THE BATTLE LINES OF THE 1914-18 WAR REVISITED
An Address by
THE HON. LT. COL. J. KEILLER MACKAY Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Ontario
Thursday, March 29th, 1962
CHAIRMAN: The President, Dr. Z. S. Phimister.
DR. PHIMISTER: Distinguished guests and gentlemen. The Empire Club of Canada is privileged to have as its guest speaker today the representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Ontario, the Honourable John Keiller Mackay. In the British Commonwealth the Crown stands not only as a symbol of unity, but as a symbol of the highest ideals of service. The royal family stands as a beacon of service and devoted family life to all the world. This example is reflected in the lives of those throughout the world who represent the Queen in their various spheres, but in none is this devotion to duty and to service better exemplified than in the work of our honoured and distinguished guest today.
Our speaker is distinguished in the law. He has served as Royal Commissioner, later as a Judge of the High Court of Justice and later as Justice of Appeal, Supreme Court of Ontario. He has rendered community service in many organizations, and has served on many governing boards. He is recognized as a great Shakespearean scholar. Yet it is in none of these fields that today's topic will be found. Instead we go back to perhaps a main source of inspiration, to the experiences arising out of the First Great War when many men went to Flanders to face some of the most terrible tests ever known in the history of war. Some of those who returned resolved that they would not forget the sacrifices of those days, or the men who made them, or the things they stood for.
It has been the practice of our distinguished speaker to return to the scenes of 1914-1918 at regular intervals during the forty-four years that have elapsed-I suspect to renew a pact once made with his comrades of long ago.
It is this constancy, this adherence to the principles of loyalty and love which give meaning to life, which constitute the directing force in our speaker's life, and give insight into the meaning of the Biblical injunction that those who lose their lives shall gain them.
We give then a special welcome to The Honourable J. Keiller Mackay who, following his pilgrimage to France, will speak to us on the subject, "THE BATTLE-LINES OF THE 1914-1918 WAR REVISITED". His Honour, the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.
HON. J. KEILLER MACKAY: Immediately east of the town of Mons in Belgium there is a Military Cemetery, reputed to be one of the most immpressive and dignified in France or Flanders. This Cemetery was opened by the Germans in 1914 and used by the British and Commonwealth in 1918. Here side by side are two memorial stones, one marking the grave of Lieutenant Dease, Royal Irish Fusiliers, killed in action on August 23rd, 1914, and posthumously awarded the first Victoria Cross; the other that of Private G. L. Price of the 28th Battalion, Saskatchewan, killed in action on November 11th, 1918, and in all probability the last Canadian or British soldier killed before Armistice.
Some aspects of the terrible conflict which raged between the making of these two graves is my theme for today. The Great War of 1914 has passed; the tents have been struck, its mighty armies disbanded, the muster rolls laid away and the camp fires put out; but there is another army which no royal proclamation can reduce, no general orders disband. Last May I visited their camping ground which I have done every ten years since 1918. The white memorial stones that mark their resting place are their tents, the names they bear are their muster rolls, but their camp fires yet burn in our hearts.
It is not my intention to rekindle smoldering embers of international animosities or infame passions or misdirect impulses but rather to awaken in the bosoms of those who do not share our memories a sense of the incalculable loss to society and to the world which this mighty conflict necessarily entailed.
Let us imagine that the Great War of 1914 had broken out one hundred years earlier. The call to arms would have come to a group of men all of military age which included Darwin, Tindall, Huxley and Lister in the world of science; Tennyson, Browning, Matthew Arnold, Dickens, Thackeray and Ruskin in literature; Gladstone, Disraeli, Salisbury, Cobden, Bright and their great contemporaries in politics, and so on in all the other walks of life. What detriment their loss might have meant to the scientific triumphs, the intellectual interests and the general progress and prosperity of the last half of the Victorian era it is difficult even to imagine. What our loss is we shall never know but this we do know and know full well that just as the keennest and best were the first to go so the keenest and best were the first to fall leaving all their potential work for the world undone and their own high hopes unfulfilled; and when twenty-five years later in 1939 another war with its lurid spots and crimson stains called its roll of martyrs the ghastly hiatus in the advancing hosts of humanity is almost beyond mortal comprehension.
