Wolfe Island Remembrance Day Talk 11 November 2017

Clarence Raymond Watts was born on Wolfe Island, Ontario, January 3, 1890.  He was the son of Rev. Asa Orlando Watts and Emma Augusta Miner Watts.  He had four younger sisters and one older brother. His father was a Methodist minister who may have been preaching here on Wolfe Island when Clarence was born, the family moved around quite a bit in the following years. The 1891 census has the family in Stanstead QC, while the 1911 census lists their residence as Storrington, ON. At the start of the war his family was in Merrickville, which was his mother’s home town.

Like many Canadians, Clarence moved west at some point after 1911. The recently-created provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were booming and Clarence found employment as a bookkeeper in Regina. It was while he was there that he decided to enlist on the 24th of January 1916 just after his 26th birthday; however he did so in Winnipeg, joining the 179th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders of Canada. He was unmarried at the time of his enlistment and was 5 feet, 5 inches tall with a dark complexion, brown eyes and dark hair. He left a good job in Regina to enlist – we don’t know his reasons nor do we know if his parents in Merrickville were aware of his decision.

The 179th Battalion trained at Camp Hughes south of Brandon, MB during the summer of 1916 and shipped out for England in the fall. When it got there, like so many other units, it was broken up for reinforcements. Clarence found himself in the 43rd Battalion, Cameron Highlanders of Canada, a Winnipeg unit, in the 3rd Canadian Division.

Clarence missed the Battle of the Somme but would likely have participated in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and at Hill 70 in August. He survived both these major engagements in which over 7,000 Canadians died. In October 1917, Field Marshall Haig ordered the Canadian Corps, the most effective formation in the British Army, north to Flanders where he needed Lt-Gen Currie’s experienced battle-tested troops to provide some sort of victory to close out the Battle of 3rd Ypres. This battle, also known as Passchendaele, remains one of the most controversial of the First World War. Over 500,000 soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded in the battle that raged across the devastated landscape west of Ypres – the last major town in Belgium not occupied by the Germans. The rainiest summer in Belgian memory led into a rainy fall, as the British Army slowly pushed the Germans back at great cost to both sides. The water table of the low lying countryside was already shattered when the Canadians arrived in mid-October. Lakes of mud swallowed men, horses and guns whole, with progress across the battlefield measured in metres, and movement in the rear areas largely confined to wooden walkways called duckboards.

General Currie was not happy to be in the Ypres Salient that fall. He demanded and received from Field Marshall Haig, more time to prepare, more guns, and a switch in Army boundaries so he would not have to fight under a commander in whom he had no confidence. Currie could make these demands due to the great reputation of the Canadian Corps, a reputation earned in blood.

Clarence’s battalion the 43rd was scheduled to attack on the first day of the Canadian assault – 26 October 1917. They had to attack uphill through a sea of mud and capture Bellevue Spur, the high ground on the north side of Passchendaele Ridge. Their objective was one kilometer away – the Red Line.  The attack went in at 5:40 am in a mist that quickly became a driving rain. After initial success the two battalions of the 9th Brigade – Clarence’s 43rd and the 46th, stalled about 600 m from their start point. They were falling back when Lt Shankland and his platoon seized the initiative and captured some stubborn German positions. Shankland would earn the VC, but Clarence Watts would be cut down and die that day. The terribly muddy conditions meant that his remains were not recovered and as result he has no known grave. He is instead remembered with honour at the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, in Ypres along with over 53,000 other Commonwealth soldiers. Each night at 8:00 pm the traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate while buglers of the local Fire Brigade sound the Last Post in the roadway under the Memorial’s arches.

Clarence Watts was not on Wolfe Island for long, but he will be long remembered by the community where he was born. We will remember them. Thank you,  Miigwetch, Nia;wan, Merci.

