A century ago, soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were into their second day holding newly-won positions on Hill 70, near Lens, France. Counter-attacks by German units, desperate to regain this strategic position, were increasing. At 4:25 AM the previous morning, on August 15th, 1917, they had left their jumping-off positions to advance on this important high-point near the industrial city of Lens, France. The intent of the operation was to force German military planners to divert forces away from the Passchendaele operations, by mounting an attack on Lens. Sir Arthur Currie, recently promoted to command the Canadian Corps, reconnoitered the positions and crafted a plan to seize the heights to the North of city, after first convincing his superiors to modify the main objectives. Lens was to be attacked next.
Meticulous planning built on recent successes, such as the Vimy Ridge operations. A massive preparatory bombardment presaged the attack. Special batteries of artillery under the command of A.G.L. McNaughton were employed in counter-battery fire, and managed to silence many German guns before the infantry went in.
Initially, the attack was a success, with rapid advances. Clearing up entrenched defenders in the Chalk Pit, and in the ruins of Lens’ suburbs, was no easy task, and positions changed hands several times. The operation dragged on for 10 days, and beleaguered and exhausted troops had to drive off relentless enemy counter-attacks. Accurate and prompt artillery support was instrumental in breaking up German concentrations of troops and keeping the Canadians from a general withdrawal. From 15 August until the 25th, Roughly 8,700 CEF soldiers became casualties with almost two-thousand killed, while estimates of German losses run much higher. The planned operation to capture Lens was eventually called off.
Somewhat surprisingly, until the recent opening of the new Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park in France, the only memorial that focused on commemorating Hill 70 was located in Mountain Ontario, a small community South of Ottawa. This memorial was originally built during the height of memorial construction in the 1920s.
For the 2011 work on the memorial, local groups struggled with what to do with the rusted machine gun, that had been a feature of the original 1920s layout. Some wanted to scrap it. A recent Globe and Mail article explores the various proposals. A local resident who was heavily involved in the rehabilitation project, Mr. Johnston, is quoted as saying “I struggled with the gun. Why would we want a German machine gun that was used to kill these boys?” This sentiment has been expressed many times over the years about trophies, and ties in with evolving public memory on the meaning of the First World War. In the 1930s and Second World War-era many pieces were indeed destroyed because of similar community sentiments. For the purposes of this project I am relieved to say that the gun remains a focal point of the memorial.
According to War Trophy Commission records at Library and Archives Canada, two captured German guns were shipped to Mountain in September 1920 via Canadian Pacific Railways. The captured German machine gun now at the memorial is most likely MG08 no. 2946b (the serial numbers have substantial corrosion), seized by the 22nd Battalion at Catapult Trench, Hill 70, 15 August 1917. This gun would have been used against Canadian soldiers in the initial assault.
The 22nd Battalion’s War Diary “Report on Operations” notes that 4 similar guns were captured. Particular mention is given to the capture of one by Lt. Henri de Varennes (who was killed early in the morning on 16 August) and Sgt. Eugene Keller, who would later receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal for this action (The First World War service files of Keller and de Varennes are available digitized from LAC). Interestingly, recent talks with local residents have indicated they are convinced this is indeed a gun captured by the 22nd Battalion at Hill 70.
For many reasons, Hill 70 has not been accorded the same attention as other CEF operations that Canadians are familiar with. In contrast to the range of captured relics that remain from the Vimy operations (which I recently posted on) this gun, and a 75mm Trench Mortar in the collection of the Brome County Historical Society in Knowlton, Quebec, may be the only monuments that remain of this important Canadian operation.
A wave of Vimy Centennial commemorative activities brings interpretations, reinterpretations, myth building and myth-busting to understandings of the Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April 1917). A hundred years since the beginning of the assault on the fortified German positions around Vimy, I focus on the remaining artifacts, and, in particular, large war trophies captured by advancing Canadian units. Vimy was a victory for the First British Army, and especially its Canadian Corps, commanded by Lt. General Sir Julian Byng. It was a bright example in the larger Battle of Second Arras, and a small counterpoint to events of the disastrous Chemin des Dames Offensive.
It was also the first time since the stalemated trench war began that an advance had captured a whole range of enemy armaments, from rifles to siege howitzers. On the morning of 9 April, the advancing infantry battalions had rolled over the German front positions, continued through defensive lines, and surged over German artillery batteries, whose personnel fled or were captured. Canadian Expeditionary Force battalions captured machine guns, trench mortars, field guns, and a range of howitzers. An element of the intensive training leading up to 9 April prepared infantry to make use of captured guns and stores of ammunition, and several pieces were repositioned to fire on the retreating Germans.
