As we checkout from the Pax hotel in Diksmuide there was a feeling of leaving home. The people of Diksmuide, Leke, and all of Belgium made us feel most welcome—special thanks and considerations to Luke Vandenbussche and his friends who helped with the tour in so many ways. Nevertheless, on to our next adventure; this time in Arras, France.
En route to Arras, the tour made a stop at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery just outside of Ypres. The cemetery was hard to find due to construction in the area, but it was well worth the search. It is the resting place for Captain N.G. Chavasse, VC of the Royal Army Medical Corp, one of only three men to win the Victoria Cross twice. Fittingly, his headstone is inscribed with dual images of the Victoria Cross.
Next the group visited both the old and new Poperinghe Military Cemeteries. The Old Poperinghe Military Cemetery is a special cemetery for the British Columbia Regiment (BCR) as it contains the grave of Lieutenant Colonel William Hart-McHarg, the first commanding officer of the 7th Battalion (British Columbia). One hundred years ago, to the day, Lieutenant Colonel William Hart-McHarg was killed in action at the Battle of St. Julien. It was a significant moment for the BCR contingent as they, led by their current Commanding Officer, Major Evans, visited Lieutenant Colonel Hart-McHarg’s final resting place.
Eight kilometers South of Ypres the group made a stop at Petit Douve the location of the first successful trench raid of the war. At this site the group learned about Lieutenant Owen, the Intelligence Officer of the 7th Battalion who laid out the framework for the raid. One hundred years later this is the site of a farm, but even today it has the same geographical layout and remains reminiscent of the First World War. Pickets that hold barbed wires are still present—only now they hold farm fences in place. It was moving to see members of the BCR able to walk the grounds of their forefathers.
On our way to France the tour was unusually ahead of schedule, and we were able to make a refueling and refreshment stop on the “autoroute” near Lille. The tour group was able to stretch their legs, use the washroom, and enjoy ice cream in the spring heat. Even Vern Salisbury joined in and had a good ice cream at the stop.
The next battle site was Hill 70. This two-week long battle took place in August 1917, and was the first Canadian Corp battle to be led by Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie. His plan was to take and hold Hill 70 rapidly, strongly reinforce it, and wait for the inevitable German counter attacks to inflict heavy casualties. During the course of the battle, two members of the BCR would earn the Victoria Cross for their bravery: Private Michael James O’Rourke of the 7th Battalion, and Company Sergeant Major Robert Hill Hanna of the 29th Battalion. Private O’Rourke, who had previously been awarded the Military Medal, was a stretcher bearer during the battle. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for repeatedly rescuing wounded soldiers under heavy machine gun fire. CSM Hanna earned his while he and his men were attacking a strongly defended machine gun fortification on the hill. All the officers had been wounded in the assault, and CSM Hanna, under heavy machine gun fire, took charge, personally killed four Germans, and captured the machine gun nest. The tour was very fortunate to have Bob Hanna, the son of CSM Hanna, on the tour. Bob talked to the group about his father. It was an honour to listen.
We then visited the sites associated with the story of Lieutenant Jack Kipling. He is one of very few casualties of the war who has his name on a memorial wall, indicating that he had no known grave, but who also has a headstone in a war cemetery. Lieutenant Kipling was only 18 years old, and jumped through many hurdles to join the military to serve. Once Lieutenant Kipling’s father was notified that his son was missing and presumed dead, he dedicated his life to find his son’s body, and made generous contributions to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In the late 1990s historians were able to match the records, and find Jack Kipling’s body. He was finally laid to rest, and a headstone was erected in 1992.
This long day of travel came to an end with the arrival at the Ibis Hotel in Arras.
Submitted by: Captain Majeet Vinning, Colonel (retired) Keith Maxwell and Bob Hall
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