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Thursday, November 15, 2007

   Here's a damn stupid idea . . .
Anime-based Chuck Norris Facts.

Alias "Chakku Norisu Fakutou".

Example: Chuck Norris doesn't battle wild Pokemon... he just stares them down, points at his pokeball, and they submit.


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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

   Back to Real Time . . .
Thanks again, everyone who was able to read most of those Remembrance Day posts. As all the other writers can attest, it's always nice to know that I didn't just wear at my keyboard for nothing.

So who else read that thing about how Tim Kring, creator of Heroes, made a public apology for season 2 not being as awesome as it should be? Stuff like it being too slow-paced, Hiro in Japan for too long, not establishing the season's main crisis sooner . . . so he said that once the strike's over and they get to start writing more stories, Heroes is gonna be kicking some serious ass all over again. It's a neat kind of statement to hear from a show creator, y'know?

In any case, the last two episodes have been beyond badass, so I'm happy.

Aside from that, I've taken up a hobby of playing with Mario Paint Composer. Basically, some dude took the music-making program from the original Mario Paint for SNES and put it on steroids and on the web for free download.

I've gone to town on that mother ever since . . .

("Sakura Kiss" from Ouran High School Host Club)

("Rolling Star" from Bleach)

And my proudest achievement yet . . . in its full-length glory . . .

("Houki Boshi" from Bleach)

I'll probably take a break now. Considering that last one took me about six hours to compose, I think I may need it for other things . . . like watching season 2 of GTO!

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Gondrée Family; Remembrance Day Reflections
My final 2007 post follows in my predominant theme of people. Now, Pegasus Bridge and the battle for it in the early morning of D-Day could easily make for a great story in itself. Rather, I'd like to tell you about a single French family whose name has since been always connected with the bridge and the events which took place the early morning of June 6th, 1944. This is the story of the Gondrée family of Normandy.

First a general history of what happened from the military point of view:

It was the night before the D-Day landings on June 6th. Just as American 82nd and 101st Airborne troops were landing inland to destroy coastal guns and the like, the British 6th had its own midnight objectives. Among them, they had to capture bridges in the coastal region near Caen both to cut off German counter-attacks against Sword Beach and to allow for movement through the region once the time came. The bridge over the Caen Canal near Ouistreham and Benouville in Normandy and the river bridge parallel to it were among them.

Six plywood Horsa Gliders carrying 180 British Airborne soldiers in heavy gear and blackened faces - led by Major John Howard - dropped quietly through the night sky (3 gliders for each bridge). At 12:16am, the 3 gliders landed almost directly next to the bridge and the 90 men rushed out, attacked the surprised groupd of 50 or so German defenders, and captured the bridge within the first ten minutes of the attack. They then defended the bridge for the next 2 hours until they were reinforced by further paratroopers from the 6th Airborne dropped 40 minutes after they had.

2 of the 90 men attacking the canal bridge died. All things considering, it was an extremely successful attack. It was well-planned and well executed. The reasons for the excellent planning? Among them, the residents of the small house next to the canal bridge . . .

The Gondrées owned a small house next to the bridge that they used as a café during the day. During the occupation, Georges Gondrée made sure that his family - himself, his wife Thérèsa and their daughter (who was joined by a sister in 1944) - slept in separate rooms of the house so that German soldiers could not billet themselves in any empty rooms of the small café. Nevertheless, the bridge meant that there was always a military presence in the area . . . and the Gondrées often found themselves serving food and beer to the soldiers during the five years of occupation against their obvious preference.

By May 1942, the pressures of occupation pushed them past their limits. The Germans took the best of everything and paid with useless money; they took the men away to labour camps; they imposed curfews and limitations on travel; they shot dissenters . . . the Gondrées knew they had to fight back.

While the Germans only saw them as a typical Norman family, Georges had worked as a clerk in Lloyd's Bank in Paris before buying the café and understood English while Madame Gondrée came from Alsace and spoke German; both hid these facts from the Germans and began assisting the resistance. Thérèsa would overhear what the Germans were saying in the café and would tell her husband. Her husband would then tell Madame Vion who managed the local maternity hospital. Madame Vion would then tell the resistance group in Caen who could then pass it on to British Intelligence. Georges and Thérèsa weren't fools to the danger they were now in. If the Germans found out, they were likely to be tortured and then hanged . . .

Thankfully that was never the case, and the Gondrées were able to give the Allies a great deal of important information regarding the bridge. Through the help of Georges and Thérèsa Gondrée, the British knew that there was now an anti-tank gun emplacement, that the pillbox next to the bridge had been completed, and that the detonator for the explosives underneath the bridge was in that pillbox. They told the British that the bridge defenders were preparing and training for a possible airborne attack and had dotted the open fields with anti-glider poles nicknamed "Rommel's Asparagus". There is absolutely no question that the information supplied by the Gondrées contributed greatly to the success of the midnight attack.