The City of Verdun and adjacent area is enshrined forever in the hearts of the people of France and indeed in the hearts of all the Allied nations. Situated on the main thoroughfare from Strassburg and Metz to Paris, Verdun was defended by the great forts of Vaux and Douaumont. For four devastating years the soldiers of France maintained a living wall against one of the greatest onslaughts of the world's then most formidable military power. From August 22nd, 1914, until the hour of the Armistice, there was not a single day that this area was not under determined and devastating bombardment. From February to July 1916, this field of Vaux and Douaumont withstood the greatest concentration and intensity of offensive attack ever brought to bear on any objective during the years of that terrible war. An area of over twenty five miles on either side of the battleline became a chaotic desert stripped of all vegetation, covered only by corpses torn to pieces and littered with human bones. Over four hundred thousand French soldiers were killed, less than a third of whom were identified. It was here that Marshal Petain used those words familiar and immortal, "they shall not pass."
In the centre of the Douaumont battlefield six miles from Verdun is an Ossuary and Shrine transcendent in solemn grandeur and majestic dignity; indeed a lament in stone and marble, shaped like a gigantic vault four hundred and seventeen feet long with a tower one hundred and fifty feet high at the top of which is a bell weighing two and a half tons, which tolls three times a day. At the very summit of this Tower a great beacon of four revolving lights casts its multi-colored beams over a range of 25 kilometres. On the main floor of the Shrine are thirty-six arches, each with imposing and impressive memorials. The Chapel with stained glass windows of impressive beauty depicts on the Gospel side Christ embracing a soldier, and on the Epistle side the Ascending Christ, on his left a Soldier and on his right a nurse, both being carried to Heaven by the Angels. In the Crypt under the Ossuary are the bones of one hundred and twenty thousand unidentified soldiers. Outside is a cemetery of thirty thousand with areas allotted to Moslem and Jewish dead.
Nearby can be seen a spectacle which should stir the deepest emotions of mankind, the Trench of Bayonets. A Company of French soldiers standing in a trench with bayonets fixed ready to spring to the assault were entombed by the convulsions and violent contortions of the earth brought about by powerful detonations. Here today, fortysix years later these soldiers stand magnificent in death, the bayonets of their rifles still fixed and protruding in a straight line through the earth which covers the mortal remains of those gallant sons of France.
In 1919 President Poincairi invested the entire City of Verdun with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. Leaving Verdun and following the Battlelines northwest towards Reims are scores of cemeteries where French, American, German and Italian soldiers are buried. No British or Commonwealth troops served in this sector.
The Cathedral of Reims is justifiably honoured among the cathedrals of the world for its perfect proportions, its architectural beauty and great artistic merits. If has been said that France has been born of an act of Faith on a Battlefield and the Town of Reims was singularly privileged in being the scene of this memorable genesis. Clovis who founded the Monarchy of France in the fifth century vowed that if he were victorious in battle he would become a Christian and being victorious he was baptised on Christmas Day in the year 496. This was the deciding factor in the Cathedral of Reims being chosen as the place of Coronation of the Kings of France. All the Kings of France with few exceptions were anointed and crowned here, the last being Charles X in 1825.
In September 1914 the Cathedral and the City suffered greatly by the German bombardment and invasion. Scarcely a roof in the City was left intact, but happily the walls of the Cathedral were not damaged beyond repair and by a generous gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Cathedral has been restored to its former beauty as a gem of architectural and structural excellence.
Not far away is the College Moderne et Technique. Here on the 7th day of May 1945, General Jodl, at that time Commander in Chief of the German Forces, and Admiral Van Friedeberg, Chief of the Admiralty, executed a document of unconditional surrender to the Allies. The table and chairs occupied by the Germans and Allies are in the same position and order as on the day of the capitulation. The Germans were seated so that they could see immediately in front, posted on the wall, a giant chart indicating that between June 6th, 1944, and May 7th, 1945, the number of German soldiers captured by the Allied Forces were 4,035,000 or 161 German Divisions.
Continuing westerly there is at Chateau Thiery a large American Cemetery and monument of surpassing grandeur; and nearby can be seen the old trenches where the Americans fought with dauntless valour in what was really their baptism of fire in the summer of 1918.
