Tag Archives: Canadian Army

Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 1)

I reported a long time ago how I had paid for the official records of my Grandad’s service with the Canadian Army during the First World War. In the early part of his military career, which had begun in July 1916, Will seems to have earned some fifteen Canadian dollars per month. This amount appears to have risen eventually to thirty dollars in 1917 and 1918. After his marriage, Will also received a separation allowance of varying amounts, ranging from six to fourteen English pounds. You never know much about your family’s private affairs but I suspect that it was Will’s money from the Canadian Army that allowed him and his wife to buy their own house during the 1920s. Here are their wedding photographs:

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His army documents recorded his leave from the Front after he was given permission to marry on July 15th 1917. There were two other periods when domestic problems caused his leave to be extended. The first of these was a week from October 21st 1918 to November 4th 1918, which was extended to November 9th for “private family affairs”. His service records say that he returned to the Western Front on November 10th, which means that he was probably present when the guns, his own included, fell finally silent the following day. It was too late for many men, though:

The same pattern occurred again with a leave from March 1st-March 8th 1919, which was extended to March 22nd. He had returned to the Fourth Brigade in the field by April 4th 1919. I suspect that both of Will’s extra leaves may have been because of his wife’s miscarriages, when she needed time to recover both physically and mentally from the ordeal. She lost a number of babies before her only son, Fred, was born, whole and healthy, on November 22nd 1922. Here he is, a few years later:

On one occasion when Will was back home on leave from the trenches of the Western Front, he was given a white feather by a woman who accosted him in the street. This was something that happened in the days before conscription had to be introduced, when women, especially suffragettes, would give any man they saw in the street who was apparently of military age, but not wearing military uniform, a white chicken feather as a sign of their cowardice.  Giving one to Will was made doubly ironic by the fact that at this particular time, he had just been given an extra long period of recuperation, because he was recovering from being wounded. Will didn’t get angry with the misguided, stupid, woman. He just laughed, which I suspect may have made her even angrier.

Here’s the caption:

On April 25th 1919 Will finally came back from France for the last time. He sailed for England from the French port of Le  Havre. Will’s journey home was not a particularly rapid process however. He had lingered in the port of Le Havre on his way back from the Western Front since at least Saturday April 19th 1919 when this postcard was posted, via the Army PO1 :

The message on the back of the card reads:

“Dear Wife Trust you are much better. Affectionate love Will  Sig W Knifton 19TH C F A”

“CFA” by the way. means “Canadian Field Artillery”. The following day, Sunday April 20th,  he sent another card:

On the back, he  labelled the card “on active service”.  The message reads “Thoughts of home and you. Sincere love Will. Sig W H Knifton 19TH C F A”

This next postcard was posted on Tuesday, April 22nd 1919, as Will continued his slow return from the Great War.  Perhaps he had important things to think about. He wanted to go back to Canada, but his wife didn’t want to, presumably wishing to stay with her family. Perhaps he was wondering whether they would ever have a child to love. Or perhaps he had just been allocated to a later sailing:

The faded pencil inscription reads “Monday Dear Wife I hope this finds you much better. I hope you enjoyed easter. We are having very cold weather Give my love to all (illegible) my thoughts are of (you ? ) with fondest love to (illegible) leave here Wednesday Sig W H Knifton  19TH C F A

Will’s military records show that he did not leave on Wednesday, the 23rd as he thought. Indeed, he was still in Le Havre on Friday, April 25th 1919, which may just possibly have been the date that he “proceeded to England”. These kind of delays, of course, were enough to provoke mutinies and other serious disorder, most notably among the Canadians in north Wales.

