Day 8: Pegasus Bridge

Today we saw Pegasus Bridge, the location where the British airborne units were dropped in Normandy to secure the area as part of the D-Day invasion. The museum featured information and items from paratroopers, including an example of a decoy paratrooper named “Rupert” – definitely sounds British! 

I bought a few souvenirs from the gift shop, including a cricket clicker…for those of you who have seen Band of Brothers you will know what I’m talking about! The paratroopers used them to communicate with one another by making a clicking sound, similar to a cricket, rather than talking and risking the Germans hearing them. If they were exciting for us to use, I’m sure my future students will love them too!

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Day 7: Dieppe

Why Dieppe? This is a question that I have often heard asked about the Dieppe raid. There are different variations of the question: Why did the Allies choose this particular location to launch a raid? Why 19 August? What was the purpose of the raid? Why was it the Canadians who carried out the raid? These questions are often asked in light of knowing the result of the Dieppe raid, and with the assumption that Dieppe was a massive failure in all regards. 

During our visit to Dieppe, we were encouraged to cast aside the privilege of hindsight and consider the information the Allies had at the time that went into the decision making process. For example there were only a few locations along the French coast that were close enough to England for transporting the troops and to allow for the provision of air support. There were also considerations to be made for weather conditions, tides (to be able to land and then withdraw once objectives were reached), and moon phase (at new moon, so the landing craft would not be seen in the moonlight by the Germans). Each of these factors contributed to narrowing the window of opportunity and where a raid could be launched. The original plan was also altered to a frontal attack on the main beaches rather than from the rear because of difficulties constructing bridges to cross the rivers along the way.
We also discussed that there was an increasing need for Britain to relieve pressure from Russia in the east by opening up a second front in the west. There was also pressure on the home front to see our troops in action at this point in the war. In many cases people are not satisfied with these explanations and are searching for a single purpose for the raid. However, it is only by considering all of these factors of what decision makers knew at the time that we can begin to understand why Dieppe happened.

I presented at Dieppe on the Essex Scottish regiment that fought as part of the frontal attack at Red Beach. I was shocked when I read there were 75% casualty rates with the regiment by the time they withdrew at 11am. I found that doing research into the experiences of the Essex Scottish on August 19 was a helpful exercise in expanding my knowledge of the operational side of Dieppe, rather than just a focus on how we remember the raid overall. Despite an examination of secondary sources and excerpts of the war diaries, contributing to what I thought was a thorough understanding of what happened at Red Beach, I found the conceptions I had crafted in my head to be entirely different when I saw the landscape before me. This is what I think is the greatest value of this trip – the experiential learning, viewing the landscape in real life alongside the maps and text. As our leaders began to explain what occurred for other regiments surrounding the Essex Scottish, I was able to situate them within the larger context of the raid.

Now that I have addressed the question “why Dieppe” according to our conversations that day, I’d like to explain why I chose to present there. When thinking back to when my interest in the First and Second World War began, I trace it back to my Grade 10 Canadian history class. At the end of the course, I wrote my final essay on Dieppe. When I went through my old files I was surprised to find that I still have a copy of the essay. I think it’s pretty good for grade 10, but I now know that when I teach about Dieppe to students I have to ensure they aren’t thinking about the raid ahistorically. My paper argued that the lessons learned at Dieppe were important to the success of Normandy, which may be true in part, but we must consider Dieppe with the information they knew at the time. I’ve certainly come a long way in my thinking!

Day 6: Wellington Quarry

The highlight of the day was having the opportunity to tour the Wellington Quarry in Arras. The quarry features several kilometres of tunnels created by the Allied forces during the First World War which expanded upon the tunnels and quarries built by the Romans. Our tour guide was informative and had a great sense of humour (which is important for dealing with a group like ours!), and the museum and tunnel exhibits were well laid out. We began by assuming the “look” of a soldier with a helmet and head set, which was used to listen to narrations and music along the tunnels. We even saw some original drawings on the tunnel walls. Many people are familiar with the tunnels at Vimy but I would highly recommend this tour as well because it incorporated a lot of technology and was very engaging!