Crossing the Marne and the Aisne we traversed the sites of the Battle of the Marne which commenced on the 6th day of September, 1914. It will be remembered that the German armies on the 2nd of September, 1914, reached a point twelve miles from the easterly outskirts of Paris, and their Commander Von Kluck, attempting to execute an encircling manoeuvre to the south west, violated a wellknown principle in military strategy "never to expose a flank to an undefeated army". General Joffre was not slow to appreciate the opportunity and threw all his forces, including the British Expeditionary Force of seven divisions and General Gallienne's Garrison of Paris, transported to the battlelines by 2000 taxi cabs, upon the German flank. Von Kluck realizing his untenable position retreated some 30 miles across the Marne to a line along the Aisne from south of Arras, through Albert, Chemin des Dames, Soissons and Reims, where they remained for over three years.
Here I pause to cite an engagement which will live forever in military history.
On the night of August 31st-September 1st, 1914-the 2nd and 4th Cavalry Brigade and L. Battery, R.H.A. during the great retreat from Mons bivouacked in a village called Nery, between the Forest of Compiegne and the Marne. At daybreak Lieutenant Tailby, when on patrol, was surprised by the approach of German Cavalry which proved to be six regiments supported by two 6-gun batteries of horse artillery. He had scarcely time to gallop back to warn his brigade before shot and shell began to fly thickly into the village. L. Battery was parked in an orchard, unhappily in a position where because of the physical features of the ground, only three guns could be brought into action. The German artillery concentrated their fire on this Battery. Two guns received direct hits, but the third continued its fire. Captain Bradbury, Officer Commanding, received a direct hit which cut off his right leg. He propped himself against a limber wheel and continued to direct the fire until he dropped dead. All the Officers were either killed or wounded and Sergeant-Major Dorrell together with Sergeant Nelson and the gun layer, carried on this unequal and preposterous duel against twelve guns of the enemy. The Cavalry dismounted and under cover brought heavy machine-gun fire on the German cavalry and guns who beat a hasty retreat abandoning eight of their twelve guns and a maxim. The 11th Hussars who had come up in the meantime pursued the enemy, capturing fifty horses and a number of prisoners. The whole affair lasted little over an hour. L. Battery lost seven Officers and only three men of the entire unit emerged unwounded.
It is at least satisfying to know that the last shot in that unequal duel was fired at the backs of the retreating Germans by that one gun of L. Battery still in action. Captain Bradbury, Sergeant-Major Dorrell and Sergeant Nelson were awarded the Victoria Cross, the former posthumously.
When you are next in London try to find time to visit the British Museum where you will see that blood-stained, broken gun preserved as a lasting tribute to the invincible valour of the officers and men of L. Battery R.H.A.
Nearby is the Wood of Compiegne. Here from a railway car, General Foch dictated Armistice terms to the German representatives in 1918; and in the same car in 1940 Hitler dictated terms to that part of France represented by Marshal Petain.
Proceeding along Chemin des Dames the scene of bitter fighting during the greater part of the war, thence to Peronne, Bapaume and the Somme. The great Somme offensive commenced July I st, 1916, and continued until the first week of December of that year, during which time the British and Commonwealth Armies gained not more than ten miles at a cost of well over half a million killed. At Thiepvale, near Courcelette, there is inscribed on one majestic memorial the names of 73,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed during the Battle of the Somme who have no known graves. There are over sixty British and Commonwealth Cemeteries in this area in which more than 20,000 memorial stones bear the insignia of the Maple Leaf. Here at the opening of the Somme Battle the Newfoundland Division fought with great valour, sustaining heavy losses. A magnificent monument and park is dedicated to their memory. The names of Contalmaison, La Boiselle, Poziers, Courcelette, Thiepvale, Mokie Farm, Delville Wood in the area of the Somme will be remembered with solemn pride throughout succeeding generations of Canadians and recorded in the annals of high military achievement.
Thence to Arras, Vimy Ridge (with its stately Canadian Memorial which is well known to the Canadian people), Notre Dame de Lorette where a second French Shrine of touching grandeur and solemn beauty stands as if on guard in the midst of a cemetery of 46,000 French graves. At La Targette and Auritz there are many Canadian cemeteries and one German cemetery of 59,000. At Loos there is a magnificent memorial to the memory of 10,000 Scots who were killed on the morning of 25th of September, 1915.
