An article on the Global News site titled “Fewer Canadians plan to wear poppies this Remembrance Day, poll finds” made me think again about what Remembrance Day is for. The article opens:
Fewer people plan to participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies or wear poppies this year, according to a poll from Historica Canada that also suggests knowledge of Canadian military history is dwindling.
To be fair, I’d suggest knowledge of pretty much everything factual is dwindling. One only need look at social media posts from anti-vaxxers, or anti-maskers to see how much knowledge of science and medicine has been lost in recent years. And, like most followers of pseudoscience and conspiracies, such stupidity is a self-inflicted wound.
And, too, it is difficult to fault people for not attending group ceremonies during a pandemic when health officials are warning against large gatherings. Non-participation on Remembrance Day in 2020 might have a lot to do with that. This year, like many others in our community, we observed our two minutes of silence at home.
I’ve found it’s a bit difficult to even find poppies this year: I have only seen them for sale in the post office, locally. Of course, this year I have not looked for them in as many places as in previous years, so I might not have visited a location where they were available.
Still, excuses aside, I wonder what other reasons people would have for not participating. Are people just getting jaded? Or simply don’t care about showing respect? Are we losing our collective memories as we lose our veterans?
I recall writing an editorial for the newspaper some decades back, asking where all the municipal employees were, who got a holiday on Remembrance Day but didn’t show up at the cenotaph for the ceremonies. And standing there during the silence, I could always see trucks and cars racing by on First Street, and pedestrians and cyclists going about their business, ignorant of the significance of the events taking place a hundred or so meters away.
As I read further into Max Hastings’ book, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, I wondered, as I have done in the past when reading similar books about that time, what my grandfathers must have felt when that war broke out.
What it meant to them and their worldview, and to their imagined futures, both at the start of the war, and then at the end, after four years of struggle, of deprivation, of fighting.
What was it like to finally come home? What did they think, then, of the world? Of their leaders? Of their own nationalism? Of the results? Was it worth the years? Was it worth the cost of their youth, their innocence? Did the end justify the means?
I’ve looked at the photographs taken then, but they only give me a generic appreciation, a two-dimensional view. A book in my library, Collier’s Photographic History of the European War (1916) has photographs taken during the first two years of the war, of the leaders, the soldiers, of the ruined cities, of the armies, but while they fascinate me, none really convey the sense of horror, desperation, and terror that the war engendered.*
What did my grandfathers feel? How did they sleep? Did they dream of bombs and artillery shells? What did their wives at home think? Was every passing day without news a good dayor a reason to worry more? Did they sit alone in the evening as the sky darkened and wonder where their young husbands were? Did they imagine them dead?
Both my grandfathers were young men, in their mid-20s in August, 1914. It was expected that they would join the war. That’s what patriotic young men did. Duty to king and country. And, although I don’t know the exact dates they enlisted, both men did.
I only know my grandfather in England signed up in Oldham or MAnchester, and went to war in Egypt and Palestine. Across the ocean, my grandfather in Canada went aboard the Niobe in Halifax, to patrol the Atlantic. They survived the war, both of them, and came home intact. Millions didn’t.
Both had grown to manhood in a period of great change and upheaval in the previous two decades: technology, industry, politics, medicine and science all went through transformations that changed the way people did and perceived things. It’s hard to imagine now, but the technological changes in the years before WWI were earth-shaking. They transformed everything and everyone they touched.
But so did society change. Old orders were challenged. New politics emerged. New ideas often expressed themselves in dramatic and violent ways, polarizing everyone involved.
There was, for the first time, a shared popular culture: theirs was the first generation raised under the influence of the phonograph. It’s hard for us, more than a century later with our iTunes and iPods and streaming media, to imagine what impact that one device had on culture and society, but it was huge in their day. It created mass – pop – culture.
It was only a couple of decades before their birth that submarine telegraph cables linked the world so messages could be transmitted instantaneously. That changed the way people saw the news, therefore their world picture. News that once took weeks, even months to travel by post now took seconds. Events that took place around the globe were no longer distant in both time and geography. They were immediate. And immediacy helped propel the war.
