On The War Memorial Trail….. Luck and Humanity During the Battle of Vimy Ridge

September 29, 2018.  Over the past few years, as the stories of the men on the Cenotaph outside the Borden-Carleton Legion are researched by Pieter, the level of death, destruction, and hatred from war is incomprehensible.  If you travel through any of the WW1 and WW2 sites in Europe, you see memorials and cemeteries.  In Normandy, France it seems as though there is a reminder of the war dead around every corner.

In a kill or be killed environment of war, survival was a luck of the draw.  In April 2017, the County Line Courier published ‘Two Unsung Heroes of Vimy Ridge’, a story about two soldiers on the Cenotaph whose names are listed on the Vimy National Memorial in France, Patrick Raymond ARSENAULT and John Lymon WOOD. (See Learning About The Two Names On The Vimy Memorial) After this article was published, we were contacted by Ralf Gräfenstein of Berlin, Germany, who is helping the son of a WW1 German soldier determine what happened at Vimy Ridge.

photo of Ernesto

Ernesto Brucker of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Ernesto Ricardo Brucker, now in his 80s, who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is hoping to find the Canadians who took his father prisoner during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, so he could thank them for saving his father’s life and not killing him when he surrendered.

Because of the actions of two unknown “tall” Canadians, Brucker survived the Battle of Vimy Ridge and spent the remainder of the war in a Prisoner of War camp in Skipton, England.  According to the Skipton documents, he was taken prisoner between Thélus and Bailleul-Sir –Berthoult, 4.4 km south-east of Thelus.

Jorge Brucker Skipton

Georg (Jorge) Brucker at Skipton POW Camp in England. (Photo courtesy of E. Brucker)

Not only were 3,400 Germans were taken prisoner on April 9, 1917, but there were 4 Canadian Divisions involved in the battle. Could we find out how Brucker became a prisoner of war?

Georg (later known as Jorge) BRUCKER was born November 2, 1896 in Erlangen, Germany, and 18 years old when WW1 started.  He joined the army and was sent to Poland, then to France.  During the Battle of Vimy Ridge, he was the Lieutenant in charge of a platoon in Machine Gun Company 1 of the Royal Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment I in Thélus.  They had been in the Arras area since October 1914 and held the villages of Thélus, Bailleul and the southern slope of the ridge.

On April 9, 1917, the 1st Canadian Division, under the command of Major General Arthur Currie, faced the 1st Bavarian Reserve Division, under the command of General of the Infantry Karl von Fassbender, halfway between the villages of Thélus and Bailleul-Sir –Berthoult. The 1st Canadian Division was stretched along a front of about two kilometres, with six battalions. The furthest from Vimy Ridge, they had some four kilometres of battlefield to cross in order to reach it!

Initial attack by 1st Cdn Division

Initial attack by the 1st Canadian Division (Source: http://www.webmatters.net/txtpat/index.php?id=1497)

The 13th Machine Gun Company was attached to the 1st Canadian Division in order to support the Infantry Brigades.  This is the unit that Patrick Raymond ARSENAULT was in. Was it a twist of irony that both Arsenault and Brucker were in Machine Gun Companies – on opposing sides?  Unlike Brucker, Arsenault lost his life in a shell attack on April 9, sometime around 7 am.  His body was never recovered.  Either he was buried in an unknown grave, or the shell attack scattered his body parts, making identification impossible.

 John Lymon WOOD was also in the 1st Canadian Division, as a member of the 2nd Canadian Battalion (Eastern Ontario Regiment), which was part of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  Wood survived the Battle of Vimy Ridge, but his luck ran out on May 3, 1917, when he was killed in action during the Battle of Arras.

Left: Patrick Raymond Arsenault in 1916 in Summerside.  (Photo courtesy of Paul Arsenault collection)  Right: John Lyman Wood shortly after enlistment in October 1915.  (Photo courtesy of Gene Rogerson collection)

Dr. Jack Sheldon researched and translated German reports from the battle.  In his 2008 book “The German Army on Vimy Ridge 1914-1917”, he recorded a description made by Brucker’s Commanding Officer, Major Meyer of the 1st Battalion Reserve Infantry Regiment:

At 5:30 am on 9 April enemy drum fire, supplemented by machine gun fire, came down.  It was impossible to make out the position and in fact it was almost impossible to make out signal flares amidst the clouds of smoke and dirt thrown up by the shells.  At 6:30 am heavy small arms fire could be heard and, at that moment, a message was sent by light signal to the rear.  ‘Heavy enemy attack.’  About half an hour later the wounded Muketier Hangemann happened to pass Battalion Headquarters, reporting that the British (meaning the Canadians) had overrun the right flank of 1st Bavarian Reserve Division and had then attacked our battalion in great strength from the left and rear.