The symbolic and public relations potential of these captured items was quickly appreciated by the Allied command. Large trophies wound up prominently displayed in Paris and London. They were conspicuous evidence that, with the right preparations, logistical support, aerial reconnaissance, innovative tactics, and a paralyzing bombardment, crack German troops could be pushed off formidable defensive positions. The human cost of Vimy was considerable, with more than three-and-a-half thousand fatal casualties to Canadian units, and many more wounded.
In the early 1920s, the War Trophies Commission shipped at least 90 of these guns and mortars, noted as having been captured during the Vimy operations, across Canada. Many wound up on display beside newly-constructed cenotaphs, bearing the names of local men who had perished at Vimy and elsewhere. I am familiar with about 15 cannon and mortars, and a few machine guns (that could be the subject of another post). What follows is a brief survey of a few of these.
A large trench mortar captured by the 31st (Alberta) Canadian Infantry Battalion is at the Imperial War Museum. This is representative of the many Canadian trophies that may have wound up elsewhere:
The 15cm sFH02 heavy howitzer West of the overlook on Ave. Ontario, Plains of Abraham, Quebec City, was captured by the 60th Canadian Infantry Battalion at Bois de Folie, 13 April, and according to the War Diary of the 60th, used against the enemy.
The 10.5cm leFH howitzer at the Mi’kmaq community at Lennox Island, PEI, was captured at Farbus, Vimy, by the 27th Canadian Infantry Battalion, and used by the 21st Howitzer Battery for months after the Battle firing thousands of captured rounds back. This gun was captured when “A” Company rushed the battery, and appears in the relevant War Diary list of captures. It was originally sent to the nearby community of Grand River in September 1920.
The Brome County Historical Society museum in Knowlton, QC, today has a light minenwerfer captured by the 54th Canadian Infantry Battalion at Vimy. There is also a very large 25cm schwerer minenwerfer barrel, blown apart and pitted with schrapnel. This powerful artfact was captured by the 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion. It tells the story of the devastating preparatory bombardment.
Tavistock, ON also has a 25cm heavy minenwerfer, with the same 102nd Infantry Battalion provenance. This is in front of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 518. This mortar is much more intact.
Kingston, ON has an unusual 7.7cm FK 96 field gun, that was captured by the 21st Infantry Battalion at the Les Tilleuls crossroads. The barrel assembly was later repurposed by the British and installed on a pedestal mount.
These are just some of the examples, and I have published many posts before about these and other Vimy trophies, such as the Victory Loan gun at Hopewell Cape, NB, which has received attention. Others, like the rare infantry gun at Esquimalt, I have yet to post about.
Vimy was important in part because of these hard-won trophies. The Canadian Corps gained valuable territory: a prominent geographic feature. The German withdrawal was no orderly evacuation. Here, they gave up strategic, elevated, and heavily fortified positions, and evidence of their rout includes their abandonment of batteries of artillery. The events of April 1917 might seem long ago and far away to many, but artifacts of this victory have been with us for a very long time.
A lifesaving Bren Gun carrier wrecked on Sable Island?!
Sable Island is frequently called “the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” because of centuries of shipwrecks that have piled up on its shoals. This island, a remote sliver of dunes and scrub far off the Nova Scotian coast, is Canada’s newest national park. Recently I became aware of a curious relic on the island, close to the West Light.
Familiar with Second World War vehicles, the photo, sent to me by a relative currently on the Island, clearly showed the low silhouette of a Universal Carrier, a light tracked-vehicle used for many roles by the Canadian Army from the early years of the War until the mid-1960s. My first reaction was astonishment, but there was an image or two online of the wreck, and a “Motor Museum” enthusiastic online article about building a miniature of this vehicle which explains: “Our model represents a Universal carrier which was used to tow lifeboats, a job previously been done by horses, up and down the coast to launching positions suitable for the crisis at hand. Little is known about it but it is our tribute to the brave souls who saved countless lives and to a weapon of war that ended it’s days saving lives not taking them.”
A fan of Sable Island lore, I decided to see what I could find out at Library and Archives Canada. At least some of the story comes out in 1946-1952 Department of Transportation reports about the equipment on the Island. Shortly after the War, the DOT, then responsible for the facilities on the Island, was evaluating new lifeboats for the Humane Establishment, the lifesaving and shore patrol facilities. Up to this point, horses or oxen had been used to help haul the boats (on a wheeled cradle) out from the station boathouses to launching sites. The file details tests of US Coast Guard designs for modern lifeboats. An idea was put forward that mechanical transport would be preferable to animals, and using surplus carriers seemed an inexpensive solution.