Day 5: I Wanna Be in the Cavalry

Today was very valuable for providing me with a better understanding of post-Vimy events of the First World War. As a result of how the final months of the war have been taught to me in the past, I didn’t feel like I would be completely comfortable teaching it to a class of History students in the future. We emphasize the Canadians at Vimy, mention Passchendaele, and then often portray a quick, even inevitable, end to the war by moving forward in time to the final Hundred Days. But as I learned, there was much more going on.

During our talks in Amiens we talked about the increasing effectiveness of the Canadian corps at this later stage in the war, and our guides emphasized the importance of making comparisons between the Canadians and other Allied forces, in this case the Australians. As a student learning about the war, I was rarely taught anything outside of the Canadian and British perspective. We had many great views of the battlefields throughout the day, which allowed me to contextualize the Canadians within the bigger picture and see the maps come to life.
On a less serious note… 

Our drivers/guides are fantastic and have such a great dynamic and different areas of expertise. I particularly like the driving soundtrack…We learned that the Canadian cavalry played a role in the Battle of Moreuil Wood in March 1918. As we drove up to the monument to the cavalry, our driver played the song “I Wanna Be In the Cavalry” to set the mood. 

Here is the link to the song in case you’re curious: https://youtu.be/Ey1OwxPtwqk

Day Four: Private George Copeland

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share the story of one soldier killed during the First World War with our tour group. I was able to present near the location Private George Copeland fought on the Somme, at what was once a sugar factory. It is now a private residence and our tour guides said it would be alright for us to pull into the driveway, get out quickly and present there, but the lady who owned the place came outside. I didn’t really understand the conversations that happened but saw what I thought was a smile on her face, so I figured she was glad to hear that we were honouring a soldier. As it turns out she did not want us on her property, so we quickly got back into the vans and pulled onto the side of the road for the presentation. It was certainly an eventful start! Here is my presentation and a few photographs: 

I decided to select a local soldier from my hometown of Innisfil to honour today by sharing his story with you. He didn’t win any medals, there are no books written about him, and his name is not well known in our community. Like so many others during the First World War, Private George Copeland was an ordinary soldier whose story deserves to be told. 

George Albert Copeland was born in Innisfil Township on 31 January 1892 to William Copeland and Sarah Donaldson. I contacted the Innisfil Historical Society, but wasn’t able to locate much information about his life before the war. A local newspaper report of his death mentions that he was born and educated in Cookstown (a small area of Innisfil, about a 10 minute drive from where I live). His personnel records also identify his “trade or calling” as “farmer.”  

Copeland enlisted in Cookstown on 15 September 1915 with the 76th Canadian Infantry Battalion. He trained at Camp Niagara, and sailed from Halifax to England aboard the S.S. Empress of Britain. Private Copeland was transferred to the 24th Canadian Infantry Battalion in France. According to his personnel records, he contracted German measles and was treated in hospital between 22 May and 6 June 1916. On 17 September 1916, one year after enlisting, Private Copeland was killed near a sugar factory in Courcelette, which I have been able to identity on a map of the Somme. According to the battalion’s war diary, 3 of the battalion’s companies were to attack the German front line along a distance of approximately 700 yards. The attack commenced at 5pm and A and C  Companies reached their objectives while D Company on the extreme right was unable to meet their objective. Many of the men in D Company were killed before they got over the parapet, and the men who managed to advance were held up in the German wire and shot down. The war diary states “With regard to this attack, if the Artillery preparation had been in any way adequate there is no doubt but that the objective would have been obtained along the whole line.”

Private Copeland’s personnel records do not indicate his exact role in the attack on 17 September or the specifics of his death. However, when I contacted the Innisfil Historical Society, they provided an excerpt from a local book about First World War soldiers. This excerpt states that Private Copeland was one of a fatigue party carrying bombs from a reserve trench to the front line on the Somme. While passing the sugar factory he was killed by flying shrapnel from a German shell. I have been unable to confirm these details myself. According to the Canadian War Graves Commission website, 1496 Allied soldiers were killed that day, among them 318 Canadians. There was some initial confusion over whether Private Copeland was wounded or killed in action. The Toronto Star reported his death on 27 November 1916, stating the following, “Word has been received by his brother in Toronto that Private George A. Copeland has been officially reported as killed. His mother at Cookstown received a telegram on Thanksgiving Day advising her that he had been wounded on September 17. From that time until yesterday the repeated efforts of his family have been unsuccessful in getting any information about him whatever. Yesterday they got a wire from Ottawa advising them that he was reported killed instead of wounded.” Another local newspaper reported, “Sad news came to town on Friday last when word was received that Private George A. Copeland, second youngest son of Mr. and Mrs. William Copeland was killed in action on September 17.” Private George Copeland’s name appears here on the Vimy Memorial, alongside the names of over 11,000 other Canadian soldiers who were posted as “missing, presumed dead” in France.  

