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“My compliments to the Commanding Officer…

Posted By on October 8, 2015

Harry James Hall

“Dapper even in the worst surroundings.” Harry James Hall MC

…I am not able to carry on!”

Temporary Major Harry John Hall, MC, 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Canadian Scottish)

8 October 1916 

One of the great 16th Battalion characters of the Great War was the Scottish born soldier Harry John Hall. A soldier through and through, Hall had previously served during the Second Boer War 1899-1902. It was in South Africa that Hall first became personally familiar with the hail of gun fire from the Boer Kommandos and during the campaign he was wounded on at least four occasions. Hall’s Great War attestation papers record the following scars and marks at the time of his enlistment in December 18,1914…”Bullet wound in left thigh / Bullet wound left forearm / Bullet wound left shoulder / Shell wound right wrist.”

Hall was born in 1878 in Loch Alsh, Rosshire, Scotland and at the time of his enlistment gave his trade or calling as “Soldier”. Hall’s soldiering had taken him through a few familiar regiments of the British Army including 2 years service with the 3rd King’s Own Scottish Borderers, 4½ years with the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders with whom he served in South Africa and 2 years with the 20th Hussars.

Hall joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Winnipeg, Manitoba choosing the 43rd Canadian Infantry Battalion (Cameron Highlanders of Canada). In October 1915 he was in France serving on the Western Front with the 16th Battalion where his eccentricities endeared him to many of his regiment. Hall’s accomplishments on the Somme are well documented in the 16th’s fine history written by H.M. Urquhart DSO* MC.

Like Urquhart, Captain (Temporary Major) Hall was a recipient of the Military Cross, an award made for gallantry as a junior officer: “For conspicuous gallantry in action. He held his part of the line under intense fire for three days, displaying great courage and initiative throughout. He has previously done fine work.”

On October 8, 1916 Hall, in command of No. 3 Company, was badly wounded in the attack on Regina Trench. The unit history records:

He [Hall] was wounded previously [May 1, 1916] when in the Salient, and returned to the battalion with his wound still open. He underwent such strain and fatigue at Mouquet Farm that, on his arrival at the battalion headquarters, he collapsed. These “interference” with duty “as he called them”, gave him much concern.

On being carried out from the Regina Trench battlefield in a dying condition, his last message to his Battalion Commander was, “My compliments to the Commanding Officer [J.E. Leckie DSO], and tell him I am awfully sorry that I am not able to carry on.” (Urquhart, page 185)

Harry John Hall MC succumbed to his wounds at No. 9 Casualty Clearing Station, Warloy, France and is buried at Contay British Cemetery. He was 39 years of age. It is recorded that upon being removed from the battlefield with two wounds he was wounded a third time while on the stretcher.

Recognizing Bravery

Posted By on September 10, 2015

The Ordinary with the Extraordinary

All nations have their awards and many of these symbols of valour (valor), honour (honor), bravery, and courage are well known. They take on many names such as the Victoria Cross, the Légion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre, Ritterkreuz (Iron Cross), and the Medal of Honor.

In earlier times, gallantry was recognized by the Romans (circa 753 BC – AD 476) with the presentation of gold necklets called Torcs, gold armbands known as armillaies and ornamental discs called phaleraes. These gold, silver or bronze discs, worn on parades, were mounted on the recipient’s breastplate. The Greek historian, Polybius, circa 200 – 118 BC, wrote about these awards:

An exhibit of Roman Phalera, from the Burg Linn Museum Center, Krefeld, Germany.

An exhibit of Roman Phalera, from the Burg Linn Museum Center, Krefeld, Germany.

After a battle in which some of them have distinguished themselves, the general calls an assembly of the troops, and bringing forward those whom he considers to have displayed conspicuous valour, first of all speaks in laudatory terms of the courageous deeds of each and of anything else in their previous conduct which deserves commendation“. (Polybius)

Napoleon Bonaparte wearing both the breast badge and star of the French Legion of Honour.

Napoleon Bonaparte wearing both the breast badge and star of the French Legion of Honour.