Pte Clarence Watts

Pte Clarence Watts

Cemetery Landscaping: Gardens for Remembrance

As Dave and I curate photos for a Gunner Tour book, I am suddenly struck by just how many flower photos I have taken while on the Return To Vimy 2017 tour. An avid gardener, the landscaping provided emotional relief for me with the heaviness I felt, listening to the stories of the fallen.  The cemeteries we visit include hospital cemeteries, battlefield cemeteries and concentration cemeteries.  The latter, are where remains were brought from smaller cemeteries, to one large area – these include Beny-Sur-Mer and Tyne Cot.  One of the most beautiful cemeteries we visited, in my opinion, was Adanac Cemetery (Canada spelled backwards), at the Somme.   This tour was my first visit here.   My experience was influenced by its beautiful, simple design - one colour of flower within the symmetry of the repeated gravestones.   The current gardeners, hired by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, choose flowers and landscaping for each season ensuring that something is always in bloom. I often thought about the designers of the commonwealth graveyards as I wandered about.  For Adanac Cemetery, this was Sir Herbert Baker, who also designed Tyne Cot.  He was one of the two principle architects of the First World War sites.  All of his cemeteries were thematically based on reflecting “an English country garden”.   The flowers are a lasting tribute to the men and women who remain here and welcome beauty to to those who visit them.


Wilfred Joseph (Bill) Nolan, Sgt. and Acting RSM, Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment WWII

Libby Yanch is a school colleague and friend of mine and when I mention that I am collaborating with an art teacher for a school contribution to Operation Husky 2018, she shares that her great uncle, Wilfred Joseph (Bill) Nolan, fought in Operation Husky in 1943. Libby’s great uncle was from Pembroke, Ontario.  Early in my relationship with Dave, our first trip together is in Sicily for ten, extraordinarily hot and sunny days.  We drove all over the place and often came across locations where Dave would sweep his arm over a breathtaking vista and say “this is where the Hastings and Prince Edward County Regiment were involved in a skirmish” or in a tight hairpin turn pronounce “this is the site where the Hasty P's did such and such”.  Libby’s great uncle never spoke about his wartime experiences to his family.  It was only after a stranger phoned her father many years later, that the family had some insight into his contributions to Operation Husky and the Italian Campaign.  Libby came back to school with two black and white photos of her great uncle Bill to share with me and his exploits, recounted by Mark Zuehlke, in Ortona – one where he is relaxing in a hayfield and the other in his uniform on a motorbike.  I can’t stop thinking about what it must have been like to be in the landing craft as he came ashore on the beaches of Sicily and had to walk across the island.  Most of their trucks were lost when two ships were sunk the day before landing. 

To see if I can find out more, I order Farley Mowat’s, The Regiment, a history of the Hasty P's, from the Wolfe Island library.  It turns out that Sgt. Bill Nolan’s story is included in this history of the infantry regiment.  It’s quite surprising to find out that a small part of your family history is caught in the pages of this iconic Canadian author’s words.  Bill Nolan’s story is one of bravery and leadership, where he led ten Canadians in an attack that provided critical intelligence for the others in the unit. 

Farley Mowat narrates:

“Baker company followed up the enemy’s defeat and Sgt. Bill Nolan, with ten men attacked and overran a house controlling the road junction, capturing eighteen German paratroopers in the process.

The capture of the paratroopers was a disquieting event.  It was the first indication that the enemy’s finest formation, the Paratroop Division, was arriving upon the scene, and it meant fighting ahead would be of unprecedented ferocity.” (page 145)

I wonder as I read this passage what that enterprise must have been like for those eleven Canadian soldiers. The detail is not there.  Sgt. Bill Nolan earned the Military Medal for this action.  Dave shares that he mentions this narrative with clients when he is standing at San Donato, on his Italian battlefield tours – a Canadian story that highlights the peril Canadians faced against the German forces as they advanced towards Ortona.  They would have known on this day that what lay ahead of them was going to be increasingly challenging.  The Paratroop Divisions were known for their skill and fierceness.