German Atrocities in Cemetery
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02 min 42 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
This clip includes a series of images of cemeteries. The first shot of a German grave is followed by several images of a French civilian cemetery. We then see a small cross inscribed with the words “3 Gunners, 3rd Battery CF, Killed in Action 2 June 1916,” followed by two pans of soldiers walking around cemeteries. A travelling shot shows an immense cemetery with thousands of graves. A still image of a crucifix is followed by a marker inscribed with the phrase “To an Unknown British Hero.” Two shots of a monumental cross commemorating the dead at Vimy Ridge are followed by a series of images of gravestones, one inscribed in German.
Scenes of destroyed graveyards are a staple of wartime propaganda. Along with images of bombed churches and hospitals, they are intended to illustrate the enemy’s barbaric behaviour. In fact, many of these images may be documenting collateral damage — accidental damage inflicted during attacks on adjacent targets. In other cases, cemeteries may have been used for military purposes and thus have become legitimate military targets.
The inscription “3 Gunners, 3rd Battery CF, Killed in Action 2 June 1916” indicates that the cross marks the burial site of three Canadian artillerymen from the 3rd Battery Canadian Field Artillery, a unit of the 1st Canadian Division. The date suggests that they were killed on the first day of the Battle of Mount Sorrel. They probably died in counter-battery fire – i.e. enemy fire that deliberately engaged Canadian artillery in order to silence it.
The Canadians who fought in the Battle of Mount Sorrel were mostly from the 3rd Division. Early in the morning on June 2, 1916, the German forces suddenly unleashed a storm of artillery fire upon the Canadian positions. The attack continued for hours and was the heaviest attack experienced by Canadian troops until that time. The unit that took the hardest hit was the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles – from a total of 702 officers and men, only 76 survived.
The cross at Vimy Ridge honours men from the 2nd Canadian Division as well as members from the 13th British Infantry Brigade, who were attached to the Canadian Division for the Vimy operation. Canadian troops were vital in the capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 — the most significant Allied victory until that time. This cross was later brought home to Canada by members of the 22nd Battalion and is now displayed at the Citadel in Quebec City, home of the Royal 22e Régiment.
It was common practice for units and formations to honour fallen comrades by placing markers on the battlefield. Most markers were made of wood and would disintegrate with time, but a number were brought back to Canada and displayed in regimental museums. The only known Canadian unit memorial that remains in its original location is in Passchendaele, Belgium, where the original monument to the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) was replaced in 2002 by a replica made of Nova Scotia granite.
Pieces of History
Remembering Those Who Died on the Field of Honour
Researcher for the Hector Fabre Chair in Quebec History at Uuniversité du Québec à Montréal.
During the war itself, soldiers were first honoured by their comrades on the front. Behind the front lines, isolated in no man’s land, simple, temporary wooden crosses marked the graves of those who had died in combat. Owing to the terrible extent of human losses, Canadian war cemeteries were established, starting in 1917, and maintained by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). But the bodies of 19,598 Canadians were never found; many of them had been torn to shreds by the waves of violent shelling the infantry faced. The names of most of those men are engraved on the base of the war memorial at Vimy. In France and Belgium, where Canadian soldiers distinguished themselves during the war, 13 memorials in all were erected between the wars. The main one, and the most imposing, is the one at Vimy, which was inaugurated in 1936, with Canadian veterans and King Edward VIII in attendance. Located at the site of the Canadian victory of April 9, 1917, it honours all Canadians who fell on the field of honour during the Great War.
The Canadian soldiers of 1914–18 were also commemorated at home. Starting in November 1918, most Canadian municipalities signalled their intention to erect a monument in tribute to their dead, and to engrave on the marble, for posterity, the names of their citizens who died in the war. The war memorials gave civilians a way of publicly grieving and paying tribute to the war dead. These monuments were, for the first time in Canada’s history, on more than just a family or local scale: from sea to sea, over 1,300 cenotaphs went up, all commemorating the same event in which thousands of Canadians had taken part.
Between the wars, the federal government left it up to each community to erect its own memorial. Monument committees were set up, often on the initiative of women. The committees had to manage the finances, select an architect and determine a location for the monument, which, once inaugurated, was officially handed over to the municipal authorities. But a cenotaph was only a physical manifestation of the respect for the memory of those who died in 1914–18, and gradually, as the 1920s progressed, it became the focus of a commemorative ritual: Remembrance Day, November 11.
The choice of this date, originally known as Armistice Day, recalls first and foremost the end of the four years of slaughter and the peace won thanks to the soldiers’ sacrifice. The commemorative service of November 11 gradually took shape in the 1920s to honour the soldiers who had given their lives. Like religious rites, once established, the elements of the memorial liturgy were unchanging.
