Lost stories of grandfathers come to life in shadow of Hill 70 monument

Hill70

A breath-taking monument commemorates the Canadian force’s effort at Hill 70 was dedicated Saturday, April 8, 2017. The official opening will be in August 2017.

I am woefully aware I likely won’t find any concrete details about my grandfather’s march through Northern France 100 years ago. But I know my sleuthing will uncover details of other descendants in similar pursuits.

And I hit pay dirt at Hill 70, where a breathtaking new monument will be dedicated today, April 8, 2017, by Canadian Gov. Gen. David Johnston to honour the Canadian troops who fought there.

Four months after Vimy, Hill 70 was the first time Canada’s troops actually did battle under Canadian command. It’s currently being regaled in a Globe series.

Six Victoria Crosses were awarded at Hill 70 (compared to four at Vimy). One of the greatest tales is that of Philip Konowal, formerly of Vancouver. Kent Spencer does a great job detailing Konowal’s story here. The abridged version is that instead of being shot by his commanding officer for desertion, Konowal was decorated for valour after recording 16 German kills.

My grandfather’s 9th Brigade of the 36th Battery fought at Hill 70. The brigade’s war diaries reveal how my grandfather was part of a pioneering new form of tactical fire. It was the first time the Canadian gunners used predicted fire, a technique used to repel German counter attacks and deliver mass casualties.

The war diaries tell a gruesome tale told in a matter-of-fact tone about the effectiveness of this tactic on first day of the offensive Aug. 15, 1917.

After a strong push, the Germans were mounting a significant counter attack. As Forward Observation Officer Lieut. J.R.. Jamieson reports, “a great mass of enemy” numbering about 1,000 were launching a counter offensive.

“The plain around this point was black with men,” he noted in his operation report. “They appeared to mass about H.27.a.8.5. (battlefield coordinates) and as this was a point we had registered with two guns (for sniping during the last ten days) we opened up with gun fire.

“I am sure we accounted for 50 men in the first 20 rounds.”

Despite the barrage, the enemy didn’t stop and Jamieson reported the enemy kept “coming on from the rear,” so the battery opened up with another 125 rounds.

“The slaughter and confusion was so great, the enemy broke and fled in all directions,” Jamieson wrote. “At a conservative estimate, we accounted for 100 to 200 men.”

The battle lasted 10 more than days with the Canadians achieving only partial objectives. Regardless, it’s being heralded as another moment of Canadian unification during the war.

Enter Kay Langmuir, the granddaughter of Major C.M.P. Fisher who commanded one of the Canadian batteries.

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Kay Langmuir’s grandfather, Major C.M.P. Fisher, fought at Hill 70.

I met her in tears as she looked off into the distance in the shadow of the Hill 70 monument on Friday, April 7. We shared a somber moment before she gave me some insight into her grandfather.

At the behest of his family, Fisher chronicled his contributions to the war effort in a six-page document. At Hill 70, he explained how the Canadian artillery bombarded Hill 70 for three solid days and nights.

“It never let up,” she recalled. “He [her grandfather] referred to [Hill 70] as a hard scrap and, certainly, that is an understatement.”

Pride beam within her as she relayed the story.

“He would be most proud and delighted to see this commemorated,” said Langmuir, who, unlike myself, had the good fortune to know her grandfather. “He was a very stern man who kept his emotions in check, the way men did of that age.”

That fragment of insight means a lot in my quest to learn more about my grandfather. I share Kay’s pride and I get a tingling sensation up my spine as I read the war diaries, survey the landscapes and ponder what it all meant for my grandfather, his comrades-in-arms at, ultimately, the country.

By all accounts, he was a stern man who didn’t often talk about the war. When Kay speaks of how her grandfather kept his emotions in check, I can’t help but wonder about Burton Broughton. What kind of torment and loneliness built within him? There must have been many gruesome sights and scenes he endured – and not shared. And, maybe, it was balanced by the fraternal camaraderie of friends during the war that allowed him to compartmentalize it.

It makes me grateful I have grown up in the peaceful era and feel I have an obligation to share my grandfather’s experiences here in France. I think it not only helps me understand who I am, but also offers a glimpse into the human condition when conditions aren’t very human.

Walking through Vimy in my grandfather’s footsteps

I never knew my grandfather, Burton Broughton. He died a year before I was born, but I have never felt closer to him than today as I follow in his footsteps, literally, 100 years after he marched through Northern France during the First World War.

What I know of him are fragmented memories from my folks, perceptions from photos, and details through his war records.

I know he was a member of the 9th Brigade in the 36th Battery of Canadian Field Artillery. He shipped out with that battery from Sydney, Nova Scotia as a 26-year-old on Sept. 11, 1915. He returned a changed man more than three years later after battles at the Ypres Salient, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens and Mons.

He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” on March 6, 1918 when his gun position was hit by an enemy barrage and through his “coolness” the gun was “placed in action again.”

DCM explanation - Broughton

I get a sense of his character from a letter his Commanding Officer, Major D.A. MacKinnon, wrote to his mother, noting he had witnessed her son’s “utmost manly qualities.”

“His courage and resourcefulness was of the highest order and enabled us to overcome very serious obstacles,” MacKinnon wrote. “I feel I am quite right when I say there was no more efficient N.C.O. in France.”

During the battle of Passchendaele he was severely shell shocked when a round landed in a depot next to him. Apparently, the concussion hit him with such force you could see an impression of his bones on his skin. He was sent back to England to convalesce.

“I thought he would never return to the front but his courage and determination brought him back again and he fought the War right out to the end,” wrote MacKinnon.

War Records - Letter from C-O

I know at Vimy Ridge – where I will be Sunday, April 9, 2017 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle – his battery was charged with the “creeping barrage” that protected infantry as they advanced into enemy territory.

I marvel at the tattered paper displaying the actual gun coordinates he used that day. Each gun crew fired two rounds every minute, adjusting precisely every two minutes to keep the Germans pinned in their trenches.

Sifting through the war diaries of the 9th Brigade, I know that when the barrage promptly started at 5:30 a.m. His efforts were part of an assault that is heralded as one of Canada’s defining military moments. War Records - Vimy Gun Coordinates

According to Forward Observation Officer Lieut. J.R.  Jamieson “our barrage was reported to being very good” and the infantry remarked the efforts were “very satisfactory.”

This is what I know. There is a lot a don’t know about my grandfather and, this week as I trace his movements, I hope to get a better understanding of the essence of the man.

I will go to Mt St. Eloi where the Canadian guns were positioned April 9, 1917 in support of the Vimy offensive. I will take part in the ceremony marking the 100-year anniversary of the battle.

The narrative of Vimy is a moment that defined a nation. What I hope to glean is how it defined the men who fought for the nation. It’s the determination of thousands of men like my grandfather who sacrificed their youth and shaped the next generation of Canadians. I am part of that tapestry and, this week, I discover what that means to me personally. 

I will publish various posts over the next few days as I discover more. Thanks for reading.