There were mixed opinions of the suitability of a carrier, with some parties (including the Chief of Aids to Navigation) thinking it would soon be immobilized in the sandy dunes. Attempts at procuring a test vehicle were frustrated when a vehicle offered up from War Assets stocks in Debert, N.S., was found to have over 2,000 miles on it (DND ordnance personnel had advised the transportation officials this was too much to guarantee reliability). The eventual 1942 Ford carrier was shipped all the way from Longue Pointe Ordnance Depot, near Montreal, to Dartmouth, N.S., and sent out to the island in the usual steamer resupply on Canadian Government Ship LADY LAURIER, accompanied by a Willys MB Jeep (I have no idea what happened to this). After a lot of casting about online, I located this tweet and image:
Whatever the trials and tribulations of this carrier on the Island, the era of modern navigation made shipwrecks (mostly) a thing of the past, and the stations were all abandoned in 1958. The carrier, like much else, became derelict. Today, it is a conspicuous wreck from the last phase of the Humane Establishment’s Century-and-a-half of life-preserving efforts.
Recently, I took some photos of original First World War German lozenge camouflage, the original fabric “skin” of a war trophy plane I have already featured on this site. Hopefully, the photographs will help a friend complete an impressive scale model of the CASM’s German AEG bomber. The original “night lozenge” pattern fabric has been preserved by the staff of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum at a nearby facility. In contrast, below is an elevated view of the original Fokker DVII fighter in the Brome County Historical Society’s museum in Knowlton, Quebec (more about this unique aircraft here). The pastel-like day lozenge camouflage on this aircraft is so significant to understanding First World War German aircraft colours, that today, this 4-colour pattern is known as “Knowlton lozenge.” I don’t pretend to be a specialist in aircraft, but I do know that the trophy aircraft, like the captured artillery, today reveal the strength of First World War artifacts in Canada.
In preparation for my presentation at the 2015 Canadian Military History Colloquium, at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Wilfred Laurier University, I have released an upgraded listing of War Trophies. The table has gone beyond its original source, the War Trophies Commission’s shipping ledger, to include details from War Diaries of CEF units, notations about surviving artifacts, condition reports, and in some cases provenance and historical details about relics that did not survive the Second World War scrapping drives.
Once again, the table now also includes Newfoundland trophies. Significant projects for 2015 will include cypher encryption, an aerial photography interpretation section, sound locating, Forward Observation Officers, the construction of a larger Zeppelin shed, and smarter uniforms for all members.
This 120cm Siemens-Schuckert German Searchlight, captured by Australian units near Roy, Belgium was on display at the Canadian War Museum under the Voodoo jet, in Lebreton Gallery through late 2014. I previously posted about its history. It had been stored on a rack in the Transportation and Artillery vault, with the rear facing out. It is nice to see how intact it is, and that staff did a great job of reassembling the lens and components. No other similar unit has been found amongst the trophies brought back to Canada. I hope this impressive artifact finds a permanent home on display to visitors to the museum!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
This blog was viewed about 3,800 times in 2014. If every visitor to this blog found themselves in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, we would have about enough fighting strength for one infantry brigade.
Today, the Brome County Historical Society, in Knowlton, Quebec, has one of the strongest collections of First World War military artifacts in Canada. This is largely due to the efforts of Senator George Foster, who petitioned the Dominion Archivist and Comptroller of War Trophies Arthur Doughty for a quality collection. In addition to the spectacular Fokker DVII German biplane with original fabric covering including camouflage (with a good write up about it by a BCHS member here), the BCHS has a diverse collection of German trench mortars and a range of German machine-guns. Since Sep. 2013, work with Ross Jones, the museum’s militaria specialist, has established the battlefield provenance of many of these items using the War Trophies Commission records at Library and Archives Canada. We have poked around pieces, trying to discern key numbers, and any matches have added to the number of surviving pieces in my database. Some of the trophies also have capture info painted on by hand. The range of items, from machine-gun belt fillers (which look like a pasta grinder) to trench periscopes, to aerial bombs, gives a good idea of the variety of small trophies that once accompanied many of the larger artifacts out to sites across Canada. A very significant find was had when Ross managed to man-handle the destroyed barrel of a 25cm heavy Minenwerfer trench mortar around to discover the serial number. The 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion captured mortar no. 1524 (along with 119 German prisoners) on Vimy Ridge, April 9th, 1917. The barrel, bearing heavy shrapnel pitting and shell damage, is a powerful relic of the Vimy victory. This is only a small sample of the varied collection of the BCHS, a small museum worth a visit!
When your grandchildren ask you what you did during the 4+ years of the centenary of the First World War, you can tell them that you helped restore a century-old artifact captured by Canadian troops at the Battle of Vimy Ridge!