Theirs was also the first generation to grow up with the telephone. While still limited in range when they left for war, it would within their lives reach from across town to across continents and then overseas.
In November 1915, the one millionth car rolled of the Ford assembly line. That is just one car company of several in America at the time, and it had been in business only a dozen years by then. The automobile was rapidly changing social and community life, changing the way people travelled and worked. It de-isolated people from their surroundings.
So did the airplane. The short flight at Kitty Hawk had taken place the same year Ford opened his factory: 1903. While commercial air travel was still years away, the airplane fired imaginations and would play an important role in the war.
Einstein’s remarkable insights into the cosmos were forcing a re-evaluation of how the universe worked, how it was structured. New forms of literature, of art, of music, poetry and even dance flooded popular culture.
Nothing seemed solid. Everything was shifting, in flux. Old rules, old ideas were being overthrown and replaced with the new. It seemed an exciting time, but also a time when everything has become unstuck, unanchored from its past. Tradition fell prey to novelty.
Mary Mabel Bernice Chadwick passed away quietly in the morning of April 13, 2015 in her room in the Tony Stacey Veterans’ Care Centre. She had awakened that morning, and spoke briefly to staff, but nodded off shortly after. She never awoke.
She was 95 years old and lived a full, rich life, one of remarkable resilience and strength.
Mary was born shortly after WWI, and grew up in Canada during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and the years of recovery that followed. But then war came back.
She was a young woman when WWII broke out. She soon followed the family tradition of service. In 1942, she volunteered, and served the rest of the war as a Wren (WRNS – Women’s Royal Navy Service, nicknamed Wrens) in Halifax; a nurse in the naval hospital. Her wartime experiences would build her character and help her survive her own life’s tragedies.
Mary was always proud of her veteran status. Her father was a naval veteran of WWI, and her two brothers, Billie and Doug, had joined the Canadian navy early in the war. Twenty-two-year-old Billie died at sea in 1943 when his ship, the destroyer St. Croix, was torpedoed while escorting a convoy in the North Atlantic.
Mary had a framed picture of them both, young men in their Navy uniforms, on her wall in her room, each adorned with a red poppy. She never forgot, and she attended Remembrance Day ceremonies every year.
The gentleman in the uniform on the right is William Gordon Pudney, Chief Petty Officer and engineer on the cruiser, Niobe, one of the earliest ship’s in Canada’s fledgling navy. William (Bill) was born in Canada, in 1893. He is perhaps in his early 20s in this undated photograph, taken a century or more ago, maybe even younger.
William, my grandfather, served on the Niobe shortly after it was acquired from England, and later served on it in WWI, when it patrolled the Atlantic. He may have also served on another ship when the Niobe was put out to pasture as a depot ship in 1915, or continued to serve as engineer on her (I’m still looking for information about that time).
I don’t know when he joined the navy, but it must have been at the early age of 16 or 17, because he told me he was in the Canadian contingent sent to London, in 1911, for the coronation of George V. He had a tin of medals, I recall, one of which was for attending the coronation, as well as photographs of the event.
He had just been released from naval service in late 1917, when the Niobe, sitting in harbour, was damaged in the Halifax explosion.
William had just returned to civilian work, for Canadian Pacific Railway, the day before. He was in the engine of a train in the Halifax yard when the explosion blew the town apart. It was so fierce, it blew the engine he was in over onto its side. In the tumble, William severely damaged his knees, which would bother him through his life until his death at age 94. He continued to work for CP, however, until his retirement.
William married Jean Dunlop around that time. Jean traced her line back through the Dunlops and MacDonalds – Clan Donald – who left Scotland for Nova Scotia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Several members of the MacDonald clan – Jean’s ancestors, whose tale was passed along over the generations through the family – arrived in Canada (Cape Breton) on the Hector, in 1773, fleeing the harsh times and repression of the Highland Clearances that followed the Battle of Culloden (1746). The MacDonalds had fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie, in the Jacobite Rebellion, but it was the losing side at Culloden and the Scots were to pay for it for the next two generations.