Thence northerly past an impressive memorial erected to the memory of Indian troops to Festubert, La Basse, Givenchy, Mount Sorrel, Messines, Ploegstreet, Armentiers into Belgium, Wulverghem, Mount Kemmel, St. Eloi, Voormezeele, Dickebusche, the Ypres Salient, Sanctuary Wood and Hooge. At Hooge, the eastern point or apex of the Ypres Salient, several acres are fenced off and retained much as it was in 1918. For a few francs admission one can see the old trenches, machine guns still in their emplacements, trench mortars, minnawhiffers, exploded shells; Mills bombs and grenades and all the then paraphenalia of cruel and ruthless trench warfare. At the admission house are hundreds of pictures taken during the war years of those trenches in all their naked horror.
Thence to Zonnebeke, Zillibeke, Hell Fire Corner, Passchendaele, St. Julien, Langemark and Ypres.
The battle of Messine Ridge began on June 7th, 1917, and ended at Passchendaele about the middle of November. At first this battle attained considerable success but finally resolved itself into a campaign rather than a battle. As early as the last of September further advance in that sector was bogged down and was greatly impeded by autumn rains. I have not the power of speech to express the indescribable horror and utter futility of the Campaign. So fruitless in its results, so depressing in its direction, the very name "Passchendaele" has become a synonym for military ineptitude and barrenness. Arms and the indissoluable union and imperishable brotherhood of our people.
To these memorials and monuments we should send our children's children to reverence the names and memory of those who enobled Canada and her history by the shedding of their precious blood, and may the Omnipotent God forget us if we forget them.
"Nor shall their glory be forgot While fame her record keeps; Or honour points the hallowed spot Where valour proudly sleeps."
But when the plaintiff strains of the Last Post have faded in the distance there are the challenging notes of reveille. The scene before me passes and I catch a vision of a mighty army with banners, and as that army of the dead sweep by, I hear a great chorus not of grief but of life and joy and exaltation. Our fallen comrades, if they should speak to us, would bid us think of life, not death-life to which they gave the beauty, the valour and the glory of spring-and beyond that awe-inspiring orchestra of seen and unseen powers, and destinies yet unrevealed, our trumpets sound forth a reassuring note of daring, hope and will.
THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Lt. Col. Bruce J. Legge. At St. Julien, the scene of the first gas attack, where the Canadians won immortal glory on April 21, 22, 23, 1915, there is a memorial of stately grandeur set amidst towering evergreens. Is it too much to say that as long as memory holds a seat in this distracted globe the story of the dauntless courage and invincible valour of Canadian arms in the midst of asphyxiating gas in the Second Battle of Ypres will be told with moving emotion and legitimate pride.
In the Town of Ypres the Great Cloth Hall and stately Cathedral, as well as every other building, were razed to the ground. Here stands the majestic Menin Gate Memorial bearing the names of 55,000 killed in the Salient who have no known graves, over 10,000 of whom are Canadians. Within a few kilometres of Ypres over l,000,000 died. In this area alone there are 137 military cemeteries.
On the evening of May 2nd last year, along with my wife and two sons who accompanied me on this high and inspiring pilgrimage, I presented under the silent majesty of the Menin Gate to the Burgermaster of Ypres and to the Chairman of the Last Post Fund, on behalf of Colonel E. C. Lancaster of St. Catharines, two silver trumpets. This presentation was made in the presence of a vast concourse of the people of Ypres and military representatives from Great Britain, France and Canada. When at nightfall four trumpeters sounded the Last Post the solemn grandeur of the moment, the rushing waves of sentiment and the flowing tide of stirring memories almost overwhelmed me. Once again I saw the forces of Great Britain, of the Dominions and of Belgium, yea and gallant France, hurl themselves with invincible valour on the advancing or retreating foe. Once again I saw the blood of France, Belgium, the British stream on the same field. In those myriad graves their bodies were deposited. The rain and the dew now fall from heaven upon their union in the tomb and the green corn of spring has broken forty-six times from their commingled dust. Yea, every hill and valley that invests that long line from Soissons to the North Sea is sacred as a battleground of Canada, consecrated by those who fought and doubly consecrated and hallowed by those who fell; rich with memories of brave and heroic youth, speaking an eloquent witness to the matchless valour of their hearts, the deathless glory of their