Dunnville Heritage Society Meeting
Soldiers from Dunnville Fight a Great War; the Third Battle of Ypres
by John Taylor for the Dunnville Free Press
Submitted Wednesday, Dec 01, 2015
The Dunnville Heritage Society continued its series on the First World War on November 25th. The speaker, resident historian Judy, focused this time on Lens and Passchendaele, part of the battle of Aras, especially the third battle of Ypres. This consisted of two excruciating but brilliantly planned attacks by Canadian troops in the mud and blood of Belgium over the summer and fall of 1917. Specially featured were the stories of several Dunnville "boys."
One was farmer and professional runner Edwin Wood, who before the war ran, sometimes successfully, against the famous sprinter from Six Nations, Tom Longboat. Longboat also served in the Canadian army as a dispatch runner, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war. Another featured soldier was hockey player Jack Munro, who joined the 114th. She told of how even hockey was, in those days, extremely brutal, arduous and dangerous. The slide show included family photos of Munro and brothers Robert and James Bennett, with several other brothers, who also served. Bennett became a lawyer after the war. The youngest in the photo was wearing skirts. He was not a girl but a boy, Judy explained. In those days a young boy had to earn his trousers.
The story starts when Canada's army in 1917 was just coming off a heady victory at Vimy Ridge. We were ordered to conduct two attacks that seemed extremely tough, not to say dubious and suicidal. Only vigorous intervention and near insubordination by Canada's unsung hero, General Arthur Currie, kept subsequent events from turning into the sort of meaningless bloodbath that was going on, well, just about everywhere else on the front. By one account, if Currie had been part of General Douglas "Butcher of the Somme" Haig's own staff, he would have been summarily fired for thus defending the lives of his troops. Fortunately, for diplomatic reasons, he was immune. For Haig, the push had only one objective, to distract the German enemy from the parlous state of larger armies to the south, especially that of the French. Otherwise, their success or failure had no strategic value, although at that low point in the fighting any good news at all had great psychological effect, both in France and on the home front in Canada.
Make no mistake. This was a low point in a very low war. Aristocratic fops leading the French military treated their men with open contempt as cannon fodder. After some 700,000 casualties at Verdun, France's army was on the verge of mass mutiny. The challenge was keeping it a secret from the Germans, who would have walked over them had they known. Finally Joffre, the "butcher of Verdun," was replaced by Gen. Philippe Petain, who placated his expendables by, in effect, promising to just stop attacking. He would thus abate the lemming-like rush into machine gun fire and an early grave. It is telling that in this war no fewer than three generals earned the nickname "the butcher."
Currie did what few other generals bothered to do. He went out and inspected the situation with his own eyes. When he did, he was appalled. He insisted on getting enough men and equipment to have a fighting chance do what Canada was ordered to do. After meticulous preparation, Currie finally had our force ready. The Third Battle of Ypres began under horrific conditions, including a monsoon that had everybody hip deep in mud. To greet us, the Germans introduced two surprises for this battle. These technological innovations, mustard gas and flame throwers, were firsts in the history of warfare. By this time, two of the Dunnville soldiers we looked at had already been killed or went missing, along with 200,000 others from across Canada. For more information about the battle, see:
The Battle of Passchendaele has been immortalized in a feature film of that name by Paul Gross. The success of Canadian troops in these storming the lines -- in English, shock troops, was so impressive to the Germans that they dubbed Canadians Stoßtruppen, or "Storm Troopers." A nice bit of trivia to tell your kids as they watch the upcoming Stars Wars reboot film opening this month. Tell them that the original storm troopers were not only good guys, they were our guys. Some even came from Dunnville.