Many years later it is recorded that Napoleon Bonaparte said of his troops, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon”. France’s Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) was introduced in 1802 and­ by comparison, Napoleon’s British opponents of that era had no gallantry awards available to them, save a few Orders granted to officers. It was not until the Crimea War (1854-1856) that the British introduced the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) in 1854 and soon followed by the Victoria Cross (VC) in 1856. As more thought was ascribed to the valour of sailors and soldiers in action more awards were developed such as the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM) in 1874, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1886 and the Conspicuous Service Cross (CSC) in 1901.

During the Great War several new awards were created by the British. Based on a tiered system, generally respective of field of service and frequently governed by individual rank. These new awards, introduced when the nature of warfare was greatly changing, recognized the requirement to provide additional recognition to service personnel in combat. There were circumstances whereby awards crossed over between services and naval personnel were granted awards generally available to the army and vice versa. With the creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918, the new RAF soon saw the development of its own awards.

These new Great War awards included the renamed Conspicuous Service Cross, henceforth known as the Distinguished Service Cross (1914), the Distinguished Service Medal (1914), the Military Cross (1914), the Military Medal (1916), the Distinguished Flying Cross (1918) and the Distinguished Flying Medal (1918). Several of these awards were discontinued in 1993 when the older awards, the DCM and the CGM, as well as the DSM, MM and DFM were removed from the British system. At that time there was a desire to make available a series of awards available to all ranks rather than to continue with a system frequently based upon rank. As a result the DSC, MC and DFC were made available to all ranks as was the new Conspicuous Gallantry Cross  (1993).

The awards and other medals of William Coltman VC, DCM and Bar, MM and Bar. The bars indicate second awards.

The awards and other medals of William Harold Coltman VC, DCM and Bar, MM and Bar, North Staffordshire Regiment. The bars indicate second awards.

Many nations, outside the United Kingdom, discontinued the award of the Victoria Cross, creating their own series of national awards. However, the Victoria Cross’ cachet and the desire to re-implement tradition has meant that the Victoria Cross, has been reintroduced by several nations in recent years. Due to the present nature of conflict recently in Iraq and Afghanistan both Australia and New Zealand have presented their own awards of the Victoria Cross whereas Canada which also introduced its own Victoria Cross has not.

In 1986 Lord Michael Ashcroft began his collection of Victoria Cross awards by acquiring, through public auction, the 1945 Victoria Cross awarded to James Magennis a diver aboard the Royal Navy’s midget submarine HMS XE3. Having amassed a large collection, now on rotating exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, England, Lord Ashcroft’s collection includes two Canadian Great War awards to Alexander Brereton VC (8th Canadian Infantry Battalion awarded for an August 9, 1918 action east of Amiens, France}, and Thomas Dinesen VC (42nd Canadian Infantry Battalion for an August 12, 1918 action at Parvillers, France). Among the awards on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, opened in 2010, are those acquired by the Imperial War Museum and included among them is the Victoria Cross awarded to Lieutenant “Jackie” Smyth VC, MC of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, Indian Army.

In 1973 Sir John “Jackie” Smyth wrote “When King George V decorated me with my V.C. in July 1915 he gave me a very cheap little cardboard box (which I still treasure) to go with it, saying: ‘I give you this highest decoration of all in this very ordinary box so that the intrinsic value of the medal and the box shall not be more than one penny.’”

"Jackie" Smyhe VC, MC

“Jackie” Smyth VC, MC

I recall when I first read this short mention of “Jackie” Smyth’s award and how these few lines have remained with me for all these days. So too do I recall my first visit to the IWM where upon seeing the Smyth award in the VC & GC (George Cross) Gallery how I was taken back to his writing. Somehow it is a reminder to me, forever anchored in my being, and although I cannot actually define this reminder it may be about the modesty of the recipient, a combination of humility, the ordinary with the extraordinary.

To Hold You in My Arms Again

Posted By on September 5, 2015

A Great War wedding. One wonders what happened to them all.

A Great War wedding. One wonders what happened to them all.

When Circumstances Keep Us Apart

The other night I watched The Water Diviner…for the second time – a typical fate of mine when drawn into a story, removing myself away from the critics and enjoying someone’s vision. As I sat with my Rosemary I watched for her reactions to the words, images and soundtrack that brings this story together and allows us to react to it. I think upon my own time on the Gallipoli Peninsula (many years after the conflict) – I feel the heat, relive the heights of scrambles, cliffs and trails, and search in the silence the will of nations as metal cut through the spaces in between in search of their quarry.