When the British attack was in full force, Georges was the first to wake up from the noise and crept to the window to look out. Outside the house, a freshly-wounded British soldier saw Georges' movement inside and sprayed the window with his Sten submachine gun. Unhurt, Georges quickly left the window, woke up his family and rushed them into the basement for the remainder of the battle.

Several hours later at about 4 or 5am, the gunfire had died down tremendously and Georges took it upon himself to come back out of the cellar to check on things. Again, British soldiers spotted him and began asking in French, "Vous civile?" While Georges was able to answer that he was indeed a civilian, the soldiers couldn't understand his French. Not wanting to risk exposing himself as knowing English, Georges tried some choppy German which also failed - he headed back into the safety of the cellar once again.

Another hour later, Madame Gondrée put her ear up to a hole in the cellar to determine if the soldiers were speaking German. She couldn't understand them, which was possibly a good thing. Finally, Georges heard the words "all right" from one of the men outside . . . he knew they were British at last!

Georges opened the door to the knocking paratroopers - in part to finally greet the allied soldiers, in part to make sure they didn't just break the door down. Admitting the two paratroopers with blackened faces and submachine guns, he told them that there were no Germans in the house and - after a moment's concern over his leading them down into the house - that his family was still hiding in the cellar.

With the words, "It's all right, chum," spoken by one of the paratroopers, the Gondrées knew they were finally safe.

Madame Gondrée with tears of joy rushed forward, kissing and hugging all the airborne troops as they came to the café. After kissing all those blackened faces, Madame's face was quite black as well . . . but she kept it that way for the next few days as a mark of pride. Georges, meanwhile, went into the garden and dug up 98 bottles of champagne that he had hidden in 1940 before the Germans arrived. Free drinks went around to all the airborne troops, with enough cork popping "that it was heard on the other side of the canal," as Major Howard later described. But it was a worthy celebration: the Gondrées were the first French family to be liberated in the war, their house the first building. The café went on to act as an aid station, where they tended to the wounded.

As the day of June 6th, 1944 passed by, soldiers and tanks from the beaches came to push further inland over the bridges. Again, Georges Gondrée came out with glasses of champagne for the men as they drove by - something that all present were especially glad to savour, considering the day they had just gotten through . . . the day they had just survived . . .

The canal bridge has since been named "Pegasus Bridge" in honour of the 6th Airborne. As for the Gondrées, they were now part of history. The café stands very much as it was in the 1940s, albeit with a lot more 6th Airborne memorabilia and photos along the walls.

Every year on the anniversary of D-Day, the Gondrées and the men of the 6th Airborne would meet at the café to celebrate and reminisce. Georges became good friends with many of them including Major Howard and a Jack Bailey (with whom he would go duck hunting every year). Madame Gondrée went on to be known as the "Mother of the 6th Airborne" one year.

The actual attack on Pegasus Bridge has been recreated in popular culture several times. A scene in the film "The Longest Day" depicts the airborne attack, and the first mission of the British Campaign in "Call of Duty" even recreates the battle (albeit in the fun, inaccurate video game way).

A funny story about "The Longest Day", actually . . . during the actual attack, the British soldiers quickly captured the pillbox so that the Germans wouldn't be able to explode the bridge. They lucked out because although the demolition charges were wired to the bridge, the actual explosives were not. For the film, producer Darryl Zanuck insisted on having a scene with British sappers climbing underneath the bridge and picking out the explosives even at the protest of Major Howard. Zanuck also wanted half-dressed German soldiers rushing out the windows of the Gondrée house to combat the attacking British . . . Madame Gondrée would have none of it and emphatically insisted that no German soldier EVER slept in her house, and that the scene HAD to be changed . . . so Zanuck changed the scene.

When Georges and Thérèsa died, their two daughters took up ownership of the house and continued the pride and tradition of of Café Gondrée. Even today, veterans who come to the café may drink for free. I learned this firsthand when I travelled to Normandy this past summer. I was waiting for the "replacement" Pegasus Bridge to lower so I could go to the Pegasus Bridge Museum on the other side, and went into the café. Inside a British veteran was cheerfully going about getting a drink, but only had a large bill or so. Hearing English from both sides of the counter, I offered to break the elder man's bill with my smaller bills; the woman behind the counter - very likely one of the Gondrée sisters, told me not to worry about it. "He's a veteran," she told me.

Eventually I went to the museum, saw and walked across the original Pegasus Bridge, and afterwards came back to the café to kill some time and write down my travel notes. From the café, I bought a copy of Stephen Ambrose's "Pegasus Bridge" (the book I used for most of this post's info'), a glass of beer and a croissant and sat down at a table outside, looking at my pictures and whatnot.