The November 11 ceremony is a structured space in which each player and each element of the commemorative rite has an important role to play:
– Since the early 1920s, the ceremony has generally opened with the national anthem, “O Canada.” This is the most meaningful moment, because at this instant, everyone present is united in the same respect and love of country that the soldiers being honoured died to preserve. The anthem confers upon the ceremony its duly patriotic character. Yet it is “God Save the King” (or later, the Queen) that closes the ceremony, recalling the constitutional link between Canada and Great Britain.
– After the secular, profane anthem, the religious dimension is reflected by prayers, often accompanied by hymns. Just as the national anthem serves to unite people in their love of their country, the religious element of prayer unites the members of various religious communities in the same place on the same occasion. Prayer is a reminder of the noble sacrifice of the dead for a cause deemed just by the living. Its function is nothing less than to glorify the dead in the eyes of the living in order to lessen the pain of their loss and give it meaning.
– Next follow two minutes of silence, introduced in 1919 on the recommendation of King George V, to give all those present a chance to turn their thoughts to those no longer among them. The silence is a time to reflect on the sacrifice of the men being honoured.
– The laying of wreaths is the funerary aspect of the ceremony and the implicit acknowledgement of the souls at rest. Decorated with flowers, the monument takes on the symbolic appearance of a collective tomb.
As part of the November 11 ceremony, the laying of wreaths by civilian and military authorities, but also by the crowd, expresses collective piety towards the war dead.
- Military units also take part. At the end of the ceremony, the units march through the streets, marking the return of life with a demonstration that calls for admiration of their handsome uniforms after the tribute to the dead.
The role of the army in the ceremony is not to celebrate the victory of November 11, but rather to represent the dead. The marching soldiers provide an eternally young and living image, a timeless image, as remembrance must be.
– The veterans, as well as the widows (dressed in black between the wars), are present, bearing witness for those no longer there and honouring comrades, sons and husbands. The spectators in the crowd also pay tribute to the veterans.
Along with war memorials and the Remembrance Day ceremony, a third tribute to the war dead is the wearing of poppies, which began in 1921. The poppy, celebrated in John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” was officially recognized in 1925 as the symbol of remembrance of those who died in 1914–18. Profits from sales were used to help war invalids. Wearing poppies each November 11 was a visible sign of respect for the memory of the soldiers who died in the Great War.
All these customs that were adopted in the aftermath of the First World War were also followed after the other wars of the 20th century, gradually diluting the specificity of the Great War: the war memorials, the November 11 ceremony and the poppies now honour all the dead of modern wars.
Djebabla-Brun, Mourad, Se souvenir de la Grande Guerre: la mémoire plurielle de 14-18 au Québec, Montréal, VLB, 2004.
Labayle, Éric, 9 avril 1917: les Canadiens à Vimy, Louviers, Ysec, 2001.
Shipley, Robert. To Mark our Place: A History of Canadian War Memorials. Toronto: NC Press, 1987.
Vance, Jonathan. Death so Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000 (1997).
Wood, Herbert, and John A. Swettenham. Silent Witnesses. Toronto: A. M. Hakkert, in association with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Canadian War Museum, 1974.
Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence, National Inventory of Canadian Military Memorials:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
By late March 1917, some battle-weary troops thought the war would never end. Many had once thought they’d be home by Christmas in 1914. But now the war was in its 32nd month, with no end in sight.
Worse yet, they seemed bogged down in a stalemate of sodden, static trench warfare. In spite of fierce fighting and grievous casualty lists, there had been no Allied breakthroughs, no stunning victories and no major advances. On the contrary, there had been devastating slaughter on the Somme and at Verdun the year before. And German U-boats were wreaking havoc on the seas, sinking tons of Allied shipping daily. Would it ever end?
In early April came a glimmer of hope. The United States was finally entering the war. Canadian trench raids, though costly, were finding critical intelligence regarding the status of German defences. And the British were planning a new offensive in the critical Arras sector of France. Canadian troops, as part of the British First Army, would have a major role in the “Battle of Arras.”
To the Canadian Corps, under the command of British Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng, fell the heavy responsibility of providing the defensive flank for the Third Army, and capturing what was reputed to be the strongest German defensive position in Northern France. It was “tactically one of the most important features of the entire Western Front.”1 Its name was Vimy Ridge.
There was just one problem. It was thought to be impregnable. Many, on both sides of No Man’s Land, believed the Ridge couldn’t be taken. After all, the Germans had held it since early in the war (October 1914) and had repulsed both British and French attempts to re-capture it2.
The Germans well appreciated its value, and to this end had tightened up their defensive lines, reinforcing them with concrete gun emplacements, complete with barbed wire. They had also fortified their trenches and dugouts, knowing that well-entrenched troops, with machine guns and artillery, could repulse a numerically superior enemy. They called their massive defensive system the Siegfried Stellung, more popularly known as the Hindenberg Line. Vimy was its “anchor point” or keystone.
