March, 2008

Talbot HouseI'm just back from a three week hitch as Warden of Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium. Talbot House was a sanctuary for soldiers on leave and behind the lines in WWI. It was run by Church of England Chaplain, Tubby Clayton and soldiers were told to "check your rank at the door." It was an 'every man's club' and a place where soldiers could relax, decompress, get messages, have a shower, go to the chapel up in the attic and receive communion.

Toc-HToc H, the nick-name soldiers gave it, is a fantastic place and has changed very little since WWI. It's like staying in a wonderful 'living museum,' and I plan to do it again same time next year. It was visited by many Canadian soldiers in WWI and the harmonium in Tubby's chapel was given to him by a Canadian, Major Street.

Revere's MarkerI also went to the places where McCrae and his artillery brigade were between the battle of Neuve-Chappelle, France in March of 1915, where they fought on the British flank, and the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April/May 1915; Cassel, Oudezeele and Steenvoorde. I've now followed McCrae's footsteps virtually everywhere he went during WWI.

View from the ChapelOn Monday, February 25th, I visited the grave of Revere Osler, the only child of Canadian medical icon and one of John McCrae's mentors, Sir William Osler. Revere is buried at a seldom visited, hospital cemetery called Dozinghem, west of Poperinge, a beautiful and haunting place.

HarmoniumYoung Revere was a friend of McCrae's and in fact, much influenced by McCrae's love of the artillery. He had all kinds of strings pulled to get him out of a safe job as a quarter-master in the R.A.M.C. and into the Royal Artillery. He was tragically killed early on in the 3rd Battle of Ypres. His death of course broke Sir William's heart but I think McCrae also felt partly responsible and suffered terribly from his death.

In Fields, the Movie News

DozinghemFlandersI continue to work on the, In Flanders Fields movie script and to build a team on the project. My team now includes, Military Story Advisor, Major-General (retired) Ivan Fenton and historian/writer, Norman Leach who is just off Paul Gross's Passchendaele film. Something of this magnitude, importance and complexity will take time and I am learning patience. I plan to follow the trail being blazed by Paul Gross in telling our important Canadian stories.

The performance of, In Flanders Fields the song, that was scheduled to be performed at a big military tattoo in Winnipeg in October of '08 has been postponed until fall, 2009.

August 2007

Horse News

PachinoLast month we had our second foal, born on 07/07/07, two weeks overdue! Upon seeing his picture, a friend in the Royal Canadian Regiment pointed out that his star looks amazingly like the RCR badge. Due to the time of his birth in early July, he suggested the name, Pachino, so that's what we have named him. Pachino was a battle fought by the RCR's at Pachino, Sicily in WWII after an amphibious landing on July 10th, 1943.

RCR BadgePachino the colt is a very handsome, but mischievous little character with big 'attitude.' I expect him to be quite beautiful when he matures. He will be grey like his sire and dam and already has little tell-tale grey hairs around his eyes.

Movie Project News

I continue to work on the script and am now working with a Story Editor. It's a major task to distill two full years of research into two hours of the powerful, compelling and important true story that this will be when it's complete. It's challenging and I might have picked a less daunting story for my second screenplay but in many ways this story seems to have picked me. So I will do what needs to be done.

I have only a tiny bit of research yet to finish and that is to observe artillery training in the field and to tour the Royal Artillery Museum in Shilo, MB which I hope to do in the next couple of months.

At the same time it's exciting and exhilarating to believe that this story will be brought to the screen. I now have some truly great supporters across Canada generally and particularly in the Canadian Forces. It's only a matter of time.

In Flanders Fields, the Song News

On October 28th in Winnipeg, there are preliminary plans afoot to perform In Flanders Fields, the song (words by John McCrae, melody by me © 2006) publicly for the first time at a huge Military Tattoo. I'm told it will be sung buy a 60 man choir and played by massed pipe and brass bands! Sounds exciting and if all goes as planned, it will be performed at the stadium where somewhere around 10,000 people are expected to attend. More details to follow as plans progress.  


April 2007

The art form known as Trench Art; a better use of shells.The art form known as Trench Art; a better use of shells. A sculpture on the Vimy MemorialThiepval, France - monument to the missing of The Somme, 1916 Mounties in front of the monumentMounties in front of the monument The 'Estaminet' in France outside Boulogne that John McCrae used to pass on his horse, Bonfire. Sometimes he'd stop and watch the waterfall. Occasionally he'd eat there.Enlarged view of image Thiepval, monument to the missing of the Battle of the Somme.Enlarged view of image an English trench mortar called a Toffee Apple or Plum Pudding found with De Diggers in Boezinge, Belgium.Enlarged view of image Type of WWI hand grenades called Mills Bombs.Enlarged view of image

In the Footsteps of John McCrae:
With a Side Trip to Vimy

By Susan Raby-Dunne

My family and I just returned on April 15th from two weeks in Flanders and France. It was a privilege to be at Vimy Ridge for the 90th anniversary. But even the day before the Vimy event, one of the highlights for me was to be in the city of Arras for the Freedom of the City Parade. The Canadian Armed Forces were invited by the mayor of Arras to parade through the streets, bayonets fixed with pipe bands, and a Mountie colour guard to celebrate the Canadians liberation of that city in WWI. It was very moving and many citizens came out and were waving Canadian flags. I couldn't help but feel a surge of pride to be from a country that had sacrificed so much to free the people of France and Belgium.

I've been researching the story of John McCrae since the fall of 2005 in the process of writing a screenplay. I went to Vimy with him in mind. He would have given anything to be at Vimy with the artillery. He had been removed from his brigade after the 2nd Battle of Ypres in 1915 and reassigned to the military hospital in Boulogne, France where he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and given the position of, Doctor in Charge of Medicine.