On March 4th and 5th 1919, at Kinmel Park in Denbighshire, north Wales, Canadian troops rioted against their dreadful living conditions, sick of the constant, apparently pointless delays, and longing to be allowed to go home at last back to their families in Canada. The rioters were fired upon by British troops. Five brave Canadian veterans were killed and 23 were wounded. It was one of 13 mutinous riots by Canadian troops, all for exactly that same reason. Here is a picture of Kinmel after the riot:

Will,  listed as a Signaller, seems to have been finally “struck off service on being discharged in British Isles” on May 23rd 1919. From his medical examination, he had put on some sixteen pounds during his time in the army, and now weighed a hundred and forty pounds, a glowing testimony to the quality of the food in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. He had also apparently grown half an inch taller.

In later life, of course, Will was to become profoundly deaf. It is tempting to think that the very first steps in this unfortunate process began with the enormous volume of noise he must have experienced in the Canadian artillery during the First World War.

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The Christmas Truce of 1916: my Grandad was there.

When I was a little boy in the late 1950s and 1960s, my Grandad used to mention to me how there had been a Christmas truce with the Germans during his time with the Canadian Army. The most famous truce of all had already taken place at Christmas 1914 of course.

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Having accessed my Grandad’s war records in later years, I knew that he hadn’t joined the Canadian Army until 1916, far too late for the famous Christmas Truce. I was also aware that he had fought at Vimy Ridge. How did I know that? Well, fifty or more years ago, he had told me so. Here are some Canadians at Vimy Ridge during the battle. Theoretically, my Grandad could be one of them, but I do know that he spent most of his time in the artillery. That was probably why he was so deaf when I knew him :Vimy_Ridge_-_Canadian_machine_gun_crews

And so it all remained a bit of a mystery, until I read in the media that:

“Evidence of a Christmas truce in 1916, previously unknown to historians, has recently come to light. German and Canadian soldiers reached across the battle lines near Vimy Ridge to share Christmas greetings and trade presents.”
In his book Hitler’s First War, Dr Thomas Weber, a historian at the University of Aberdeen had previously recorded various attempts at a Christmas Truce in 1916. None of them, however, were thought to have been successful, Dr Weber’s book explaining that that this wonderful goodwill gesture had been a complete failure. A war diary from Adolf Hitler’s own Brigade reported:
“Attempts at initiating fraternization by the enemy (calling out, raising of hands, etc.) were immediately quashed by the snipers and artillery men who had been ordered in and had stood ready to fire.”

On the Canadian side, the official version of events, which was reported in the diary of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry tells the other half of a very similar, and very pessimistic, story. The Germans had made efforts towards a ceasefire but nobody on the Canadian side had responded to it.
The entire situation changed radically, however, in November 2010, when the historian, Dr Weber, whose great-grandfather fought with the German army during the Great War, travelled to Canada. After a public lecture, he was approached afterwards by a member of the audience whose uncle, Ronald MacKinnon, had been deployed at Vimy Ridge at Christmas, 1916:

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Having heard from Dr Weber during the lecture how there had been only an unsuccessful attempt at a truce in 1916, the man had in his possession a letter from Ronald MacKinnon, a 23-year-old soldier from Toronto which proved that both the Canadian and the German soldiers had put down their weapons on Christmas Day and obeyed the phrase from the Gospel, “on earth peace, good will toward men”. Christmas greetings were shouted across no man’s land and presents, just as in 1914, were exchanged between the two sides.
Dr Weber immediately announced, quite rightly, that this letter was a “fantastic find” and offered proof of a hitherto completely unknown Christmas Truce, an impromptu break in the hostilities by German and Canadian troops. The letter also clearly demonstrated that the top brass had made extensive and determined efforts to downplay any Christmas truces subsequent to the first one in 1914. Dr Weber explained that, as officers always had to report significant events to their higher chain of command, they always had a personal interest in downplaying what might be viewed as negative events when they wrote the official version in their war diaries.
Private MacKinnon’s letter home was to his sister who also lived in Toronto, and it certainly does not downplay the significance of what happened on that Christmas Day 99 years ago:

Dearest Sister,
Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. I had long rubber boots or waders. We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was “tray bon” which means very good.

