The forty men sitting in the field that night knew what was about to happen, at least in the final moments. There was furtive talk about escape, as each passing moment revealed to them their coming doom.
They were no doubt tired, it had been a long two days. Two days earlier most of them were amongst the first wave of men hitting the shores in the Normandy Invasion, D-Day. Most were Royal Winnipeg Rifles, but there was a smattering of men amongst them from other regiments as well. They had fought their way ashore, and established that beachhead, losing friends and comrades beside them.
Then they had fought their way inland, across the Normandy country side, and at Putot-en-Basin, they dug in at the edge of town, along the railway to await the counter attack. It hit them with a ferocity that overwhelmed them, and the Rifles were nearly wiped out. Almost three of their four companies were killed, wounded or captured by the attacking 12th Panzer SS, the Hitlerjugend. Unsupported by armour, and harassed by snipers in the village the survivors withdrew under a haze of smoke.
A determined Canadian Scottish counter attack, this time with tanks and artillery support, beat back the Hitler Youth, and saved the line. By that time, these forty men, some wounded, most exhausted, were being slowly moved back of the forward area.
At one of the German headquarters their captors fielded a call from a furious Staff Officer. He had just received another group of prisoners and his message was clear, he did not want more prisoners taken. They were sent back regardless, as soon as the guards returned from the previous prisoner transfer.
They were marched down a dirt road in the growing dark. And as they reached the road to Caen a German convoy was moving down the road, but they stopped as they reached the prisoners. The prisoners were made to sit in the field, as the Staff Officer berated the Sergeant leading the guards. Soon the guards, joined by SS soldiers were issued with machine pistols, and closed in on the men.
It was clear what was about to happen and one of the Rifle officers began to try and talk to his captors, others whispered amongst themselves to run for the fields as soon as the shooting started. And then one of their executioners called out in clear English "And now you die".
When the shooting started most in the closest rows were cut down immediately. Some jumped and ran for the crops in the fields surrounding them. Some were killed but four, wounded and scared made it to the standing crop and hid or crawled away. One prisoner, sat motionless, amazingly unscathed. As the shock wore off he dropped down and slowly crawled to the wheat. Amazingly no one saw him.
Five escaped, momentarily, all were soon recaptured, but by less fanatical units, and spent the war in POW camps. Thirty five men died in that field, executed d'hor combat. They were buried in a shallow mass grave, their fate unknown until the end of the war, when the story of that night emerged, and their bodies were recovered. It was over a year before their families learned that they weren't missing, but had in fact been murdered.
Among those men was my cousin. His death, sixty-six years ago today, was but one sacrifice in a war filled with them. But that death has profoundly shaped who I am, at least in part. I grew up with this story, and having been named after him I can not separate myself from it. His history is part of mine, and although I can not imagine what he felt, what he thought, in those final moments, I understand his sacrifice, and his call to service.
And I am forever grateful to him, and hope that I have carried his name well.
For many reasons this is probably my favourite photo from our vacation. I've played with it in a variety of styles, and it works in almost all of them. I debated whether to post this processed as a Bleach Bypass photo, or this B&W version of it.
I missed being home with my mother for Mother's Day by only a couple of days. The last time I saw her, on Thursday (not including Skype) she was crying, as were my daughter and son. I don't know how long her tears lasted, but I know we were some 20 minutes south of Roblin before Hilary's stopped, and Travis was near as tenacious in tears.
It is hard to put into words all the ways that my mother has influenced my life, but as I told her last week, this apple hasn't fallen very far from her tree. We may be thousands of kilometres away, but she is never far from my thoughts.
So with the return of Snowbuntings, Travis (and I) have been wanting to get out and find more of them. Travis, bless his heart, has been keeping a running total of the numbers that he has seen, which I believe is 23 as opposed to my single bird.
So after he got back from school, he and I, along with Hilary and a class mate of his, went out for a walk to see what we could see.
Birds? Well, no. But there was this great hill, and a borrowed sled....
From one o'clock until five thirty, thousands of men - quiet. The locking ring on our bayonets were a little loose. When the order to "Fix bayonets" went along the line, you'd think there were a thousand bees coming. You trembled, waiting. -- F. MacGregor, 25th Battalion CEF
Today has been named Vimy Ridge Day by the Canadian Government, after the battle that happened 93 years ago. It is also marking the end of an era, as the last surviving Canadian soldier from the Canadian Expeditionary Force, John Babcock, died a short while ago.
I can't imagine, as hard as I try, what those men experienced that day. I can't imagine the tension pressed into that dirt trench with hundreds of others, listening to those thousand bees, waiting. And then the ear splitting barrage opening up seconds later.
It was just like a continuous sheet of lightening, like a prairie fire behind us, and it was utterly dark still, pitch black. You could hear this tremendous swish of the shells overhead and then just a continuous crash along the line. -- E.S. Russenholt, 44th Battalion CEF
We were dancing a macabre dance as our nerves just vibrated to the thousands of shells and the millions of machine gun bullets that were whizzing over. And I felt that if I had put my finger up I should have touched a ceiling of sound because sound had acquired a new quality, the quality of solidity. -- Gus Sivertz, 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, CEF.
