note motto-circlet bearing “Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam” around the shield.

Now, I’m all for tradition! And I’m happy for the existence of the Order of Canada, the CHA, and the heraldic motto-circlet. But the other day in church something caught my attention: a reading from Hebrews 11 (verse 16):

But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

So, I wondered as I sat there, is this where the motto of the Order of Canada comes from? (Just as the motto of the country itself, “A Mari Usque Ad Mare,” comes from Psalm 72.) Alas, no: here is verse 16 from the Vulgate:

nunc autem meliorem appetunt id est caelestem ideo non confunditur Deus vocari Deus eorum paravit enim illis civitatem

“Meliorem” picks up on “patriam” from two verses earlier, but look at the verb: appeto -ere, meaning “to make for, grasp at, seek, (of places) to make for or go to,” not desidero -are, which means “to long for what is absent or lost, to wish for; to miss, find a lack of.” I guess the word “desiderata” (things desired) also fits in this sense, because you don’t have those things yet. So members of the Order are desiring a country that doesn’t yet exist, or once existed but does not anymore? Surely this is not what the government wants to imply! Should we therefore introduce a resolution to the House of Commons changing the Order’s motto to “Appetentes meliorem patriam,” implying that members are seeking a better country, even though the one they have is still pretty good – and also making the motto congruent with a biblical source?

I have enough experience with making these sorts of suggestions to know what the answer would be… still, one can always dream….

Farley Mowat

My hometown of Port Hope, Ontario has had a number of notable residents, among them Joseph Scriven (author of the hymn “What a Friend we have in Jesus”), artist David Blackwood, impresario and explorer William Leonard Hunt (the Great Farini), and author Farley Mowat, who died in 2014. I remember seeing Mowat around town, and everyone knew the story about him mooning the guests at a banquet, by means of illustrating that no underclothes were worn under a kilt. Now Chris Robert, a high school teacher of mine, sends me images of a monument constructed to honor Mowat and moved this past weekend to its current site on the east bank of the Ganaraska River. You can see Port Hope’s town hall in the background.

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Photo: Chris Robert

Why an upside-down boat, you ask? Well, this is a reference to Mowat’s book The Farfarers (1998), which impressed the Port Hope Friends of Farley Mowat. From the plinth:

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Photo: Chris Robert

I had never heard of this before, and I confess that the passive-voice construction “are believed” in the first paragraph made me suspicious (Wikipedians will automatically insert a superscripted [by whom?] whenever they find stuff like this). Moreover, there is a long tradition of imagining the arrival of pre-Columbian explorers to the Americas for various reasons – is this just the latest example? Who were these people, and what exactly did Thomas Lee discover on the Ungava Peninsula?

I do not have a copy of The Farfarers to hand, although you can look inside the book at Amazon. According to the summary at Wikipedia, Mowat claims that even before the Vikings, settlers from the island of Orkney, chasing walrus ivory, reached Iceland, then Greenland, and then arctic Canada. Mowat calls these settlers Albans, after “Alba,” a Gaelic name for Scotland, and believes they were the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants of the British Isles, pushed to the fringes by Celts and then Romans. Thomas Lee was an archaeologist at Laval University; his excavations on the Ungava Peninsula uncovered stone building foundations that Lee thought were temporary shelters built by Vikings around the year 1000, the same time as their settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Lee also found a stone landmark that he dubbed the Hammer of Thor on the assumption that it too was Viking, although it could simply have been an Inuit inukshuk. So it seems that Mowat was reinterpreting Lee’s data – Lee did not originate the theory of the Albans.

Thus, it probably comes as no surprise that the editors of Canadian Geographic designated The Farfarers as “highly speculative” and noted that “no professional archeologists are known to share Mowat’s theories.” Stuart Brown of Memorial University noted the “small problem” of a complete lack of “reasonably compelling evidence,” with the book being “entertaining as fiction, [but] far from convincing as fact.” As much as I hate to run down a hometown hero, these assessments are probably accurate. Mowat did indeed have a reputation of never letting the facts ruin a good story. I recall a 1996 cover story in (the now sadly defunct) Saturday Night magazine, with Farley Mowat as Pinocchio.

farleymowatsatniteReporter John Goddard investigated the research and composition of Mowat’s bestselling book Never Cry Wolf, and discovered quite a few things that he simply made up.

As a historian, I confess that I cannot approve of this schtick….

Ho for the Hols

• In honour of Canada Day (yesterday), a rendition of the Royal Arms of Canada from a 50-cent piece from 1946. I always liked the style of this one.

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“KG” = Kruger Gray. I like how this one has a real compartment (actual ground that the supporters are standing on), as opposed to the rose-thistle-shamrock-lily “bouquet” that one normally sees. I also like the omission of the motto, helmet, mantling, and crest, and and the depiction of the old-style “Imperial” crown. The maple keys on the branch are a nice touch.

• Also, don’t forget that today is America’s real Independence Day! (And the Millennium didn’t really begin until 2001!)

Espionage in World War II

An interesting story in the National Post (although as ever in the world of espionage, you have to wonder who is playing whom):

The world’s worst Nazi spy: The German agent caught by Canada in a matter of hours

The first clue was the weird banknotes the stranger used to pay for his hotel bill.

To staff at the Carlisle hotel in New Carlisle, QC he presented oversized $1 bills that had not been in regular circulation since the First World War; the modern equivalent of handing over a fistful of pre-loonie $1 bills.

