Monday, November 28, 2011

Poster: UofC Pearl Harbor Colloquium, 8 December 2011

UofC Pearl Harbor Colloquium, 8 December 2011

The History Graduate Students' Union and Calgary Military Museums' Society are pleased to announce a special colloquium and reception in honour of the 70th Anniversary of the Japanese attacks on the British Empire and the U.S. featuring talks by John Ferris and Christopher Bell.

This evening is the second session of the annual "New Perspectives Colloquium," and is host to two talks by pre-eminent historians.  Professor John Ferris, a noted historian of British intelligence and strategy will speak about his current research on British and American intelligence in the lead up to Pearl Harbor. He will be followed by Dr. Christopher Bell of Dalhousie University, who will speak about Canadian soldiers and the attack on Hong Kong.
The colloquium will be held at the Kensington Legion (1910 Kensington Rd NW Calgary).  The evening will run on 8 December 2011, from 6:30-9:00 pm, and will include a New York steak dinner. Admission for the general public is $40.00.  Veterans and students are particularly encouraged to attend and registration for both is only $20.00.  Tickets can be purchased securely through PayPal or at the door (cash or check only).  Follow the link at the history department website to register:
To RSVP (registration must be received by December 1, 2011) or for more information, please email The History Graduate Students' Union at, or call (403) 220-2669.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Canadian Smokes for English Girls: Strathcona's Ladies' Auxiliary, 1942

A December 1942 issue of the Canadian Armoured Corp's journal The Tank notes the appreciation of the soldiers of the Lord Strathcona's Horse for the cigarettes sent overseas from the Ladies' Auxiliary in Calgary and Winnipeg.  Notes from the Sergeants' Mess stated:

"Our sincere thanks are due to the Ladies' Auxiliary in Calgary and Winnipeg who have done wonders, with the help of the Navy, in keeping us supplied with cigarettes.  The shortage of smokes is not as acute as it was when we first arrived over here but just the same the cartons from Canada are very welcome - there seems to be no smoke like a Canadian one.  Even the girls over here have developed a taste for them and when one of the English girls gets romantic over a strapping Westerner it's hard to tell if it's love at first sight or a desire to light up.  To the Ladies we say thank you."

An ad from Dec. 1942 "The Tank"

One can only assume that the Ladies' Auxiliary were none too pleased that their cigarette contributions were being used to court young English women.  Wives back in Canada, would have been justified in asking the Brits to butt out!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

James Jerome Hill: A Bit of a Pirate

JJ Hill, by Getty.
One of the founding members of the Canadian Pacific Railway is given a colourful introduction in Pierre Berton's classic popular history The Last Spike (1971).  Berton notes that Hill was, "a tougher and rougher specimen than his colleagues.  With his single, burning eye, his short, lion's beard and long mane, he looked like a bit of a pirate, which, in truth, he was."  As a child of nine Hill had lost his eye in an accident.  In his youth he had to work as a clerk in an Upper Canadian grocery store to help his impoverished family.  In 1856 Hill would begin to build his railway empire from scratch.  He moved to the booming city of St. Paul, and soon began his own shipping company.  This meagre start was the base for numerous railway interests.  In 1874, he teamed together with Donald Smith, Norman Kittson, and George Stephen to complete the St. Paul and Pacific railway to the Canadian border.  This partnership would lead to his eventual position on the board of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Berton attributes the decision-making of Hill, who had been convinced by naturalist John Macoun that the southern prairies were inhabitable, as instrumental in selecting the southern route through Calgary and the yet to be explored Kicking Horse Pass, instead of along the old settlements on the North Saskatchewan River.  The original route, surveyed by Sandford Fleming, bore northwest from Selkirk, Manitoba (near Winnipeg), and continued through Battleford and the Yellowhead pass.  Due to the selection of the southerly route, the nascent communities of Brandon, Regina, Moose Jaw and Calgary were all to flourish into metropolitan centres on the northern Great Plains.

The southern route was also more ideally located to curb competition from the closest American railway, the Northern Pacific, and any other Canadian railways that may have emerged when the CPR monopoly clause, which prohibited railways building within 15 miles of the international border, ran out.