For the rest of my time alone in Normandy, I read through that book extremely quickly. The further I read, the more I realised just how important that little café actually was . . . I mean, I saw the pictures, the mementos and the "Historical Monument" signs all over the place, but I didn't realise just how important the Pegasus Bridge Café Gondrée truly was! Believe me when I say that I wish I had taken a few more pictures of that place before I headed back to my hotel in Caen . . .

. . . just goes to show ya, I guess. Just as it's true for people, every house has its story. And you'll be amazed at just how incredible those stories can be . . . and how a lot of times, the story still isn't over . . .

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(Pegasus Bridge after its capture; note how close to the bridge the gliders in the back actually landed.)

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(My photo of the Café Gondrée, June 2007)


Another year gone, another year to remember the deeds of those from years past. With this being . . . the fifth Remembrance Day I've shared with people online like this, I'm sure I've probably already said a lot of things already. So what can I add this year 'round?

I'm not sure if I did it intentionally or not, but as a lot of you noticed I did a lot of this year's write-ups about people and individuals more than I did about battles or other large-scale events. I knew I had to write about the Gondrées by the time I finished reading "Pegasus Bridge" (Ambrose, the author, is the same guy who wrote "Band of Brothers, if anyone's curious). Their story just floored me. I suppose part of it was because I had actually stood in their house and bought food and drink from them. Still, I think the other part was that they weren't soldiers. They were just a family who happened to live next to a strategically significant landmark - they had a young daughter and another who came along during the war years. They were good people . . . they just wanted to survive the war.

It's not that easy, though. It's never that easy.

Edmund Burke said it himself: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Wars these days aren't always so clearcut. We're never sure if we're fighting (and dying) for the right reasons, and if our actions are just or not. We all know it, soldier and civilian alike. Oftentimes people say "give the people something worth fighting for and they'll fight for it." These days it's not as easy . . . but when it does, you might be quite amazed at how strong you'll fight.

Normal people don't want war. Still, I'd like to think that in most of the stories I've told this past week, normal people are also capable of extremely heroic deeds whether you're a Russian peasant girl, a bagpiper from Chilliwack or a French café owner . . .

They did all the heavy lifting. All we need to do today is remember them for that. Like I said yesterday: they gave their all . . . we can afford to give them a couple minutes of thought.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Dutch Hongerwinter (September 1944 - May 1945)
Just as I was once compelled by Gail to write about an experience her parents and family went through during the Second World War, I am today compelled by another to tell of her family's experience . . . this is the story of the Dutch Famine of 1944: The Hongerwinter.

Nazi Germany had the Netherlands under occupation from May 1940 onwards. For 4 years the Dutch people watched their men sent to labour camps, their Jewish families rounded up and taken awaym and their German occupiers sleeping in their homes and taking their food. As such, civilians were under enforced ration orders, being given just enough food to survive every week or so.

4 years later after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, it seemed like things would finally start to change. The Allies were planning Operation Market Garden for September, a mass airborne landing in the Netherlands designed to capture bridges that would lead directly into Germany. To assist the landings, the Dutch government (in exile in London) called for a railway strike in the homeland to restrict German troop movements by rail . . . once September came, 30,000 Dutch railway workers went into hiding and 35,000 Allied soldiers landed in the southern part of the country.

Operation Market Garden was a failure. It was a risky gamble with too many factors going against it. By the end of September, most Allied forces pulled back to the liberated southern part of the Netherlands; the rest of the country was left to suffer German retaliation . . . in light of the Dutch railway strike (which continued as a matter of prestige until the end of the war), the Germans put shipping embargoes on all food transportation going into the western Netherlands.

The timing could not have been worse for the Dutch people. By this time Germany was on a definite defensive, and its troops were relying more and more on local confiscated goods to keep them going. The winter of 1944 also arrived earlier and far stronger than was usual, freezing the shipping canals. That along with the dismantled railway system meant that there was no way to move supplies into the area - even when the Germans partially lifted the food shipment ban in November.

Food stores quickly ran out in the west, and rations were constantly cut down. Here's a breakdown to better understand the situation. Today's recommended daily caloric intake for a male teen or young adult is about 3,000 kilocalories; for female teens or adults, about 2,200.

At the end of November, daily adult rations in Amsterdam were below 1,000 kilocalories - a third of what they should have been. By the end of February 1945, they were down to about 580 kilocalories. This famine came to be known as the hongerwinter, or "Hunger Winter".

People living in the cities often packed all their valuables onto carts and would walk hours into the countryside to trade for food, and destroyed furniture for firewood. People made meals out of sugarbeets and tulip bulbs. Thousands were dying from malnutrition and complications from it.

Though the winter was over by February, the food shortage remained a reality. To further add to complications, Dutch farmland had been destroyed either by fighting or by flooding caused by the Germans breaking the levies in an effort to slow down Allied advances. The famine had to end . . .