It is the separation of family that I am drawn to today so richly echoed in this film. I see it also in the images from this time, Great War weddings, portrait photographs, family with children and all the time I wonder. What did these eyes see? Were they ever to see one and other again? Who were they…and marvel that, despite not knowing them, it is their dreams or concerns for the future that is reflected in their eyes. As Dr. Ibrahim (Ayshe’s father) tells us in the film, “I can see it in his eyes.”

Studio portrait of a soldier. A popular item to send home to loved ones.

Studio portrait of a soldier. A popular item to send home to loved ones.

And so when circumstances keep us apart, to hold you in my arms again, is a story that never grows old and one for all of us to share. Like the film’s Major Hasan reminds us, “Some things should never be forgotten”. Enjoy the film’s final soundtrack, (Love Was My Alibi – Kris Fogelmark). There is magic in this and happy birthday to my girl Rosemary…..


The Water Diviner and the Search for Canadian Great War Stories

Posted By on August 29, 2015

16th Canadian Machine Gun Company. The water and mud of Passchendaele.

16th Canadian Machine Gun Company. The water and mud of Passchendaele.

Finding Water – Finding Story

When I was young, some forty years ago, I came to British Columbia and lived near a place that my maternal family had called home since the 1860s. Having lived in many places, across Canada and overseas, this new place of generational connection was foreign to me. Yet I wanted familiarity – a sense of connection and slowly I found my place and began to listen to the voices that echoed the knowledge of my ancestors. Though the stories were largely family centric and especially spoke of their logging and hunting history, they spoke on occasion of neighbours, friends and characters – a rich culture of storytelling – and so I listened…

Once upon a time…

I recall some chatter about divining wells the art of walking the lay of the land, in search or perhaps a feeling for finding that vital liquid known to us as water. I recall at least one instance of watching a diviner set upon their work attempting to make me a believer. However, belief was not the issue, curiosity held me steadfast and being some 10 years of age this appeared to be magic. We may not have found water that day, and fortunately I did not have to dig a really big hole in the ground, but the story and memories remain with me – the day I spent a couple of hours climbing about the hillside of my former home following the water magician.

Many years later – 2014…Russell Crowe has found the story of a diviner whose young family is part of the Australian story of Gallipoli. Once again I am turned to the fine film productions that bring Australia’s Great War story to life, Gallipoli (1981), ANZACS (1985), The Light Horsemen (1987), Beneath Hill 60 (2010) and The Water Diviner (2014).

The Water Diviner (Fear of God Films).

Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner (Fear of God Films) 2014.

As in all my wanderings in search of this history for my home, Canada, and a way to bring it forward for eager people to see, I cannot help but ask myself where is this history in our deliveries? Apart from the film Passchendaele (2008) there has been a dearth in discovering our own stories. Many Canadian families speak of their connection to the days of the Great War – proud of their association, recalling their loved ones, or in many instances speaking of relatives they never met, whose service continues to be passed to the next generation as deep and rooted connection to family.

Saving Private Ryan (1998). James Francis Ryan with family at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Saving Private Ryan (1998). James Francis Ryan with family at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Though, from the U.S.A., and not Great War related the image clearly shows the generational family in support of their loved one.

Today, however, where do we find our own national or provincial history of these days that jaggedly shaped the 20th Century without care for who it affected? This connection to Canada’s Great War is all around us – and we should be and can be inspired by Australia’s willingness to connect to this difficult past. In that regard The Water Diviner is a wake-up call to remind us all that the first step towards recognizing these times is for all of us to become empathetic to this shared past – this legacy that is ours to share both the good and the bad. History cannot be changed nor the pitfalls of war, but Canada’s stories are still to be found – the challenge is to find those who will speak and provide the voice of leadership and for us to listen – to remember – to preserve – a record of these time through exhibits, histories, collections and film.

It is like the water diviner on my hilltop an opportunity to connect to family, friends and characters and yes it can be magic – I have that feeling!

There and Back Again

Posted By on August 22, 2015

British Columbia's Eric Valentine Gordon. Scholar, Soldier, and Professor.