A William Dunlop shows up in Pictou on the 1817 census, although I’m not sure he was my ancestor. Other Dunlops arrived over the next 30-40 years. One day, I must travel to Cape Breton to examine the historical records and sort this out.
On William’s right is his dapper-looking father, Sydney Hale Pudney, born in Sittingbourne, Kent, England, in 1866. He emigrated to Canada with his family in 1890, a few years before William was born. He had married Mabel Pentecost, of Maidstone, Kent. Sydney and Mabel had four children.
My grandparents, William and Jean, had three children, of whom my mother, born in 1919 and a veteran of WWII as had been her brothers, is the last remaining one. I borrowed this photograph from her this past weekend, to scan and share.
I can only vaguely remember meeting my great grandfather, and only once. I was four years old, and he lived in a two-story wooden house in Toronto – the same house where my father met my mother (he was a lodger when it was a boarding house). My great grandfather was upstairs in his room, in bed – his deathbed, I later learned – when we visited. I can still remember climbing the stairs to the room with the shades drawn and the old man in the bed. I didn’t know who he was, then.
Looking at the photograph, his smile and his bearing make me wish I had known him, wish I had known to ask about him of my late grandfather.
It doesn’t begin with Culloden. History is seldom so neat and precise that a single event can be identified as the start or end of a thing. Rather, Culloden was a hinge, a point at which events changed direction, when the door to the past was closed and one to a very different future opened.
You might say it really begins centuries earlier, in the long, bitter wars between England and Scotland that trace their roots to the Norman conquerors. But that’s too vague and longwinded. It would be better to say it the introduction to the story was written at Glencoe, in 1692, when Clan MacDonald was slaughtered by their guests, the Campbells.
“Ye loyal MacDonalds, awaken! awaken!
“Why sleep ye so soundly in face of the foe?
“The clouds pass away, and the morning is breaking;
“But when will awaken the sons of Glen Coe?
“They lay down to rest with their thoughts on the morrow,
“Nor dreamt that life’s visions were -melting like snow;
“But daylight has dawned in the silence of sorrow,
“And ne’er shall awaken the Sons of Glencoe.”
from Lament for Glen Coe by Mary Maxwell Campbell
That event scattered MacDonalds around northern Scotland, and started the slow burn of anger that would erupt in the Jacobite rebellion, 50 years later.
Some of the MacDonalds fled to Glen Urquhart, Inverness-shire, after Glencoe. From there they would leave for the New World almost a century later.
But it all came to a head at Culloden, the final battle of the Jacobite uprising that had begun so well and was now about to end in that rocky, soggy field. And that’s where I’ll begin this tale.
On this day, September 20, in 1943, the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, St. Croix, was escorting a convoy and protecting its ships from U-boats, during WWII. The ship was between Greenland and Iceland at 57.30N, 31.10W. It carried almost 150 crew, including a young man named William (Billie) Sydney David Pudney, aged 22, listed as a signalman (V 27871 (RCNVR)).
The St. Croix was a bit past her prime; the 1,190-ton destroyer had been built for the US Navy in 1919 (then called the USS McCook), but given to Britain for the Royal Canadian Navy in September, 1940. In September, 1943, she was under the command of A/Lt.Cdr. Andrew Hedley Dobson, RCNR, her third commander since the ship was assigned to the Canadian Navy.
Billie’s picture is on the wall of my mother’s nursing home room; a young man in a sailor’s cap looking bright eyed and jaunty. He must have been feeling pretty confident on that day in 1943: in July, 1942, his destroyer, the St. Croix, had sunk the German submarine, U-90, and then again in March, 1943, while escorting convoy KMS-10, St Croix and the corvette, HMCS Shediac, depth charged and sank U-87.