A central tenant of Hill's railway philosophy was that the first railway through the frontier would generate its own business.  As Hill claimed, "if we build this road across the prairie, we will carry every pound of supplies that the settlers want and we will carry every pound of produce that the settlers wish to sell, so that we will have freight both ways."

Hill would leave the CPR in 1883, due to the mismanagement of the Manitoba line, which Hill felt was neglected due to the larger projects of the CPR.  In 1889 the Manitoba line would become the Great Northern railway, and grow to dominate the northern American plains to the Pacific.  Hill is regarded as one of the greatest empire builders of nineteenth century North American business.

Canadian Encyclopedia Article on Hill

Friday, November 18, 2011

Brigadier Chris Vokes' Brothel: Sicily, 1943

 Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1985-35-8
Copyright: Government of Canada
Venereal disease does not rank very high on the list of valorous ways to become a casualty of war.  Nonetheless, VD, a now outdated medical term referring to sexually transmitted infections, left many Second World War soldiers incapacitated and left out of battle.  The problem was acute enough in the Sicilian campaign for the officer commanding 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade, Brigadier-General Chris Vokes, to take matters into his own hands.  His orders to a young British officer on his staff were to set up an army-run brothel.  The women were to be inspected by medical officers and insured as "clean".  Soldiers were to be issued with what Vokes referred to in his memoirs as a "French letter", or condom.  Unfortunately for Vokes (and lusty Canadian soldiers), the Eighth Army Headquarters caught wind of the scheme, and an order with a very explicit message was distributed:


Chris Vokes. Department of National Defence
Reportedly the young British officer, who had the decidedly unmacho nickname of "Taffy", had the house of ill repute completely organized by the time the Eighth Army message arrived.  He burst into Vokes' headquarters elated at his achievements.

"Brigadier, we are all set to open tomorrow at ten o'clock.  I have never seen so many enthusiastic girls in my life... the madame, and the pimp and the girls...! GEE!  And we want you to come down and cut the tape.  Everything is organized.  Everything is going to be first class!"

Vokes broke the bad news.  There was to be no brothel. Taffy was much dejected.

"My God, sir," he said. "Those whores will cut my throat!"

Vokes replied, "Well, perhaps so, Taffy.  Before that happens try paying them off."

Reportedly the women, (imported from Catania for the purposes), accepted the offer of 100 Lire each (the madame got 500 and the pimp 300). Poor "Taffy" survived the great brothel incident of 1943 with his neck intact.
 Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1985-35-7

For further military posters against venereal disease see the US National Library of Medicine Site.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Forming of Brandon: C.P.R Real Estate Control

Pierre Berton's The Last Spike contains numerous examples to prove that real estate speculation was a major facet in the development of Canada's prairie west.  The forming of the town of Brandon shows how the Canadian Pacific Railway shaped the region, and thwarted speculators and homesteaders alike in order to maximize its own profits on land sales.  In 1881, the decision to build the CPR's southern route towards the yet to be discovered Kicking Horse Pass had been made.  Those who were savvy to the needs of the railroad knew that a divisional point would be needed about one hundred and thirty miles west of Winnipeg, where a settlement on the Assiniboine river by the name of Grand Valley was already situated.

Settlement Stories from Manitoba.  Ken Storie.
Thomas Rosser. MHS.
The McVicar brothers were first settlers in the area, coming in 1879.  Farming the area for two years, the McVicar's were visited two years later by US Civil war veteran, General  Thomas L. Rosser, the engineer who was surveying the route.  Rosser offered the brothers a healthy sum of money (Pierre Berton notes in The Last Spike that the amount varies from $25,000 to $50,000), but John McVicar, despite being flabbergasted by the huge sum, was convinced by some neighbours to hold out for more money and perhaps even interests in future sales.  General Rosser reportedly replied to this counteroffer, "I'll be damned if a town of any kind is ever built here."

True to his word, no divisional point was set up at Grand Valley, and the town of Brandon emerged two miles further west.  Berton reports that it was later proven that Rosser and other CPR officials were in fact speculating in real estate themselves, making personal profit off inside knowledge of future station locations.