British Columbia’s Eric Valentine Gordon. Scholar, Soldier, and Professor.

Eric Valentine Gordon

I can imagine them gathered around a table perhaps with a jug of ale, mead or warm cider. Finger foods, breads, meats and good conversation abound in tales of great imagination possibly anchored in some old tale of Norse or other. What brought them together…a common interest to share and then so many years later, so many tales, so many readings these stories released as films that I enjoy watching time and time again or the books I have returned to re-reading them with renewed imagination. What pray tell can these wanderings of tales of old could I be reckoning with?

I return again to Tolkien and his hobbits and rings, towers and kings, orcs and wizards. I have written before of Tolkien’s Great War and now I add his friend and Canadian soldier, Eric Valentine Gordon. Born in Salmon Arm, B.C. in 1896 Gordon was a student when he enlisted into the Canadian Field Artillery at Shorncliffe Camp, England, 11 August 1916. Gordon, service number 1260262 was, at the time of his enlistment, a student at University College, Oxford.

I originally found Mr. Gordon’s name amongst those Rhodes Scholars that I had previously researched with Great War service and was pleased to find Gordon’s C.E.F. record there among his brethren. Although troubled since childhood with asthma the condition did not stop Gordon from enlisting into the C.E.F., though it was soon apparent that this malady would take its toll and he was discharged in November 1916. For the good Mr. Gordon there would be no trenches or dire landscapes as witnessed by Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916. A great friend of E.V. Gordon.

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916. A great friend of E.V. Gordon.

There are many stories of those who served in the trenches and saw action at the familiar place names of the Great War. There are fewer stories though about those who were discharged due to medical disabilities and other reasons. I think upon those who did all they could to serve and am reminded of what must have been a rather small group of brothers the H.R.V.C., (the Vancouver based Honorably Rejected Volunteers of Canada) who had tried to enlist and for whatever reason were unable to serve despite their great desire. The H.R.V.C. had insignia, a lapel pin similar to those issued by the Canadian Patriotic Fund, or similarly the Silver War Badge. There were many other insignias produced at this time and all were important distinguishing marks to be worn during these times of conflict.

It is true that there were antagonists who harassed those they thought should be in uniform, Why are you not serving your country? and who at times distributed white feathers, representative of cowardice, to those they deemed were not doing their bit. Having actually seen an original feather and accompanying note it is very much another astonishing symbol representative of a complex time.

These pins, many subject to punishment if worn unlawfully, marked the man as one who had served or attempted to serve and displayed to potential antagonists that they had attempted to serve the cause or had been discharged from active service.

Returning to the good Mr. Gordon, I was inspired to learn, that he had worked with Tolkien and the two became great friends, who perhaps shared stories that led to the creation of that famed series of books now further immortalized by Peter Jackson.

Gordon, “Being no longer physically fit for war service” returned to school. He had attended Victoria College and McGill University prior to the Great War and afterwards taught at Leeds University 1922 – 1931 and Manchester University until his death in 1938. Gordon worked with Tolkien on A Middle English Vocabulary and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Together they created the Viking Club where Icelandic sagas of old were read, and amongst friends and faculty beer was consumed. Together Gordon and Tolkien enjoyed the creation of Anglo-Saxon songs that were later privately published as Songs for Philologists.

Gordon’s wife Ida later became a visiting professor at the University of Victoria in 1970. Their daughter Bridget  MacKenzie, a lecturer in old Norse at the University of Glasgow, inherited several personal papers and books related to the friendship of her father and Tolkien. These documents were purchased by the Special Collections department of the University of Leeds. The University’s catalog description records, “The six letters, 11 manuscripts and two books include a copy of the extremely rare Songs for the Philologists, penned by Tolkien, Gordon and others, and a first edition of The Hobbit dedicated by its author to Gordon, his wife and young children.”

For me this research of friendship has taken me there and back again from re-reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series, re-watching Jackson’s interpretations of these journeys and to my Alma Mater, the University of Victoria. I see them all, the characters, Gandalf and Bilbo, Frodo and Sam of Tolkien and Gordon’s great imagination and creativity, those who are quite “little fellow[s] in a wide world after all” and see that indeed there really is no such thing as little fellows. All peoples are unique in their gifts of sharing knowledge for all. Thank goodness.