I can't imagine throwing yourself into that fray, out of the tenuous safety of the trench, into the maelstrom of steel, mud and fire. Watching friends and comrades killed and wounded.
I could see this one going, that one going, and I'll never forget, there was a chap, his both legs shot off, and there he was on his stumps, and he was still using his gun to go forward. Oh, gee! It was terrible. -- G. Dorman, 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, CEF
That's when we lost all the men. We lost over a hundred going from our trench to the first line of the German trench - the machine guns! -- Vic Armstrong, 10th Battalion CEF
And family... My brother, whom I lost at Vimy, was just a very few feet from me when I lost him actually. He was wounded first and I dropped into the shellhole to give him first aid, and after giving him first aid I left him. Of course I couldn't stay and apparently he raised up in the shellhole to watch me, see where I went, and I heard the shot fired, and heard it land and turned around to see him fall. I got back to him a second time and he was gone, and of course I couldn't stay and I went forward with my troops. But there was always doubt in my mind that in the heat of battle I may have been mistaken, that maybe he hadn't been killed and that probably at some future time he might show up. I always had that on my mind for a long long time. -- A. Farmer, Machine Gun Corps, CEF
And the feelings of finally making their objective, of taking Vimy Ridge. But at such cost.
It was hard to realize that Vimy Ridge had been captured and on schedule. There were no cheers and no gleeful shouts. All ranks look over the great expanse of new country silently. -- H.R.H. Clyne, 29th Battalion CEF
I cannot imagine, but I can be grateful, and remember. Remember their work, their sacrifices, and their loss. And especially grateful for one that made it through that fray.
Just a few lines on this my birthday to let you know I came through the big scrap OK. I haven't time to write much but just want to say how glad I am. Louis came through alright too. Dan Holmes was wounded and I think Stewart McNicol was killed. You will know long before you get this anyway. I truly hope that I will celebrate my next birthday at home with you all. -- Alvin Kines, 16th Battalion CEF, and my Grandfather.
I was up rather late the night before last. So when the alarm went off yesterday morning I decided to forego my morning yoga and sleep for an extra hour. So through bleary eyes I added an hour to the alarm and wen back to sleep.
I was next awoken by Travis who asked "Dad? I don't have school today?" and looking over at the clock I was startled to see that it was 9:25 am. Damn! I told Travis to quickly get ready and go, and I'd call his teacher. He was out the door in a flash.
The next thing to do was to wake Leah, as she had to work at 10:00 and was also running late. By this time it was already twenty to ten, or thereabouts, so I woke her told her we'd overslept and went to make coffee. While the coffee was brewing Leah went about getting ready, and I poured her a cup as she headed out the door.
I started getting my morning in order, and shortly after I heard the door to the apartment open. Leah was back, glaring rather powerfully at me. "The time on the clock is wrong, its 9:00". A glance at my watch confirmed it, I had moved the time up an hour, not the alarm.
The weather has been extremely fine lately. Without a breeze the Sun's warmth is glorious. Days like these are undeniably fine.
Bolt, our family dog, has finally been getting the exercise and attention he needs. And he loves to pull, true to his heritage. For a little dog, that has been largely sedentary he digs in and does his level best to drag me around with the leash. As it turns out, I'm the only one that can really walk him as he'll pull the kids off their feet and along on their belly until friction overcomes him.
So it is natural that we would hook him up to a sled. The original plan was to get a kicksled and let him help propel it around town, but "the best laid plans..." went aglay and we ended up not getting one (the cost of shipping killed it). So we used Travis' toy qamotiq which was originally built to haul the air compressor back and forth between the House and our duplex so we could keep it inside overnight.
Bolt pulls like a trooper, and when fresh fast out distanced me running to catch up. Being the undisciplined pup he is, there is no control of where he's going, but I don't think Travis cared a whit.
Here are some scenes from yesterday's qimuksiq (dog sledding).
One way of getting him to go in the direction we want Following Leah
Immediately before the dog slobber on the lens
Bolt demonstrating his irresistible urge to go for my camera.
A boy and his dog (bonus points to anyone who saw that movie)
A boy and his Aunt's dog (same age as Bolt, but quite a bit bigger)
Last Fall, having had nightly chest pains, I stopped in to the Health Centre to get it checked out (before you start worrying mom it apparently isn't my heart). I was stunned when I stepped on the scale as part of the exam when I saw that I weighed 265 pounds. When I arrived I was a fairly fit 205, a good weight for me (despite the Wii Fit that continues to let me know I'm obese).
The shock of seeing that I had gained 60 pounds since I came here, coupled with chest pains (mom, listen they're pretty much all gone, and they don't think its my heart anyway) spurred me to action. I started cutting way back on what I would eat, stopped drinking pop, stopped eating the family's left overs, and snacked on fruit and yoghurt instead of, well instead of anything.
My goal was to get back to 205, and the first pounds shed amazingly fast, and then nothing. At 220 I started back exercising, first on Wii Fit, then back lifting weights three times a week. Then I started to do one or two cardio workouts a day on Wii Active, anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour in total.