From the end of January, the Red Cross began importing flour from Sweden into the Netherlands to bake bread. Another month later, the now-famous "Swedish Bread" was making its way through the cities, taking at least a little pressure off the famine.

In late April, near end of the Allied advance into the Netherlands (and near the end of the war itself), the Allies negotiated with the Germans to allow for food drops into the country. The first RAF Lancaster (a bomber named "Bad Penny") which even had a mostly Canadian flight crew completed its mission on the 29th. "Operation Manna" went into full force for the next week, flying 3,300 missions and dropping 6,700 tonnes of food into Leiden, The Hague, and Rotterdam. From May 1st to 3rd, American B-17s contributed, dropping 800 tonnes of K-rations (army food) over Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

Fair and equal distribution of the airdropped food still relied on the Dutch people receiving the food, and it happened that it still took a lot of time to actually get the food out and around. But all things considering, it could have been far worse. On May 5th 1945, the last of the German forces in the Netherlands surrendered, the country liberated. The hongerwinter was over.

20,000 people died as a result of starvation during the hongerwinter. The famine itself is important because the Netherlands isn't some sort of 3rd world country in a barren land; it was modern, industrial, and well educated albeit caught in the complications of occupation. Something like this should have never happened in that day and age.

Every year I'm amazed by the stories I hear that pertain to myself and the Netherlands. Last year I spoke of the Canadian involvement in the nation's liberation. This year I even got to visit the Netherlands and actually went to Rotterdam, Leiden, and Schiphol Airport (although I did not know about their connection to Operation Manna at the time). Mariska, my beautiful Dutch girl, tells me that the hongerwinter is very much a part of the Dutch identity today, with a great deal of literature and the like dedicated to either the famine or the resistance. Maris' grandparents have also told her many, many stories of their experiences about that time . . . and I believe her.

I'll have to make sure to tell the story to others, now . . .

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(Dutch civilians from the city heading out to the country to trade their valuables for food.)

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(A field with "Many Thanks" spelled out in tulips after Operation Manna, as seen from the air.)

Everyone be sure to give a couple minutes of silent thought for those who fought and for those who've died tomorrow. They gave everything for us; we can afford to give two minutes to them.

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Friday, November 9, 2007

The Flying Tigers (1941-1942)
Having finished my First World War posts, I'll now move onto the Second. So a new war, new battles, and new locations. For something a little different, I'll start in China and - in a move noticeably different from my usual style - it'll be about Americans. Specifically, the 1st American Volunteer Group, nicknamed the "Flying Tigers". It's possible that some of you may already know this story (there's a John Wayne movie about 'em . . . kinda . . .) but the story is still a neat, unique one that I'm sure anyone can appreciate . . .

For the early part of the Sino-Japanese War, China had relied on Russian-supplied fighters as they didn't have their own at the time. Those Russian fighter planes - for lack of a more effective term - sucked, and by 1940 they got rid of them. Now without effective air support, China looked to the west for help; specifically, they looked to America.

Of course in 1940, The United States still had not entered the war, and Pearl Harbor was still a year away . . . however, America had its methods, able to send supplies and materiel to various nations throughout those early years of the war in one fashion or another. President Roosevelt was for the idea, in any case, and everyone was quick to think up an idea for how they could get American fighters (and as a result, American airmen) into Asia . . .

Most of the economical issues were handled as part of the provisions America was allowed to send eastward as part of the Neutrality Act of 1939. Through this new entity, China Defense Supplies, China was able to acquire the purchase of 100 P-40 "Warhawk" fighters (though granted, the actual funding was still mostly coming from the US government - they were clever that way). As for the actual pilots and ground crews, those were recruited directly from the US armed forces; 40 came from the Army Air Corps, 60 came from the Navy and Marine Corps.

Granted, airmen part of the American military certainly couldn't go to China to fight because America was still technically a neutral power . . . so, those 100 pilots were discharged from US service immediately after; they were then enlisted in the Republic of China Air Force as what was basically a foreign mercenary force (funded by the United States, with an unofficial order passed by the president). The men came to asia in the summer and fall of 1941 by ship with false documents stating that they were tourists going to Burma . . . and while they did go to Burma, their reason was more for training and building the 100 fighter planes that had been shipped there (though all 100 were never in flying condition at any given time during the war).

The flight group went on to paint what would become the historic trademark of the American Volunteer Group: the sharkmouth nose art that detailed every P-40. And thus, the "Flying Tigers" were born.

The AVG's commander was a retired American captain, Claire Chennault, who was in China as an advisor for the Chinese. As such, he had a lot of experience watching Japanese fighter movements and tactics and went on to create his own fighter doctrine based on the strengths and weaknesses of each side's respective planes; the Japanese "Zero" was more maneuverable while the American Warhawk was more heavily armed and armoured and faster in a dive; the Sino-American planes were also going to be vastly outnumbered, so working together in flight groups was key to survival. Chennault was also an excellent planner, setting up a spotting system so pilots would have time to prepare and fly to higher altitudes than enemy planes; he also knew to keep his best pilots in the slowly-growing number of fighters, keeping his less-adept men as ground crews.

