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.
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.
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!
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or by commenting on this blog.
© Daria Valkenburg