And I stayed at 210 pounds. And stayed. I was shifting around the weight I had, which is good, but the weight goal stayed tantalizingly out of reach. Finally the last two weigh ins (at home) have come back at 205. Now to keep up the workouts and keep the weight off. I'm motivated and as long as I stay healthy it should work reasonably well.
When I dropped the initial weight and posted it on Facebook, a couple of friends wanted before and after photos. I said that I would when I reached my target weight. Hence this somewhat rambling and self indulgent post. I don't have a lot of decent photos of me, so I grabbed a before picture from my "Valentine's Day" video from a year ago. I'm sitting but it gives a pretty good idea of me at my heaviest. And this is from today, slim, trim and fun to be with.
Some time ago I pointed out the similarities between myself and Paul Gross, the actor/renaissance man who played the fictional Mountie Benton Fraser on Due South, including our devilish good looks. It turns out that I have several connections with another actor who portrayed a Mountie on TV, Tina Keeper. And in the process of this discovery found a fascinating corner of Canadian (and Canadian Olympic) history.
Tina and I are both Manitoba people, of pretty much the same generation (she's the same age as my younger brother). Like Gross, we both played Mounties, her on TV and me in real life. And while Benton Fraser was posted to Chicago, Michele Kenidi (Tina Keeper's character) and I were both posted in the Deh Cho in the Northwest Territories. Lynx River may have been a fictional place but it is based on a community in the Deh Cho region, a partner of mine in Fort Providence even helped with the technical advising for the series.
But like my connection with Paul Gross, my biggest link with her is that our grandfather's were both in the Great War. And its a closer connection. Tina's Grandfather, Joe Keeper and my Grandfather served time in the same regiment, although possibly at different times. They may have known each other, but they certainly would have known many of the same people.
Joseph Benjamin Keeper attested into the 203rd Battalion and went overseas with them as a Cpl. in 1916, but at some point he moved over to the 107th Battalion. The 107th was the Battalion that my Grandfather attested to, and went overseas with before joining a draft for the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion.
The 107th Battalion was originally conceived to be an aboriginal battalion (indeed it had over 500 native members over the course of the war), but quickly began accepting anyone willing to sign up. It recruited heavily in my hometown of Roblin, and the surrounding area and some 60 men from there joined up with them. I was amazed to see so many surnames I recognized, not only from home, but from other places I've been, such as La Ronge.
The 107th, was conceived and started by Lt.-Col. Glenn Campbell, who led it until his death from illness in France. Campbell was a larger than life character from the early days of the Canadian Prairies and Northwest. A fellow, who by rights should be widely known in Canada, but is largely forgotten. When war broke out be was an Indian Agent in Saskatchewan hence the aboriginal connection for the Battalion. That and one of his wives was Native, and he has a number of Native descendants.
But back to Joe Keeper. When the 107th made it to France it was as a Pioneer Battalion (by this time my Grandfather already in France, with the 16th) not an infantry battalion. The Pioneers were workers, they worked with the engineers and built trenches, and roads, and railways and all manner of works. Lest you thing this was safe work, it was done at the front and in the heat of battle. Imagine digging a new trench while being shot at, rather than shooting back. Indeed during the Battle of Hill 70, the 107th not only were credited with saving a number of men from the 10th Battalion, but suffered some 300 casualties (killed, missing, wounded and gassed) over three days.
Corporal Keeper was a runner for the Battalion. Communications, especially in battle, in those days was tenuous at best, and often the only way to communicate between the front and rear areas, or between battalions was by a runner carrying messages (and ammunition and supplies) back and forth. It was a dangerous job. It was also a job that Keeper was made for. You see, Joe Keeper, was an athlete. More than that he was an Olympian. In 1911 he set the Canadian record in the 10 mile run, and the following year he was running for Canada at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games.
Keeper ran in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races in those games. But it was the 10,000 metre race that he shone at. He easily qualified for the final, and in the final finished fourth, the best ever finish for a Canadian in the event. Still. The 1912 games might best be known for the Pentathlon and Decathlon wins by Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest all round athlete ever. The silver medalist in Keeper's 10,000 metre race was also native. A Hopi by the name of Lewis Tewanima. Tewanima happened to to be a team mate of Jim Thorpe's at the Carlisle Indian School.
Keeper continued his competitive running during the war. Back of the lines there were often sports days and competitions run. One of his comrades in the battalion was Tom Longboat, arguably one of the more famous Native athletes. Longboat was an also an Olympian, having run in the Marathon of 1908. Longboat collapsed, along with other top runners during that race. In a makeup Marathon later that year he won the race.
The War Diaries of the 107th make mention of several races that Keeper, Longboat and others from the regiment participated in. Keeper racked up several wins in middle distance running (1 mile, 3 mile) beating Longboat and others (to be fair Longboat was a long distance runner). And he also excelled at soldiering, earning the Military Medal at some point of the war.
After the war Joe Keeper returned to his carpentry trade in Winnipeg. Later he joined the Hudson's Bay Company and returned to northern Manitoba. He retired in 1951, and got to enjoy twenty years of retirement before passing away in 1971 at the age of 85.