Stationed in Burma, the Flying Tigers had their first combat sortie on December 20th - 12 days after Pearl Harbor - intercepting a lone Japanese 10-bomber group headed for Kunming in China. The Flying Tigers shot down 3 bombers and a 4th later crashed from its damage; no P-40s were lost in the attack.

The majority of the American Volunteer Group's battles were of this fashion, defending against Japanese bombing missions. For the most part they did particularly well with a kill/loss ratio for which they could be proud. The fact still stood that they had a finite number of planes compared to the ever-producing planes of the Japanese. The Chinese and American pilots felt every loss, and while they were able to repair some planes (often with parts from other downed planes), their overall resources were never going to be resupplied . . .

From December 1941 to January 1942, the AVG was defending Rangoon against the Japanese Burma Campaign with the help of the local British fighter pilots (it was a British airfield, after all). By February, the Japanese had captured Rangoon, but they paid for it; for the 20 American Warhawks shot down, 50 Japanese planes were shot down.

After Rangoon, the AVG relocated to Magwe to the north. The allies were down to 38 aircraft (among them, only 8 P-40 Warhawks) compared to the Japanese 271 planes. Magwe was bombarded constantly and by March it too was lost; the AVG only had 4 working fighter planes by this point.

It should be worth noting that the mechanic teams on the ground were amazing, often repairing and salvaging incredible amounts from their damaged fighters. After Magwe the AVG relocated to Loiwing with a few reinforcements that brought their aircraft number up to 12. With Chinese forces on the retreat, the Chinese had new "morale missions" for the Flying Tigers. Now not only were they defending from bomber attacks and attacking air bases and the like, but now they were often flying dangerous close-air support for the ground troops. The consensus that these were more for show than they were for actual effective support and revolts were beginning to become an issue . . . with these mindsets, the Flying Tigers abandoned Loiwang for Baoshan in April.

The Japanese Burma Campaign was all but complete, but the vestiges of the AVG continued to fly their missions defending Chinese territory, continued to raid Japanese bases in Vietnam . . . continued to shoot down Japanese fighters . . .

By May, the United States had been entered in the war for half a year. American supplies and manpower was slowly making its way into asia. Eventually by June, enough men and material had made it into China to form a new fighter group: the USAAF 23rd Fighter Group. On July 4th, The Flying Tigers flew their final mission over Hengyang, shooting down 4 Japanese planes for no losses. Once they were back on the ground, the American Volunteer Group was officially disbanded; Chennault went on to command the USAAF 23rd as a Colonel (and later Brigadier General) in the USAAF, and five of the original Flying Tigers opted to stay in China and join the new group.

Back at home, the USAAF 23rd Fighter Group was often still being called the "Flying Tigers" in newspapers and on the radio. The name became synonymous with the American war effort in the air, and the sharkfaced fighters an image burned into the minds of both allies and enemy alike. For the year they were in service, the American Volunteer Group had (on record) almost 300 enemy aircraft destroyed. This was with an average flight strength of about 60 working fighters at any given time . . . it's still a better kill/loss ratio than most other flight groups of the time. Aside from shooting down enemy aircraft, the AVG was also responsible for many supply runs from India over "The Hump" (a stretch of the Himalayan Mountains) into Burma and China - this action proved invaluable for the early years of allied resistance against the Japanese.

After the war, 10 former AVG pilots formed a cargo airline called "Flying Tiger Line" which went on to be successful for 40 years before being bought out by Federal Express.

The men of the American Volunteer Group were extremely unique in that they chose to fight in a war that their home nation still had yet to enter. They volunteered for armed service in the United States, for the AVG, and for the fighting in Burma. They were determined, fierce, and talented. To this day, China still remembers the Flying Tigers in many forms of media and popular culture - one section of the Hong Kong Police's special forces is even nicknamed after the famous fighter group!

This'll probably be something I will never ever say again in any form . . . . . but if you're American and have ever gotten sick of people chiding you for "getting into the war late" and such . . . well, you can tell them about the Flying Tigers and tell 'em to shut the hell up.

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(A P-40 Warhawk with the famous sharkface nose art)

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(A Chinese propaganda poster showing a US pilot stomping a Japanese officer with a message to the local people: "This is an American pilot, he is driving the invaders out of China, help him.")

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Piper James Cleland Richardson, VC (1895-1916)
While Yashka Bochkareva may be a kind of folk hero for the Russian people, it turns out I've got one from quite close to home. This is a tale of valour that stretches for 80 years. This is the tale of Piper James "Jimmy" Cleland Richardson, who's immortalised by a bronze statue outside City Hall in Chilliwack, BC (about an hour's drive east of Vancouver).