And so the scene was set.
Byng had called upon the increasingly impressive Canadian, Major General Arthur Currie, Commander of the 1st Canadian Division, to assist in the Vimy preparations. Both Byng and Currie, respectful of the price their troops would have to pay, were careful planners. Both knew the importance of sound preparation for such an endeavour. They would leave nothing to chance. (Currie even visited Verdun for insights.)
Massive preparations had begun in February. Old roads were repaired. New roads were built. More ammunition dumps were constructed. Light railway tracks were laid. Additional cable and telephone lines were installed. And Byng and Currie insisted that not just the officers but every man know his task and what to expect in the confusion of battle. Soldiers received detailed maps of the enemy territory. (About 40,000 maps were distributed.) They were to memorize the location of every trench, every mound, every fortification. Even a replica of the battle area was constructed behind the Canadian lines to familiarize soldiers with the terrain. It was revised daily as aerial photographs revealed changes in the German front lines. Training was relentless, thorough, disciplined.
And there were more arrows in Canada’s quiver. The attacking troops would approach Vimy Ridge in stealth through 12 underground tunnels (“subways”) constructed largely by the British with some Canadian work parties. While the tunnels could hardly be called sophisticated, some had electric light, running water and ventilation systems. Most important, they would conceal and protect the attacking troops till the last moment.
But the real key to victory on Vimy Ridge would rest with the artillery. As some liked to say, “the artillery conquers and the infantry occupies.” And the artillery had several surprises in store for the Germans.
The preliminary bombardment, under Brigadier-General E.W.B. Morrison, had already begun (March 20-April 2). It was relentless, pulverizing German targets day and night. Using information from aerial observers, trench raids and prisoner interrogation, the artillery fired not only on trenches, machine gun emplacements and strong points, but ammunition dumps, roads and communication systems. And that was just for preliminaries.
The artillery had still more in store for the Germans. Lieutenant Colonel A.G.L. McNaughton, Counter-Battery Staff Officer, had studied the deleterious effect of gun barrel wear on bombing precision, and ensured that key guns were carefully calibrated for accurate firepower. Brigadier General Raymond Brutinel perfected “indirect” machine gun fire to disrupt German road traffic, incoming troops and supplies. By Easter Sunday, 1917, all was in readiness. Troops waited, taut with anticipation.
Overhead, fierce aerial battles had already begun. In the days prior to the Arras offensive, 28 British aircraft were shot down (to Germany’s 15). Among those who still plied the skies were Canada’s Billy Bishop (who won the Military Cross on April 7), and Germany’s Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
At 5:30 on Easter Monday morning, April 9, the heavens reverberated with the sound of nearly a thousand guns and mortars. In driving sleet the first waves of more than 30,000 men of Canada’s four divisions, all fighting side-by-side for the first time, stretched out over four miles in the clinging mud3. Immediately in front of them, in practised precision and split-second timing, the artillery spread a carpet of fire — a “creeping” (or “rolling”) barrage4.
The rest is history.
Twelve hours later, most of the ridge — expect for Hill 145 and “The Pimple — had been taken. By dawn of April 12, Canada had captured all of Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps had accomplished in a few days what neither the British nor French could do in two years.
They had advanced some 4,000 metres, seized 54 guns, 104 trench mortars and 124 machine guns. They had taken more than 4,000 German prisoners5. Four valiant men had won the VC, but nearly 3,600 troops would never see Canadian shores again. More than 7,000 were wounded.
It cannot be said that the capture of Vimy Ridge changed the course of the war. It was, in fact, part of a larger campaign that failed. But it can be said that Canada won the first major offensive of the First World War. Some say the Vimy Ridge “was one of the notable feats of arms of the entire war.”6 Some say that the real significance of Vimy Ridge came in 1918, when the German assault on Arras “would certainly have been successful had they still held Vimy Ridge.”7 Some say the feat helped earn Canada its own place at the League of Nations.
And still many others say that it was on that blustery day in April 1917 that Canada truly “came of age” when its noble sons did the impossible on the sodden crest of Vimy Ridge.
1Nicholson, Official History, page 244
2The French had suffered heavy losses trying twice to capture Vimy Ridge in 1915, and the British lost ground there in 1916.
3Nicholson notes (Official History, page 252) that the Canadian Corps had a strength of approximately 170,000 men, all ranks, including British Units.
4The barrage had been introduced, with limited success, the year before on the Somme.
5Source; Nicholson, Official History, page 265
6Tucker, page 128
7Cruttwell, page 408
In Flanders Fields
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
"In Flanders Fields" was first published in England's Punch magazine in December, 1915. Within months, this poem came to symbolize the sacrifices of all who were fighting in the First World War. Today, the poem continues to be a part of Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada and other countries.