His close friend and former commander, General Edward Morrison who was in charge of the artillery at Vimy wrote to McCrae after the victory. Morrison wrote... "it certainly was the greatest day in the history of the gunners. All Arms are unanimous that the Artillery preparation and support on this front was as near perfection on a gigantic scale as the science of the arm has ever been brought...If you were only here, I think my enjoyment would be complete."

I thought of the bittersweet reaction John McCrae probably had to that letter as I walked around the top of Vimy Ridge and looked out over the Douai Plain at a view that had not been seen by the Allies before that battle.

I also thought of the four divisions of Canadian soldiers who had gathered on that morning exactly 90 years before. They'd been summoned from all over the various fronts of the war to do what neither the British nor the French, with terrible losses, had been able to do in three previous attempts.

Because I'd gotten a press pass I was allowed to go onto the monument and also into the Grange Tunnel in the morning. Both were closed to the public that day for security reasons. In the tunnel, one of several where the soldiers massed before the attack, I had an eerie feeling. It occurred to me that many of the men who passed through here that day never returned. I said a silent prayer for them.

With the two Generals directing, Englishman Julian Byng and Canada's Arthur Currie, what they did was unprecedented. Every detail of the plan was shared with every man right down to the lowest Private and labourer. This was unheard of, certainly in the British and French armies where ranks below officers were never told anything about the whys and wherefores of any operation.

What that approach did was make everyone feel involved, important and a part of something special. It was a brilliant way of motivating the soldiers and creating the best possible sense of Esprit de Corps in every single man. It was the first Allied victory in over a year.

Later in the afternoon as the main event was about to happen, something unexpected happened to me. I was in the 'media pen.' and was advised by a photographer in the media tent that I could go out and come back in again. She was wrong. I ended up missing the key parts of the ceremony with the Queen, the French Prime Minister and Prime Minister Harper because the French Secret Police wouldn't let me back in.

There I was stuck outside with a school teacher from Newfoundland in the same boat and several others. The teacher had left 43 students inside and was beside himself. A Mountie had told him he could go out and get water and then return. Wrong. My husband and son on the other hand were inside with front row seats in the public seating area where they enjoyed the whole event.

The teacher and I commiserated for a few minutes and then separated and I went and sat on a stone wall outside the cordoned area. I thought, "Hmmm, what does this mean?" I reflected for awhile. I'd come on behalf of John McCrae that day. He was quite unpolitical and would not have cared a snap (his expression) about all the pomp and ceremony.

What he did care about, was devoted to and died in the service of was the common fighting soldier in the field. I smiled to myself and thought, that is enough. To remember those men that gave everything that day, out here where they planned and launched the attack. Out on this slope and these fields where many historians say our country came of age on that day 90 years ago.

* * *

After Vimy we made our way northwest. We paid our respects at Dieppe where Canadians sacrificed on that beach in another war twenty-five years later.

Our second last stop before returning to Flanders was the Valleé du Denacre outside Boulogne where John McCrae used to ride his horse, Bonfire, almost every night after work at the hospital. In that sanctuary on a tree-shrouded path surrounded by wildflowers, trickling water and myriad songbirds, McCrae tried to shake off the horrors of the day. He treated hundreds of men from all the remaining battles of the war; the Somme, Vimy and Passchendaele among others.

He would get word at Number 3 Canadian General Hospital(McGill) in Boulogne, that they were to evacuate as many patients as could be moved. He would know then that a big offensive was in the works and to brace himself for an onslaught of wounded. It was gruelling, exhausting, depressing and killed him as surely as shrapnel or bullets killed other men.

So at Vimy Ridge, I paid tribute to the soldiers who fought there on April 9th, 1917 and to the one soldier working at a hospital in Boulogne, who would have been there doing his all with his beloved artillery if he could have been.

A Sunday With De Diggers

The day before we left Flanders for home on April 14th, we spent a second afternoon with 'De Diggers.' De Diggers are a local group of battlefield excavation experts that I got to know on my first visit to Flanders in March of 2006. Among other WWI artifacts that we found; Mills bombs, a sniper plate, artillery shells, a smoking pipe, we found the remains of a British soldier. This wasn't the first time I'd been with De Diggers when they'd found human remains, but for some reason this one really touched me and I awoke on the first morning of our return to Canada with the following poem in my head.

Tribute to a British Soldier:
Tommy in Flanders, 2007©
By Susan Raby-Dunne

There's nothing left of Tommy
But two charred legs and a boot
Some bullets, coins, his puttees
And some ninety year old soot.

He was someone's bright young boy
When he left to go to war
From the lush green fields of Somerset
To the fields of blood and gore.

So now he lies in Flanders
Surrounded by his mates
Hard by the Yser Canal
In an industrial estate.

The bulldozers are coming
Pile drivers and the like.
De Diggers working frantically
To bring the boys to light.

No one knew how it would end
The war to end all wars.
Yet there's hundreds more like Tommy
And we know right where they are!

But their government won't claim them.
Their families wait in vain.
After 90 years of wondering
What's another age of pain?

By the banks of the Yser Canal
Where they did their duty well
They'll be buried soon forever
Beneath modern concrete shells.

So their families troop to Flanders,
Passchendaele, Somme, the lot.
And search for tiny names engraved
Menin Gate, Thiepval, Tyne Cot.

If there was a chance to name them,
Goddamnit we'll never know.
As the heartless beast called Progress,
Paves over those men below.

The soft brown hair, the mouth that sang,
The ears that heard the larks,
Smashed to hell by a massive shell
And gone in a shower of sparks.

Now there's nothing left of Tommy
But two charred legs and a boot,
Some bullets, coins, his puttees
And some ninety year old soot.  



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