In the final attack, the 1st Brigade, which John Lymon Wood was part of, passed through the other two Brigades while the artillery dropped thousands of rounds.  As the attack began again, the wind started to turn, blowing snow and smoke from the burning village of Thélus into the faces of the Bavarians. This helped to hide the approaching Canadians, who encountered little resistance. By 1 pm the battle was over.

It’s not clear at which point Brucker was taken prisoner, but most likely it happened by 11:30 am at the latest, based on reports by Major Meyer, as recorded in Dr. Jack Sheldon’s book “The German Army on Vimy Ridge 1914-1917”:  “Not until 11:30 am, when all the grenades had been thrown and there was no longer any prospect of timely relief, did the remainder of the garrison decide, reluctantly, to surrender.

In the book, ‘The History of the 2nd Canadian Battalion (East. Ontario Regiment) Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War 1914-1919’ by Colonel W. W. Murray, he records an account of the capture of German machine gunners in the morning.  “The Scouts found considerable work.  Ptes I. F. Wismer and J.F. Harrison performed a particularly daring feat near the Loen Weg.  Working in advance of No. 1 Company, they observed an enemy machine gun coming into action against the Fourth.  Pushing forward, they secured the gunner, an officer.  The pair then descended into an adjacent dug-out and forced the surrender of three more officers and four men, together with the gun.”  Were these the two Canadians who captured Georg Brucker?  It’s unlikely we’ll ever know.

At the end of the day, the 1st Division had crossed four kms of battlefield, captured 2,500 prisoners, 40 machine guns and 27 cannons at a cost of 2,500 of their own men killed or injured.  Wood survived, Arsenault died, and Brucker was taken prisoner.

Many people today may be wondering why so many German prisoners of war were allowed to surrender during the battle, and not simply killed.  In his 1986 book ‘Vimy’, author Pierre Berton gives a reason why not every Canadian soldier saw the German army as ‘the enemy’:  “Letters and wartime reminiscences suggest that the Canadians often resented their own brass more than they disliked the grey-clad German.  You shot at him because he was shooting at you, but it wasn’t a personal matter.  He too was walling in the mud, only a few yards away.

Today, a memorial to the 1st Canadian Division sits in a farmer’s field, marking the Canadian and German front lines on April 9, 1917, on the road between Thélus and Bailleul-Sir –Berthoult.  Somewhere along this line is the spot where Brucker’s last moments of WW1 before becoming a prisoner of war played out.

CIMG8314 Sep 5 2017 Pieter by sign directing you to Memorial to 1st Cdn Division

Line in farmer’s field, halfway between Thélus and Bailleul-Sir –Berthoul, marks the front line where German and Canadian troops faced each other on April 9, 1917. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

CIMG8318 Sep 5 2017 Memorial to 1st Cdn Division halfway betwen Thelus & Bailleul

Memorial honouring the 1st Canadian Division in farmer’s field, halfway between Thélus and Bailleul-Sir –Berthoul, along the line where German and Canadian troops faced each other on April 9, 1917. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

After two years in Skipton, Brucker was sent to a Military Camp in Lockstedt, Germany in October 1919, and went on to work in a bank in Bavaria. He was sent on a secondment for one year to Argentina, where he met his wife.  They married in 1923 and he stayed in Argentina until his death on December 26, 1984.

Although we were unable to give Ernesto a complete answer of who to thank for saving his father’s life, we did find out the approximate area where he became a prisoner of war, surrendering to a regiment of the 1st Canadian Division (For a list of the regiments in the 1st Canadian Division see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vimy_Ridge_order_of_battle.) Georg Brucker was very lucky to have surrendered to soldiers who showed humanity, not revenge.

If you can add to this story, have photos or information to share on soldiers from the Cenotaph outside the Borden-Carleton Legion, or soldiers buried in The Netherlands, please let us know. You can share them by sending an email to dariadv@yahoo.ca or by commenting on this blog.

© Daria Valkenburg



On the War Memorial Trail…..In Prince County, PEI

September 11, 2018.  Not all war memorials are located overseas.  In researching the names on the Cenotaph outside the Borden-Carleton Legion, we’ve visited memorials and cemeteries in Europe and Canada, and met with family members of these soldiers.  Recently, with a group of friends from the British Motoring Association of PEI (BMAPEI), we did a special war memorial driving tour, in our iconic British vehicles, in Prince County, right here on Prince Edward Island.

The driving tour began, naturally, at the Cenotaph that Pieter is researching.