By mid-1943, the tide of war had turned to the Allies’ favour: Germans were being pushed out of North Africa and out of Russia. The massive tank battle at Kursk, in the summer of 1943 broke the German armoured might, and was followed by the Soviets retaking Kiev and Smolensk, in September. Allied troops took Sicily, invaded Italy and even briefly captured its leader, Benito Mussolini, forcing Italy to surrender, also in September. Allied bombers were pounding German cities.
Air support for convoys in 1943 had greatly reduced U-boat tolls in the North Atlantic. Allied command felt confident it had overcome the threat, so during the summer it decided to withdraw many of the escorting ships for other duties.
Billie probably felt the Allies were close to winning the war. We know now that it was far from over: two more years of fighting was still to come. The Germans, although under stress and losing ground, were not beaten yet.
The German Navy launched a new U-boat offensive in the fall of 1943. A patrol group of 21 U-boats, code-named Leuthen, was dispatched by Admiral Donitz’s U-boat Control (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU) to renew the attack on the North Atlantic convoy route. The Wolf Pack formed a patrol line south of Greenland in the “Greenland Air Gap,” where Allied aircraft had been unable to operate previously, due to the extreme range from their bases.
The fall offensive began with an attack on convoys ONS-18 and ON-202. Wikipedia notes:
On 12 September 1943 convoy ONS 18 left Liverpool bound for Halifax. Composed of 27 ships it was protected by B-3 Escort Group, comprising 2 destroyers, Escapade and Keppel, ( Cdr MB Evans RN, the Senior Officer:Escort); the frigate Towey, and 5 corvettes; Narcissus, Orchis, Roselys, Lobelia and Renoncule. ONS-18 was also accompanied by the MAC carrier Empire MacAlpine. When Western Approaches Command became aware of Leuthen, it was decided to reinforce ONS 18; the following convoy, ON 202 was ordered to close up, and a support group, SG 9, sent to join.
ON 202 had left Liverpool on 15 September, composed of 38 ships and escorted by Canadian escort group C-2, comprising 2 destroyers, Gatineau (commanded by Lt.Cdr PW Burnett RN, SOE) and Icarus; the frigate Lagan, and 3 corvettes; Drumheller, Kamloops and Polyanthus.
Support Group 9 comprised destroyer St Croix, frigate Itchen (Cdr CE Bridgman RN, SOE) and 3 corvettes, Chambly, Morden and Sackville.
Altogether the 65 ships were escorted by 19 warships, to face an attack from 21 U-boats.
Beside her record of hits on U-boats, the St. Croix had picked up many survivors of other attacks on convoys she was assigned to protect: 34 in 1941, 18 in 1942 and 28 in 1943. In the three years she had protected convoys, the St. Croix had avoided being hit herself. That would soon change. As Wikipedia notes:
On 16 September, St. Croix, then on her first patrol with an offensive striking group in the Bay of Biscay, went to the aid of convoy ONS 18, followed by ON 202, both heavily beset by a wolfpack. The defense of these convoys resulted in a long-running battle with losses to both sides. The convoys lost three escorts and six merchantmen, with two escorts damaged. The wolfpack lost three U-boats.
ONS-18 was the first target. A transport, the Lagan, was hit by a torpedo on Sept. 19, but the attacking U-boats were chased away, and one damaged. To the Germans’ surprise and distress, Allies did have air support in the Gap: Very Long Range (VLR) Liberators (bombers) had been developed and put into action earlier that summer to provide much-needed air support. U-341 was attacked and sunk by a Liberator from 10 Squadron RCAF. But the other U-boats continued to close in, regardless. By the 20/21, a dozen U-boats were in visual range, and eight were able to attack the Allied ships of the combined convoys (ONS-18 and ON-202).
The St. Croix’s luck didn’t hold out for very long. She was hit in the stern by a torpedo fired by the German submarine, U-305, on 20 September, 1943, at 9:51 p.m. It was one of five ships hit by torpedoes that night.
The Wolf Pack hunting the convoy would sink ten of the convoy’s ships, and damage two others, over three days of attacks. This would be the second worst loss of any single convoy since 1941.