 Ken Storie's Settlement Stories from Manitoba. has great detail and further pictures, maps and newsclippings of Grand Valley and Brandon during the railway era.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Misery in the Retreat from Kabul: First Afghan War, 1842

The First Anglo-Afghan war proves that regime change can be a bloody affair needing public support to succeed.  The struggle with Russia for power in central Asia, known to history as the Great Game, led to the desire for British control over Afghanistan, as a buffer for their power base in India. In 1839, Britain wished to replace Emir Dost Mohammad with a more friendly ruler.  In doing so they precipitated revolt.  Kabul was taken easily enough in 1840, but with the situation deteriorating, on 6 January 1842 the 4500 soldiers and 12000 camp followers began their retreat to Jalalabad under the command of Major General William Elphinstone.  The effects of Afghan raiders on this column were devastating:

Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842. William Barnes Wollen
"The road was strewn with the mangled corpses of their comrades and the stench of death was in the air - All along the route they had been passing little groups of camp-followers, starving, frostbitten, and many of them in a state of gibbering idiocy.  The Afghans, not troubling to kill these stragglers, had simply stripped them and left the cold to do its work and now the poor wretches were huddling together naked in the snow, striving hopelessly to keep warm by the heat of their own bodies.  There were women and little children among them, who piteously stretched out their hands for succour ... Later the Afghans were to report with relish that the unhappy fugitives, in their blind instinct to preserve life a little longer, had been reduced to eating the corpses of their fellows.  But they all died in the end." Patrick Macory, Signal Catastrophe, p.244.

Only a single man survived the march from Kabul, while several senior officers, including Elphinstone, had been taken prisoner.  The words of a Captain Backhouse, a party in the relief force marching back to Kabul against the lines of retreat, portray a grisly scene: "the sight of the remains of the unfortunate Caubul force was fearfully heartrending.  They lay in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard." (Dixon, Psychology of Military Incompetence, 78-79).
Remnants of an Army.  Elizabeth Butler

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Effects of the Great War on General E.L.M. Burns

Canadian General E.L.M. "Tommy" Burns' memoir General Mud (1970), notes that his primary lesson learned from his experience in the Great War was the diminishing returns of infantry offensives in poor weather.  "General Mud", was often more effective in stifling the offensive than the German generals across no-mans land.  Burns notes that most of what he learned about generalship came from the observation of Brigadier Victor Odlum, and not from the study of military history.
German rifle being used as telephone wire pole. Advance East of Arras. August, 1918.  Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-040216

The war's psychological effects on Burns are interesting to contemplate.  Burns' role as officer commanding of the 11 Brigade signals section meant that he did not accompany the first infantry waves over the top.  This did not prevent him from observing first-hand the horrors of war.  Burns wrote in his memoirs:

"...I was passing along the same route with some men, when shelling began we decided to make our way along what passed for a communication trench near the Courcelette cemetery.  In many places the trench was over knee-deep in liquid mud.  At one point I stepped on something which yielded, and there rose up before me the rear end of a dead German.  His clothes had been torn off, and his flesh, visible in places through the mud, was green.  By that time we had been living for many days in the stink and visible presence of dead men, and so this very horrid sight excited no more than a moment's shock and disgust.  But the memory has remained." (Burns, p.27)
Examining a Skull found near Vimy Ridge.  W.I. Castle Library and Archives Canada / PA-001211
Later at Vimy Ridge, Burns noticed a soldier who was sharing a crater for cover, making a whistling sound.  The man was shot through the jugular.  Burns attempted to stop the bleeding by placing his fingers in the hole.  As he recalled, the man's face, "became scarlet, and then purple.  Finally he ceased breathing.  Possibly the bullet had gone on through the spine.  He made no articulate sound in dying.  I laid him down at the side of the trench, and wiped my fingers on his jacket."
Burns later commanded I Cdn Corps in WWII Italy
DND photo – CFPU ZK704 Canadian Military Journal
General H.D.G. Crerar (left) and Lt-Gen. E.L.M. Burns in Italy, 1944.

Burns' considerable intellectual efforts to modernize the Canadian Army in the interwar years may have had something to do with these grisly experiences in the mud of France and Flanders.  Mobile, mechanized warfare offered an answer to the bloody attritional stalemate of the Great War.  Burns' major command in the Second World War, that of the I Canadian Corps, would also see its share of mud and blood.  One can only speculate on the effects of Burns' Great War experiences on his later command.  He certainly would have had a memory stocked with the brutal effects of combat to add to the strain of the responsibilities of leadership.