CIMG2574 Sep 8 2018 BMAPEI memorial runcenotaph outside Borden Carleton Legion

Members of the British Motoring Association of PEI by the Cenotaph outside Borden-Carleton Legion. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

First stop was a photo op at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Seven Mile Bay, which has a great view of the Confederation Bridge.

CIMG2575 Sep 8 2018 BMAPEI memorial run 7 Mile Bay

At Seven Mile Bay, with the Confederation Bridge in the background. (Photo credit: Pieter Valkenburg)

From Seven Mile Bay our convoy of cars travelled to Notre Dame du Mont-Carmel (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) Roman Catholic Church in Mont Carmel. Volunteer guide Antoine Richard explained that this beautiful church was built in 1898 for $75,000 and consists of 450,000 bricks, which were paid for by parishioners at 5 cents a brick!  The land for the church, rectory, and cemetery had been donated by Mr. Richard’s great-grandparents Thomas Richard and Susan Aucoin in 1820.

IMG_8575 Sep 8 2018 BMAPEI memorial run Mont Carmel - Heidi

Convoy arrives in Mont Carmel. (Photo credit: Heidi Litke)

A group photo was taken at the memorial to honour WW1 and WW2 soldiers at the entrance to the cemetery.

CIMG2585 Sep 8 2018 BMAPEI memorial run Mont Carmel

Mont Carmel memorial to WW1 and WW2 soldiers. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

Next on the list was the Bottle Houses at Cap Egmont, which is a memorial to one man’s ingenuity and talent.

Bottle Houses - Heidi Litke

Inside one of the Bottle Houses. (Photo credit: Heidi Litke)

CIMG2590 Sep 8 2018 BMAPEI memorial run Bottle Houses Heidi & Rob in chapel

Heidi and Rob Litke in the Bottle Houses chapel. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

From the Bottle Houses, we travelled to the Memorial Park in Cap Egmont that honours WW1 and WW2 Acadian and other Canadian soldiers.  The park is built on the spot of a former church, and has several memorials, as well as benches in a park-like setting.

CIMG2605 Sep 8 2018 BMAPEI memorial run Memorial Park Cap Egmont

At the Memorial Park in Cap Egmont. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

CIMG2456 Aug 22 2018 prep for car tour Memorial Park in Cap Egmont

Entrance to the Memorial Park in Cap Egmont. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

Just before lunch, we stopped at the #10 Bombing and Gunnery School Monument, located at the Visitor Information Centre in Mount Pleasant.  During WWII, this area was used to train pilots slated for bombing and gunnery runs.  During the period of operation, 22 lost their lives in various accidents, and a monument sits on the spot of the former airport used for the school.

CIMG2608 Sep 8 2018 BMAPEI memorial run #10 Bombing Gunnery School Monument in Mt Pleasant

At #10 Bombing & Gunnery School Monument in Mount Pleasant. (Photo credit: Pieter Valkenburg)

Our last stop was for a very late, but well deserved lunch at The Catch in West Point, where a brief reflection on the day was made. Bill Glen was struck by the arches we’d seen at Mont Carmel and the Memorial Park in Cap Egmont.  “You never think of arches for a monument” he said.  Sandy Bentley noted how young the soldiers were and how so many had lied about their age in order to serve, especially in WW1.

Heidi Litke wondered if there were any memorials to animals that served in the war.  She explained that her grandfather, Harold Fryer, served with a German shepherd, Sgt Rex, in the 1st Battalion Dufferin and Haldimand Rifles.  Fryer survived, Rex was killed on duty on September 7, 1943.  “I always think about the animals,” Heidi said.  Good point.  None of us were aware of any memorials to serving animals on the island.

CIMG2611 Sep 8 2018 BMAPEI memorial run

Lunch at The Catch in West Point.

One more memorial reminder occurred when Stewart Gillcash of O’Leary came to the restaurant to meet Pieter.  Last fall, Pieter had placed flags on the grave of Stewart’s uncle, Carman GILLCASH, who is buried at the Canadian War Cemetery in Holten.  The Gillcash family had provided photos and a brief story about Stewart’s uncle for the Faces To Graves Project in The Netherlands.  Everyone was delighted to meet him.

CIMG2610 Sep 8 2018 Pieter with Stewart Gillcash at The Catch

Pieter Valkenburg with Stewart Gillcash. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

Rob Litke summed up the day.  “You don’t have to go far.  Every community has a monument of the people they lost in war.

If you have photos or information to share on soldiers from the Cenotaph outside the Borden-Carleton Legion, or soldiers buried in The Netherlands, please email him at dariadv@yahoo.ca. Comments or stories?  You can share them by email or by commenting on this blog.

© Daria Valkenburg