Forty five minutes after the first torpedo hit, the St. Croix was still limping along. The U-305 returned and fired a second torpedo, this time a T-3, at the St. Croix. It hit. The St. Croix sank in six minutes.
Eighty one of the crew – five officers and 76 men – survived. They spent the night on two rafts and a half sunken whaler. The British frigate, the HMS Itchen tried to rescue them after the St. Croix sank, but U-boats drove her off. HMS Polyanthus tried to screen the Itchen during rescue operations, but she too was sunk (by U-952 on 21 September).
The cold, wet survivors were picked up by the Itchen, on the following morning. The Itchen also had been attacked by U-305 that same night, but the torpedo missed its mark. But this wasn’t the worst of it.
Three days later, the Itchen too was sunk by a German submarine (U-666). A single torpedo hit the frigate and she exploded. She had a complement of 230 officers and men, plus 81 survivors of the St. Croix, and one from HMS Polyanthus. Only two men survived that hit: one from the Itchen, and a stoker from the St. Croix.
One hundred and forty six men who had sailed aboard the St. Croix lost their lives in September, 1943. Some surely must have been counting their blessings aboard the Itchen after they had been lifted from the rough North Atlantic waters.
Allied losses were 3 escorts and 6 ships sunken, plus one escort and one ship damaged. Three U-boats were destroyed and a further three damaged and forced to return to base. Wiipedia tells us:
On 23 September the convoys reached the Grand Banks area, where fog hindered visibility both of the air patrols and the attacking Leuthen boats. U-238 was able to penetrate the escort screen and sank 3 ships; Skjelbred, Oregon Express, and Fort Jemseg. U-666 torpedoed Itchen; she sank, leaving just 3 survivors from her own crew and those of Polyanthus and St Croix she was carrying. U-952 sank Steel Voyager and damaged James Gordon Bennett. U-758 attacked, but had no hits confirmed and was herself damaged by a depth-charge attack.
Poor visibility, fuel shortages, and fatigue now beset both U-boats and escorts, but BdU, believing the attack to have been a great success, ordered Leuthen to break off the attack.
Claims by the various boat amounted to 12 escorts and 9 ships sunk, and a further 2 ships damaged.
Safe from further attacks, both convoys continued to their destinations. ONS-18 reached Halifax on 29 September, where my mother was based as a WREN. ON 202 carried on and arrived at New York on 1 October.
Billie, the uncle I never met, died in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, 69 years year ago, one of the first victims of the newly developed German acoustic torpedo, the GNAT, designed to home in on and disable the escorts so the U-boats could reach the merchantmen. I’ve never been able to find out if he was among the survivors picked up by the Itchen or if he died after the St. Croix sank.
U-305 would continue to hunt Allied ships until January 16, 1944, when it sank, probably a victim of one of its own torpedoes, and all hands were lost. In its career, it sank two transport ships and two warships. After the September battle, the Leuthen Wolfpack was disbanded; 12 of its U-boats formed a new patrol line with 9 other U-boats to attack the next set of east-bound convoys.
World War II would rage on for almost two full years more, ending in May 1945 in Europe, but not until August, 1945 in Japan. Many, many more lives would be lost in the fighting. Although the battle for the Atlantic would not end until 1945, the German command called off its 1943 U-boat offensive after four months. During that time, eight ships of 56,000 tons and six warships had been sunk, but Allies had sunk 39 U-boats. It was a catastrophic loss for the Germans.
But Billie would never live to see the end. He was 22 when his ship sank; a young man, full of hope, full of ambition, whose life was interrupted and ended by the war. On this day, every year, my mother, 93, and her family, still remembers him and the life he gave or his country.
The RCNA prayer: As we stand here safe and free,
We wonder why ’twas meant to be
That men should die for you and me.
On all the oceans, white caps flow.
They don’t have crosses row on row.
But they who sleep beneath the sea,
Rest in peace, ’cause we are free.