The town of Hopewell Cape, New Brunswick, has some rare war trophies that I recently visited. The Albert County Museum is raising funds to help restore these cannon. They also hope to repaint them in German disruptive camouflage…which should make them real eye-catchers (FWW camo-was often not exactly inconspicuous!). They also plan to replace the rotted wheels, and enhance other aspects of the site and interpretation. Unlike many cannon, these trophies were not forgotten, and indeed the history of the 10.5 cm Kanone 14 no. 590 is well-researched by museum members and detailed at their website here. This gun was a unique capture, with a phenomenal story, and the relevant war diary report on operations during Vimy has a section on it. The exact position it was captured is even indicated by map coordinates! Today, the gun appears to have battle damage, likely from its capture near Thelus, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, by the 27th Battalion (City of Winnipeg).
According to the Report for April 9th, 1917, as extracted on the Museum’s website “On the right, the German gunners of one company of heavy guns opened fire at point-blank range with muzzle bursts. The battalion charged the last 50 yards with a cheer and leaped into the gun pits, where the gunners put up a stout fight. Our line led by Captain Lane seized the guns, put out of action those of the crew who resisted and took the remainder prisoners, and prevented the guns from being dismantled.” According to the War Diary entry of the 27th, at Library and Archives Canada, Lane and Sgt. Hodgson, of “A” company, prevented the Germans from disabling the guns, which allowed them to be used against the retreating enemy, two days later, by the 6th Canadian Artillery Brigade. LAC also digitized the handwritten account of this action by Major Taunton, Officer Commanding “A” co., here. This artifact was later awarded to the people of Albert County, NB, for raising significantly more money than expected in the 1919 Victory Loans competition. Today, the museum also displays the very rare Prince of Wales Honour Flag that the selected communities received along with the trophy gun.
The museum has done a nice job researching its history, but they need our help to fund the restoration project. Please visit their site to find out more about the guns, what the money will be used for, and how to easily click to donate to the campaign.
Two of Canada’s trio of captured First World War German 21cm Mörser siege howitzers are both located in historic Quebec City, on display in the Citadel, and under some trees in the Plains of Abraham battlefield park. These, along with one in Ottawa (featured elsewhere on this site along with an in depth analysis of this type of canon), are all that is left of the more than two dozen of these monsters that were brought back by the Canadian government. Quebec also boasts a nice sample of lighter German FWW canon, amongst the hundred or so British and French canon, mortars, and carronades. Both pieces have nice provenance from “Canada’s hundred days” advances of 1918.
A nice discovery close to Ottawa!
Finch Ontario was originally allocated this 24cm, Flügel Minenwerfer, and it was shipped there by Canadian Pacific Railways Dec. 20th, 1922. This is a very rare piece today, and there were only ever a handful of these shipped back to Canada. Regrettably, nothing is known about its capture. It is quite corroded and the mounting has been sunk into concrete. The builder’s plate is in good condition, though, and shows that this was produced in 1917. There is only one (known) other similar type of Trench Mortar in Canada, on display at the RCA Museum in Shilo, Manitoba. With thanks to Mike Calnan, Swords & Ploughshares Museum for mentioning that there was a trench mortar in Finch, and a nice lady at the local corner store, for telling me where the “big old cannon” was!
As part of a First World War upgrade, the Junkers J1 Armoured aircraft (see earlier post below for more info) has been re-assembled and is on display in the main museum at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum! This shows the construction of the aircraft: metal tubing (usually covered by fabric), corrugated cladding, and the armoured section protecting the gunner/observer, pilot, and engine, with 1\4 inch armoured plate. You can still see some of the camouflage (like in the archival photo on the original post) on some of the surfaces.
I am slated to present my site, database of war trophies, and the archival documents that can help restore provenance information to First World War artifacts all over Canada at the AAO’s annual conference, in Oshawa, ON, in late May! Also, keep posted for some new additions to the site!
The AEG G IV bomber was a twin-engine German biplane medium bomber. An improvement on earlier AEG G types, It entered service in late 1916 and served, mostly as a tactical and night bomber, for the rest of the war. The aircraft could carry almost 900 lbs. of bombs and had two parabellum machine gun positions for self-defence, with the rear-gunner able to crouch and also fire downward through a trap-door to defend against threats from below. Like the Junkers, it made revolutionary use of an all-metal skeleton. Today, the AEG in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum’s collection is the only intact twin-engine German First World War bomber in existence. Aircraft no. 574/18 was brought back as a war trophy, and early war trophies exhibit photos show that it did not have engines, and propellers were simply hung in about the right spot with nothing behind them! Since I already was featuring two 1920s era photos of this aircraft in various states, and also found an official photo of a similar type, outside of the Namur zeppelin sheds after the Armistice, including this was a must! In the interwar era it can be seen in pieces along the side wall of the Public Archives’ War Trophies Annex. Eventually, less powerful engines were acquired to fill the voids. This aircraft also is the only survivor showing the distinctive night-lozenge camouflage paint scheme.