When I was back home over the Easter Weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the local “Veterans Memorial Park” in Cookstown where Private Copeland’s name also appears. I  remember passing by the memorial but have never viewed it up close – it’s a very nice area. The sign at the location explains that in 1917, a committee of local residents was formed with the task of creating a dignified and lasting memorial to those who served and to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. They decided on a Memorial Park, where sixty-five Maple trees would be planted to honour each man who enlisted from Cookstown. Most of these trees still stand at this site. The cenotaph located at this Park was designed and constructed by Alfred Davis, and officially dedicated to the community in August 1935. The town added another plaque in memory of the soldiers killed during the Second World War, as well as a stone for Korea. A German trench mortar sits in the garden in front of the memorial.  In the nearby Saint John’s Anglican Church Cemetery, a family gravestone marks the burial of George Copeland’s family members. I learned that George had an infant brother named Harry, born two years after him, who died at the age of 3 months old. George Copeland’s mother also passed away at the age of 63 on 17 July 1917, just less than a year after her son. I was unable to determine the cause of death. George Copeland’s name is also included on the gravestone alongside theirs. I will conclude with the inscription that reads, “He bravely answered duty’s call. His life he gave for one and all.” 

Day Three: Thiepval Memorial

The highlight of the day for me was visiting the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The memorial lists the names of over 72,000 soldiers from Britain and South Africa who died in the Battles of the Somme and have no known grave. It’s quite an impressive monument that can be seen from a distance as you approach, despite being in a forested area. First we walked through an interpretive centre about the Somme and the building of the memorial, then proceeded to the memorial. As the path curves there is a clearing in the trees and the memorial is before you. The memorial offers a stunning view of the Somme landscape. It’s so beautiful and peaceful, it’s hard to imagine the destruction and carnage of the bloody and muddy Somme battles.

Day Two: In Flanders Fields

I’m going to cheat a little and copy my blog post for the CBF tour blog here, entitled “Sounds of War and Memory.”

As I reflect on the day, one of the elements that stands out for me is the way that the locations we visited appealed to our different senses, especially sound. My ongoing research examines music during the First World War so I think that I am especially attuned to what we are hearing, in addition to what we see and touch throughout the tour. A consideration of the sounds of war and memory offers a unique lens through which we can view the different locations we visited today.

Our first stop was Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, the largest hospital cemetery of the Flanders region in Belgium. Inside the visitor’s centre a blank red “listening” wall encloses an exhibit about the cemetery. Along the wall are symbols of an ear which, when pressed, play short audio recordings of letters and war diaries to detail the experiences of the individual soldier. In order to hear the recording you must place your ear quite close to the wall, creating an intimate sense of being directly spoken to by the soldiers. I thought this interactive part of the exhibit was unique as it allowed you to focus solely on hearing the voices in the wall, without reading any accompanying write-ups or examining photographs. The individual experience was at the forefront of this aspect of the exhibit.

Our final stop of the morning was at Essex Farm Cemetery where we saw a monument commemorating the composition of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. The recitation of this poem has become a significant part of Remembrance Day ceremonies across Canada, and is also a well known war poem outside of our country. In many ways, McCrae’s words and the messages he expressed shape how we commemorate the war today, particularly through the symbol of the red poppy to honour the memory of soldiers. Although we did not read this poem aloud today, I found that for the rest of the day I had the melody for the song “In Flanders Field” replaying in my head. I thought more about this song adaptation and how it demonstrates the popularity of McCrae’s poem at the time the song was composed in 1917, particularly with the home front audience at which it was directed.