Originally born in Lanarkshire in Scotland, James Richardson moved to Vancouver with his family in 1913. While there, James joined the Vancouver 72nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders Cadet Corps Pipe Band. His father went on to become Chief of Police in the city of Chilliwack and the family moved there - James likely remained in Vancouver, but was still active in various Chilliwack functions, piping at special functions. On July 1st, 1914, he won three first-place awards for piping in a bagpipe competition during the Scottish Sports Day event in Victoria, BC.

When war broke out in 1914, Richardson went with the Seaforths - which became part of the 16th Scottish Battalion - as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

His unit, the 16th, fought at The Battle of the Somme in 1916. On October 8th, they were tasked with capturing a stretch of trench codenamed "Regina Trench"; it would not be an easy task. Once the whistle blew for the men to go over-the-top, they were caught in extensive barbed wire and extremely heavy gunfire; the 16th was stuck. Further, a great deal of the company's leadership was dead or wounded. Piper Richardson took it upon himself to turn the tide:

"Suddenly the whole scene changed. Young Richardson took in the situation. Danger seemed to stimulate and accentuate the Scotch intellect. For some reason he hadn’t been allowed to play up to this point. Turning to the sergeant-major in the shellhole beside him, he said, 'Will I gie 'em wind?' 'Aye mon, gie 'em wind,' was the laconic reply. Good God! Look at that! There was a young, smooth-faced boy coolly playing up and down the wire in that hail storm of lead."
(Colonel C.W. Peck, V.C., D.S.O. and Bar)

Piper Jimmy Richardson began marching back in forth in front of the barbed wire, piping loud over the din of the surrounding battle, without visible concern for the bullets flying around him. It did the trick, and his now-inspired battalion rushed the wire and captured Regina Trench.

For that action, Richardson would be awarded the Victoria Cross: the highest honour a soldier in the Commonwealth can acheive for valour.

Later that day (or on the next day), Richardson was ordered to take a wounded soldier and a group of prisoners to the rear. At some point during his escort, he realised that he had left his pipes behind at the front and went back to retrieve them . . . and that was the last time he (or his bagpipes for that matter) was ever seen. He was 20 years old when he disappeared to the mud of war and the mists of time.

With that said, his Victoria Cross was awarded posthumously to his parents in Chilliwack, who displayed the medal in a store window for years . . . but the story doesn't end there . . . . .

In 2002, almost 90 years later, Pipe Major Roger McGuire of the Canadian Scottish Regiment (The Princess Mary's) responded to an internet posting asking for help in identifying an unfamiliar tartan (the Scottish colour-pattern) on a set of World War I bagpipes . . . McGuire was quick to recognise the pattern as the Lenox Tartan of the 16th Battalion!

It turned out that in 1917 a British Army Chaplain, Major Edward Yeld Bate, found the pipes in the mud of The Somme and brought them back to Ardvreck School in Crieff, Scotland where he worked as a teacher before the war. For the next 80-odd years the school took care of the pipes as a reminder of the war and for this one forgotten piper. Further research by McGuire and others into locations and times soon identified these pipes as the very ones played by Jimmy Richardson back in October of 1916.

The Canadian Club of Vancouver purchased the pipes from Ardvreck School on behalf of Canada; in 2006, Richardson's bagpipes were repatriated to British Columbia and are now on public display in the rotunda of the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria.

As for his family's hometown of Chilliwack, a life-sized bronze statue of Richardson was commissioned and created in 2003; it now stands - as I first mentioned - in front of City Hall.

Richardson's tombstone itself is in the Adanac Military Cemetery in France.

Imagine what it must've been like for Piper Richardson to do what he did that day. Marching back and forth in plain site with machine guns trained in his direction, unarmed, and playing one of the loudest, most recognisable instruments in the history of the world. It almost feel unbelievable that such a thing can actually happen in the real world . . . and yet it did.

Such is the nature of valour, I guess. If anyone could do it, then we wouldn't need heroes, would we?

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(Photo of Piper James Cleland Richardson, VC)

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(The famous bagpipes as they're displayed today)

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Maria Bochkareva (1889-1920) and The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death (May-November 1917)
I feel like it's mostly well known that Russian women fought during the Second World War (think Rachel Weisz in "Enemy at the Gates"). What caught my interest, though was that female soldiers on the front in the 1940s were nothing new for Russia; they made their mark decades prior in the First World War . . .

Maria "Yashka" Bochkareva is a bit of a folk hero for those who know about her. She was a peasant girl from Novogrod and had lived through two abusive marriages before making her way into a reserve battalion of the Imperial Russian Army once the First World War started in 1914. It probably goes without saying that a woman in the army was unique - she actually had to get personal permission from Tsar Nicholas II himself to get in. Likewise, like all others "different" from the norm, she had to endure sexual harasment and more from her male peers . . . that is, until she proved she was just as tough a soldier as any of them. In the following two years of war, "Yashka" had been wounded twice, decorated for bravery thrice, and promoted to sergeant.