mackinnon

Do you ever write to Aunt Minnie in Cleveland? If you do, see if she can give you the address of any of our mother’s relations in England. Aunt Nellie was saying that some of them lived in Grangemouth, which is not far from Fauldhouse. If you could get me their address I would be very pleased to see them when I am in Blighty again.
I am at present in an army school 50 miles behind the line and am likely to be here for a month or so. My address will be the same, No. 3 Coy., PPCLI. I left the trenches on Xmas night. The trenches we are holding at present are very good and things are very quiet.
I have had no Xmas mail yet but I hope to get it all soon. How is Neil getting on in the city? I’ll write to him some of these days. Remember me to all my many friends at home.”

Ronald MacKinnon, like so many soldiers in the Canadian Army, had very strong connections with Great Britain. His father was a Scot from Levenseat, near Fauldhouse in West Lothian. Ronald was to meet his Scottish relatives for the first time while he was engaged in his basic training in Britain, before being sent to the Western Front.
Not long after he wrote his amazing letter back to his sister at home in Toronto, Private MacKinnon was killed at an unknown time between April 9th-10th 1917, during in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a bloody but successful attack up a strategic height of land in the northern French countryside, a great victory often remembered as Canada’s national coming of age. Here is the monument to the brave Canadians. It is at the top of the ridge:

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Nowadays, you can drive up the ridge effortlessly in a tour bus. There are no Germans around. Nobody shoots at you. Everybody is friends:

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Ronald is buried in Bois-Carré British Cemetery in Thelus, in the Pas-de-Calais in northern France:

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For some reason, his parents’ details are not listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
One last postscript is that, according to Dr Weber, Adolf Hitler’s own unit actually faced Canadian troops on Vimy Ridge throughout the period that I have been describing. Ever the sour fanatic, Adolf Hitler, of course, would never have participated in any truce, although as many as half of his fellow soldiers are thought to have done so. The Führer’s views on the previous Truce of 1914 were recorded by one of his fellow soldiers, Heinrich Lugauer, and there is no reason to suppose that he would have changed his ideas in two short years, filled, every moment, with hatred and anger:

“When everyone was talking about the Christmas 1914 fraternization with the Englishmen, Hitler revealed himself to be its bitter opponent. He said, ‘Something like this should not even be up for discussion during wartime.”

What a bitter loner Hitler was. More extreme than his colleagues, who were only too happy to fraternise with the young Canadian lads for a day. What a pity my Grandad didn’t have the chance to shoot the bugger:

hitler-giovane2
Last words should always be positive though: back to Dr Weber:

“The Christmas truce of 1914 involved 100,000 British and German troops on the Western Front in an exchange of gifts and food, to the horror of their commanders. But these displays of common humanity were much more frequent than suggested by official military histories, with evidence of similar festive get-togethers in 1915 and 1916, involving the Bavarian regiments. No doubt there were Christmas truces in 1917.

Soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents during Christmas.

This puts to rest the long dominant view that the majority of combatants during the Great War were driven by a brutalising and ever-faster spinning cycle of violence.”

I could not have written this article without accessing these websites.

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Hallowe’en Nights (4) Three ghosts from my past

My father was called Fred Knifton. He lived from 1922-2003, for the most part in Hartshorne Road, Woodville, which is to the south of Derby and Nottingham, in the East Midlands.

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Woodville at the time was a village of some 5,000 people. It was exactly on the edge of  a geological fault line, so to the west, coarse, heavy clay was mined in opencast quarries, and sewer pipes and drainpipes were manufactured. To the east there was no clay, but instead there were open green fields with Friesian cattle and tall hedges of hawthorn.

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Although as far as I know he never experienced any of the RAF’s many ghostly occurrences, Fred once told me that there was a well-known haunted hangar somewhere out there in East Anglia, possibly in Norfolk, where mechanics as they repaired aircraft late at night, would often hear dance music, even though of course, there was no orchestra within miles.

