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.

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