By mid 1917, things in Russia were extremely volatile. Political outrage and revolutionaries caused chaos from inside the country; low morale, lack of materiel and a determined enemy grinded at the soldiers from the outside. A Provisional Government took control over the country after the "October Revolution", and the Tsar was forced to abdicate his position. Again, without saying, this kind of turmoil does not bode well for morale on the front lines . . . or anywhere, for that matter.

That's where Sergeant Bochkareva comes back into the story. In May of 1917, she stood before the new parliament and voiced her desire to create a new battalion: a women's battalion.

Actually, I'm not completely sure whether this was Yashka's idea to form this battalion or the Provisional Government's idea to task her with building it. Either way, all sides liked the idea. There was powerful propaganda value in women soldiers who might boost the morale of the men on the front, after all. In any case, female attention was full and undivided, and over 2000 women immediately volunteered for this new women's battalion. Of those 2000, about 300 - mostly peasants - managed to make it through the harsh training and discipline and formed what was known as the "1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death".

Cheery title, eh?

Once the Battalion was made official in time for the "June Offensive", they were freighted off to a battlefield near Smorgon (in modern-day Belarus) and attached to the severely demoralised 525th Kiuruk-Darinski (or Kuriag-Daryjuski) Regiment, taking up an empty section of Russian trench.

The whistle blew. The Women's Battalion went over the top and charged across no-man's land at the German trenches . . . . . and they captured the German's first line of trenches. And then the second. The women repelled a German counter-attack and went on to capture a third trench.

The men "supporting" the battalion's action found German stores of vodka and got themselves drunk before Bochkareva could give the order to destroy the remaining alcohol . . . true or not, the Women's Battalion was nevertheless on their own when the Germans pushed them back to their starting trenches.

Despite that hang-up, Bochkareva (newly promoted to Lieutenant) and her battalion returned with six killed, 20 wounded, and 200 prisoners - Yashka herself was among the wounded, knocked unconscious by an artillery shell. Still, for a World War I battle, a 300-strong unit coming back with only 26 casualties is almost unheard of.

About two hundred women soldiers continued to fight at the front until after the Bolshevik Revolution in October (when the Communists took over Russia and formed what would become the Soviet Union); with growing hostilities from soldiers on the front and the government further into the country, the Battalion of Death was soon disbanded.

Maria Bochkareva's efforts were not without merit. After the formation of the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death, several other women's battalions came into existence - one of which was even part of the defense of the Winter Palace as the revolutionaries took over the country. Ultimately, with the various changes in government and increasing pressure to end the war, the powers that be refused to spend more resources on what was an experiment that did not have the morale-boosting effects intended. Russia was now out of the war, and the Bolsheviks were eyeing the women soldiers (including Bochkareva) as potential dissidents.

Maria Bochkareva was caught in 1918 by the Bolsheviks after they learned of her contact with The Whites (the other faction during the Russian Civil War that came after the Great War). Sentenced to be executed, she was given a reprieve and allowed to leave the country. She fled to America, first to San Francisco and eventually to New York where she would write (well, dictate) her memoirs of her experiences. She even went on to meet with President Woodrow Wilson of America and King George V of Britain, among other things.

I imagine she probably could have lived quite happily in the west with a little fame and no more fighting . . . but I guess that just wasn't who she was. She was strongly against the Bolsheviks, and in 1918 went back to Russia to form a new Women's Battalion for the Whites.

She failed. A year later, she was captured by the Bolsheviks; another year later, she was executed by firing squad for "being an enemy of the people".

So ends the story of Maria "Yashka" Bochakareva. It's quite late as I write this and I can't really think of any good final thoughts for this whole deal. Actually, I will say this: after writing at this post for about an hour now, it's somewhat amazing to think that the majority of this story actually took place in the span of three years. In three years a peasant girl formed and commanded a battalion of criticised yet formidable women soldiers, was exiled to the west where she met two world leaders, came back to her homeland to fight in a civil war, and was ultimately captured and executed.

Honestly, I think the story speaks for itself.

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(Left: "Yashka" Bochkareva; Right: The Women's Battalion of Death.)

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

George Lawrence Price (1892-1918)
It feels a little strange to want to begin a week of Remembrance Day posts with the very end of a war. Still, I think the story of Private George Lawrence Price - the man traditionally recognised as the last soldier killed in The Great War - is a good way to get people back into the kind of thinking that this time of year asks of us.

Price was born in 1892 in King's County, Nova Scotia and was living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan when the reality of war truly hit home with Canadians. After three years of the deadliest war ever seen in the west, the desparate need for new troops led to conscription orders in the United Kingdom and Canada. In May of 1917, Parliament passed the Military Service Act; Price was among the thousands drafted into the Canadian military that year.