He said his name was William Branton of 323 Danforth Avenue in Toronto — an address now occupied by a women’s wear boutique. Having arrived into New Carlisle by bus that morning, he said he wanted to stop in for a quick bath and breakfast before continuing on to Montreal.

But the first bus into New Carlisle would not arrive for another three hours.
“We knew that he was a foreigner, by the way he spoke… he had kind of a guttural speech in the back of his throat,” Marguerite, the daughter of the Carlisle’s owner, would later tell journalist Dean Beeby for the 1996 book Cargo of Lies, an account of the spy fiasco.

In reality, the stranger had arrived in Quebec via the relatively unorthodox mode of a U-Boat.

That morning, the submarine U-518 had performed the nail-biting task of surfacing just off the well-patrolled waters of the Quebec coast and rowing the man to shore in an inflatable dinghy.

It was November 9, 1942, the same day that Canada would break off diplomatic relations with Vichy France, the rump German puppet state carved out of southeastern France.

New Carlisle’s most famous son, future Quebec premier René Lévesque, had only recently moved to Quebec City for a radio job. In another couple years, Lévesque would be sailing to Europe as a war correspondent.

And now, New Carlisle was the first stop for Werner von Janowski, a German officer sent on a mission of espionage to Canada.

He had stepped onto Canadian soil in the trim, impressive uniform of a German naval officer, complete even with an Iron Cross pinned to his breast. This was standard procedure for German spies. That way, if they were caught, they could avoid execution as spies by saying that they had simply deserted from the German navy and swum to shore somehow.

But in the chilly pre-dawn hours, von Janowski swapped his gleaming uniform for a suit of civilian clothes, buried the uniform in the sand and began his new identity as a Parisian-born salesman who had immigrated to Canada in 1921.

He had a gun, $5,000 and identity papers suspected to have been seized from Canadian casualties of the August, 1942 Dieppe Raid.

The agent’s instructions were vague, but his goal was to go to Montreal and try and link up with some fascists, according to the book U-Boats Against Canada.

That is, if the Nazis’ contact for the Canadian Fascist Party was still current.

Throughout history, Canada has actually been pretty bad at spotting suspicious foreign characters in their midst.

Immediately after assassinating Martin Luther King Jr., the killer James Earl Ray lived unnoticed for weeks in Toronto, despite his picture being all over the T.V. news.
And from the Holocaust to the Rwandan Genocide, Canada has had the dubious distinction of being a relatively safe hideout for former genocidaires.

But that morning, the citizens of sleepy New Carlisle were really on the ball. The Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing and they knew their coast was crawling with German submarines.

After the war, this would even spawn alcohol-fuelled memories that Gaspé Peninsula pubs were occasionally visited by German submariners looking to stretch their legs.
Of course, it helped that von Janowski was dripping in clues.

The stranger lit his cigarettes with matches that were made in Belgium—which was strange considering that Belgium had been occupied by the Nazis for three years.
He wore clothes with a distinctly foreign cut. And he smelled awful; almost like someone who had been shut up inside the stale air of a sealed metal tube for several days.

Earle Annett Jr., the son of the Carlisle’s proprietor, alerted authorities as soon as von Janowski set off on foot for the New Carlisle train station.

After taking his seat aboard the Montreal-bound train, the German agent was soon greeted by a Quebec Provincial Police officer, who asked him for I.D. “I am caught. I am a German officer,” von Janowski replied.

It had only been 12 hours.

A press blackout would shield the historic capture from the wartime Canadian public. And soon, the RCMP would accede to von Janowski’s offer to act as a double agent for Canada.

But as Beeby would note in Cargo of Lies, the inexperienced Mounties were likely played by the captured German.

The would-be spy provided just enough misleading information to throw off the Royal Canadian Navy hunt for the U-Boat that had dropped his off. And as a double agent, he failed to feed the RCMP one iota of information about German sub movements.

A frustrated Canada ultimately packed von Janowski off to an English prison camp for the rest of the war.

Happy St. George’s Day

In honor of this auspicious day, a gallery of images of St. George from my collection. Apologies for the poor quality of some of them.

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A statue of St. George by Alexander Scott Carter, in St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, Huron St., Toronto (photo by my friend Bruce Patterson).

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From my graduate school colleague, Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Mead of the Australian army.

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Family friend Laine Rosin took this photo on a trip to Ethiopia.

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Allen and Unwin printer’s mark.

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This is from the spine of a volume in the great Victoria County History series.

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My five-year-old found this Russian fifty kopek coin last summer. “Look daddy,” she said. “St. George!” That’s my girl!

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Bruce Patterson took this photo in a Catholic church in London.

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My colleague Pam Wilson took this photo in Barcelona.

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This sculpture of St. George is carved on the facade of the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. I took this photo in 2006.

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A war memorial in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, taken by Dr. Anne Good.

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I acquired this label on an airplane once. I like it especially because dragons are associated with water. 

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If there is Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, then why shouldn’t there be English whisky too? And what better a character to represent it than St. George?

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One of my favorite representations of St. George comes from shortly after the Russian Revolution, when Christian saints had not been entirely eradicated, but could be repurposed for Communist ends. Here St. Trotsky kills the Counter-Revolutionary dragon, complete with top hat. From Wikipedia.

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From my friend Chris Berard, via Facebook. Happy St. George’s Day!