Following lunch, we toured the In Flanders Fields museum located in the Cloth Hall in Ypres. Our group discussed the distinct message of the museum that emphasized the destruction of war at the hands of imperialists. The dark walls, jagged exhibit dividers, and the projection of coloured lights in shades of red and green all contributed to an ominous feeling throughout. However, it was not just the visuals that allowed the museum to portray its messages but the sounds also had a role to play. There was a continuous recording of an organ playing throughout the exhibit. The constant, drawn out notes became so much a part of the overall experience for me that I almost forgot about the music after awhile, until it stopped suddenly. That was when I realized how important the sounds were to setting the mood within the museum.
The highlight of the day for me, and perhaps the most aural experience, was attending the ceremony at the Menin Gate. Music has continued to play a significant role in commemorative ceremonies over the years – from pipe and brass bands to buglers. There are certain constants with the music, for example the playing of the Last Post (as we heard tonight) contributing to a sense of unity and conformity across many of the nations that fought in the war. Music evokes the emotions, and that was certainly the case for me as I listened to the buglers and band play while viewing the thousands of names of those killed during the war inscribed on the walls.
As we continue along the tour I will continue to reflect upon the sounds presented to us in different forms, and how they contribute towards the constructed memory of the war.

Day One: Arrival in Europe and Ypres

After meeting at Pearson Airport we boarded the plane to Paris. As you may know, I am not a great flier but the flight was alright, aside from quite a bit of turbulence at the beginning. I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – you can always rely on wizards to keep your mind off of flying! When we arrived at de Gaulle airport we had a brief wait while our guides picked up the vans. Somehow we managed to fit everyone’s suitcases in them! 

We began our drive to Ypres, Belgium, stopping along the way at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne. The museum is located within a medieval castle, and offers a unique perspective of the First World War. The exhibits focus on the social and cultural aspects of the War, drawing comparisons between experiences and material culture from Britain, France, and Germany. I had the opportunity to compare some sheet music from each of those countries, and another interesting item that appeared frequently were board games on war themes, like “Trench Football.” Military artifacts are displayed in the centre of the galleries, in pits dug in the floor, drawing the gaze of visitors downwards. Our group discussed the contrast between looking downwards in this museum, to looking up to the sky for most memorials that commemorate soldiers. 

Our next stop was at the Brooding Soldier monument in St. Julien, commemorating Canadian participation in the Second Battle of Ypres (where gas was first used). The design of the monument was the runner up in a national competition, after Walter Allward’s design for the current memorial at Vimy. One thing I hadn’t really considered was the fact that the memorial at St. Julien was constructed long before Vimy, which wasn’t until 1936. Our group discussed the fact that in light of the construction of the Vimy Memorial attention shifted away from St. Julien and many Canadians aren’t familiar with the site.

The final stop of the day was at the German cemetery Langemark where over 44,000 soldiers were buried. From the photos you can see the graves are located in a treed area, with dark gravestones, to contrast the white gravestones and openness of the Commonwealth War Graves (see next posts). There is also a mass grave with over 24,000 soldiers, about 8,000 of who are unidentified. 

To finish off the day we had our first meal in Belgium, and I tried Belgian raspberry beer! 🙂

Zero Hour

The day is finally here! I will be heading to the airport shortly to meet up with our group and fly to Paris where we will begin our tour.

The last few days have been pretty busy and even a little stressful at times – especially the horribly timed car issues. I’m glad the car is getting fixed while I’m away!!

But I’ve had a chance to relax a bit back home and gather any last minute items I need. Now I’m all packed and ready to go! A big ‘thank you’ to everyone I know who has attended the tour, or a similar one, in the past and given me helpful tips and advice…and adaptors, a travel hairdryer, and a small French-English Dictionary! 🙂

Au revoir!

Where it all began…

While gathering some items I need for the trip I came across the trench project I still have from my Grade 10 Canadian History class. Some might call me a hoarder (a few have, especially when it comes to books!), but I’ve always thought that keeping the project would come in handy some day as a teacher. Which is the same argument I use to justify the three boxes of school assignments and projects I’ve collected over the years – but that’s a story for another time!

I decided to write this post to share some photos of my project, as that class was the earliest I remember learning about the First World War and being so fascinated by it. I think the project was really beneficial for allowing us to gain a better sense of the trench system and what life might have been like at the Front. In about a week’s time, I’ll have a chance to see (reconstructed) trenches in real life!