Fast-forward to November, 1918. Paul von Hindenburg, Acting Commander of the German forces, requested to meet Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch to begin negotiations to end the war. On the 11th at 5am, the Armistice was signed and orders were sent to all forces:

"Hostilities will cease at 11:00 hours on November 11th - Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that time which will be reported to Corps Headquarters - Strictest precautions will be maintained - There will be no intercourse of any kind with the enemy."

That same morning, Private Price and his unit, the 28th "Northwest" Battalion, had orders to capture the village of Havre and a canal crossing. They had received the ceasefire orders at about 9am . . . so in other words, the war - and consequently their orders - were still on.

Price was part of a four-man patrol to the other side of the canal. Whether they were ordered to go on the patrol or not, I haven't been able to figure out. The fact still remains that the four of them crossed the canal under machine gun fire and into a house on the other side. The German machine gunners inside the house escaped out the back just as Price and his group came through the front, finding only the house owner and his family. This man would then tell the Canadians to "be careful." They dismissed the warning and continued out the back of the house.

Private Price was shot in the chest by a German sniper almost right after stepping back outside. It was 10:57 when it happened; he died a minute later despite all efforts by his comrades and the local civilians. He was a month short from being 26 years old.

Private George Lawrence Price was killed chasing people whom in three minutes would no longer be his enemy. His battalion spent an entire morning pushing towards objectives that ultimately didn't affect the already-established end to the war. And make no mistake, once word got out about the Armistice, many forces on all sides eased up their advances, took safer alternatives to wait out the rest of the war. So why not theirs? Their captain is on record having chewed out the surviving three for crossing in the first place. And although 11am was the official end of hostilities, it goes without saying that by all reality, the war was over hours before then.

There are other stories about the final minutes of The Great War. As the final hours led up to 11am, gunfire was easing up all over by people desiring to survive. At 10:58 - the same time that Private Price died at the canal - a German machine gunner in a slightly different area decided to lay down the trigger of his weapon, raking machine gun fire across the extremely unaggressive allied front. For the next two minutes, the German soldier let loose... and just as abruptly as it started, he ceased at 11am on the dot; after the war was over, it's said that he climbed up and out of his trench, took off his helmet, and took a large and dramatic bow in plain site of everyone before turning around and leaving the First World War forever.

I'm fairly certain that this unnamed machine gunner didn't kill anybody during those two minutes as anyone on the receiving end was undoubtedly smart enough to keep his head down for just a couple more minutes. But the potential and the reality were still there . . . just another pointless (albeit memorable) way to symbolically end their war.

George Lawrence Price was not so lucky. Rather than being remembered for some insane stunt and a ridiculous farewell, he gets to be remembered as the last soldier in the Commonwealth to be killed in the war. With two minutes left in the war, it's very likely that he was the last soldier killed in the war period, and holds that dubious distinction in tradition. I suppose as a Canadian myself, it makes for a curious story. I mean, there are plenty of famous Canadian distinctions during the wars (the WWI sniper with the most confirmed kills is among them, I believe). Not what I'd want to be remembered for, personally . . . but in the end, his name serves as the last of many to die for something that - with a signed Armistice just waiting to come into effect - absolutely, positively never should have been allowed to happen.

Private Price is buried at St. Symphorien Military Cemetery, just southwest of Mons where he fought.

Now here's the tricky part: having heard all that, you still cannot call his death pointless or meaningless. To do that would devalue his life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others who also died in similar circumstances. If anything, his death reminds us that life has value, and that we can't just plunge ourselves thoughtless into these kinds of situations . . . because we can't afford the alternative anymore.

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(Left: Private George Lawrence Price; Right: his grave.)

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Two fun bits of news . . .
The Kung-Fu episode of Human Weapon came out. Acquired it yesterday. It was excellent.

Stupid Ed came back into town, which is always fun. He came over, watched some Human Weapon with me, checked out the PS3 which he hasn't seen yet, and chilled.

It was a good Saturday for the most part.

Alright, I think my next post'll be my annual 1-week page overhaul for Remembrance Day. I'll be sporting different colours and different pictures.

For those of you who are still new to this, I dug out a few old posts that should fill in what I'm about to get myself into for the next week or so:

November 9th, 2004

November 9th, 2005
November 11, 2005

November 5th, 2006
November 11th, 2006

So yeah, the following week should be interesting, so long that there are people interested enough to read.

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Planning for the week to come . . .
On Halloween, when I bought my "hero pumpkin", I also bought a poppy at the checkout counter of the small market. 'cause yeah, we're coming back to that time of year again.

Anyone who's known me for at least a year will know what I need to do next.

So while I scout out old war stories, do you guys have anything you'd like me to write about? Anything that hits home to you that you'd want more people to know about? I can see what I can do.

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