Reproduced with permission from Veterans Affairs Canada.
Born in Guelph, Ontario, on November 30. John McCrae began writing poetry while a student at the Guelph Collegiate Institute. As a young boy, he was also interested in the military. He joined the Highfield Cadet Corps at 14 and at 17 enlisted in the Militia field battery commanded by his father.
While training as a doctor, he was also perfecting his skills as a poet. At university, he had sixteen poems and several short stories published in a variety of magazines, including Saturday Night. He also continued his connection with the military, becoming a gunner with the Number 2 Battery in Guelph in 1890, Quarter-Master Sergeant in 1891, Second Lieutenant in 1893 and Lieutenant in 1896. At university, he was a member of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada of which he became company captain.
In 1898, John McCrae received a Bachelor of Medicine degree. He worked as resident house officer at Toronto General Hospital from 1898 to 1899. In 1899, he went to Baltimore and interned at John Hopkins Hospital.
The South African War
When the South African War started in October 1899, John McCrae was commissioned to lead an artillery battery from his home town. This Guelph contingent became part of D Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. After a year with his unit in South Africa, John McCrae resigned from the 1st Brigade of Artillery in 1904 after being promoted to Captain and then Major. He was not involved with the military again until 1914.
The Young Doctor
Back in Montréal in 1901, John McCrae resumed his studies in pathology. As Governor's Fellow in pathology and resident assistant pathologist, he had the dual function of research work in the Medical Faculty laboratories at McGill and autopsy duties at Montréal General Hospital.
In 1902, he was appointed resident pathologist at Montréal General Hospital and later also became assistant pathologist to the Royal Victoria Hospital. In 1904, he was appointed an associate in medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Later that year, he went to England where he studied for several months and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1905, he set up his own practice although he continued to work and lecture at several hospitals. He was appointed pathologist to the Montréal Foundling and Baby Hospital in 1905. In 1908, he was appointed physician to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Infectious Diseases.
The Cost of War
On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. John McCrae enlisted and was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery with the rank of Major and second-in-command. He took with him a horse named Bonfire, a gift from a friend. In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, in the area traditionally called Flanders. Some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place there during that was known as the Second Battle of Ypres. John McCrae tended hundreds of wounded soldiers every day, surrounded by the dead and the dying.
The day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae's closest friends was killed in the fighting and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. Unable to help his friend or any of the others who had died, John McCrae gave them a voice through his poem. It was the second last poem he was to write.
Soon after it was written, he was transferred to No. 3 (McGill) Canadian General Hospital in France where he was Chief of Medical Services. The hospital was housed in huge tents at Dannes-Cammiers until cold wet weather forced a move to the site of the ruins of the Jesuit College at Boulogne. When the hospital opened its doors in February 1916, it was a 1,560-bed facility covering 26 acres. Here the wounded were brought from the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the third Battle of Ypres and from Arras and Passchendaele.
John McCrae was deeply affected by the fighting and losses in France. He became bitter and disillusioned. For respite, he took long rides on Bonfire through the French countryside. Another animal companion was a casualty of the war, the dog Bonneau, who adopted John McCrae as his special friend. Writing letters and poetry also allowed John McCrae to escape temporarily from the pressures of his administrative duties at the hospital. His last poem, "The Anxious Dead", echoed the theme of "In Flanders Fields" but was never as popular as the earlier poem.
During the summer of 1917, John McCrae was troubled by severe asthma attacks and occasional bouts of bronchitis. He became very ill in January 1918 and diagnosed his condition as pneumonia. He was moved to Number 14 British General Hospital for Officers where he continued to grow weak.
On January 28, after an illness of five days, he died of pneumonia and meningitis. The day he fell ill, he learned he had been appointed consulting physician to the First British Army, the first Canadian so honoured. John McCrae was buried with full military honours in Wimereux Cemetery, just north of Boulogne, not far from the fields of Flanders. Bonfire led the procession, McCrae's riding boots reversed in the stirrups.
Reproduced with permission from Veterans Affairs Canada.
A Remembrance Day Ceremony
Grade Level: Secondary 9-12
Time Allowance: 45 minutes
Film: German Atrocities in Cemetery
Summary: Students plan a Remembrance Day assembly.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918, at 11 am. Since 1931, Canadians have remembered those who were wounded and killed during the war on November 11 at 11 am, Remembrance Day. Later, the soldiers who died in World War II and the Korean War were also remembered on the same day. The number of Canadians who died in these wars is as follows:
World War I(1914-1918)
World War II(1939-1945)
Watch the German Atrocities in Cemetery film and plan a Remembrance Day assembly to be held on November 11 at 11 am in your school. As you plan the event, answer the following questions:
• What footage of the wars will you show?
• Who will you invite to your assembly? Why?
• What symbols will you use?
• What poetry will you read?
• What music will you play?