A modern day equivalent may well have been the occasion when I stood at the bathroom sink one summer’s morning, a good few years after Fred’s death, looking out over the roof tops of Nottingham. I was listening to “American Patrol” being played by the Glenn Miller Orchestra on a CD.

This moment suddenly gave me probably the most distinctive feeling of “déjà vu” I have ever had. I have wondered ever since whether my father had perhaps done exactly the same thing on some airbase in Lincolnshire on a long forgotten day some sixty or so years previously.

Strangely enough, for a man who always had so many tales to tell, ghosts and phantoms did not feature particularly highly in Fred’s repertoire, and I would struggle to think of any direct reference he ever made about the afterlife, although I am sure that he was aware of the alleged haunted house down near the Bull’s Head Inn in Hartshorne.

As a native of nearby Woodville, Fred would certainly have heard all the tales of the phantom attached to this large black and white timber framed Elizabethan house which stood between the old Georgian coaching inn and the Anglo-Saxon church in the middle of Hartshorne.

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Apparently, the story was often told of how….

“A brave group of people, made curious by the many ghostly accounts of bumps in the night, had gone up into the attic, unvisited through many decades of neglect, and found furniture piled up across the entire room. On the inaccessible far wall of the room, there was a delicate but obvious print in the centuries old dust, the unmistakeable impression of a ghostly human hand. Nobody could possibly have penetrated the great mass of tables, chairs and rubbish stacked across the floor. It could only have been the work of a phantom. ”

In 1970, I experienced an extremely strange happening when I accompanied my father, Fred, down to his parents’ house at number 39, Hartshorne Road. Fred’s parents, Will and Fanny, had both recently died recently within a few months of each other in hospital at Burton-on-Trent, with Fanny remaining mercifully unaware of Will’s demise after more than sixty years of marriage.

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Fred was paying regular visits to the property, presumably attempting little by little to clear the house out so that it could be resold. At the time, as a teenager of some sixteen  years of age, I was unaware of this, although, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had been, and I could perhaps have stopped Fred from throwing away so many of his father Will’s Great War souvenirs, such as his complete Canadian Army uniform, his German soldier’s leather belt and his extensive collection of German guns and ammunition.

We entered the deserted house through the front door, and as I walked along the hallway towards the kitchen, I distinctly heard the upstairs toilet flush. I turned round and asked Fred, who had been following me into the hall, how this could have happened, and who it could have been, given that we both knew that the house was locked up and empty.

Fred gave me some non-committal answer at the time, but afterwards, perhaps when he had regained his composure a little, he told me that, as he was some way behind me, he had been able to look up the stairs when he heard the sudden noise of the toilet being flushed. He had distinctly seen his recently deceased father, Will, walk out of the bathroom, across the landing and into the front bedroom.

My father Fred certainly knew the story about how an aging Mrs.Edwards had sadly passed away. This old lady had lived in the village a hundred yards further down Hartshorne Road from Fred’s own house, in a Victorian house next to the entrance of a factory making drainpipes.

Her old  friend, and our own family friend, Gertrude Betteridge, went down to Mrs.Edwards’  house to pay her respects and offer her condolences to her daughter, Margaret Edwards. The latter greeted Gertrude and showed her into the front room. Margaret then invited her guest to sit down on the settee while she went into the kitchen to make “a nice cup of tea”.

After a couple of minutes, as Gertrude sat there quietly and politely with the sunlight streaming brightly through the front windows, the door opened. It was not, however, Margaret with the expected tray of tea and biscuits, but Mrs.Edwards herself, exactly as she had been in life, who came in. She walked across the room to Gertrude completely normally, and quietly and calmly said to her, “Tell Margaret not to worry. I’m all right.” Then she turned and walked away, opened the front room door and disappeared back out into the hall, never to be seen again.

 

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