World War, Too

I’ve put up a list of my old papers and articles on the Research section of this site. Abstracts for many of them are on line, and I’ll get the others up soon. (If you’re looking for beach reading, all of the papers, even my dissertation, are available on request.)

I have to get some new content into the weblog part of this site too so it doesn’t turn into the “my grandfather died in World War II” website. But my mother and one of my cousins sent me a few more things about the story I posted for Remembrance Day, and I couldn’t help but mention them.

(Had it occurred to me that my parents would share the link to this entry with a bunch of our relatives, I might have left out the bit about Hitler’s lost testicle. Doesn’t seem like the most respectful digression. It could be worse, mind you: I could have linked to the picture from Garth Ennis’ off-color war comic, Operation Bollock, where the titular testicle, swollen with occult power, blots out the sun. Actually, who am I kidding? Most of my family would have loved that. The only real reason I’m not linking to that picture is that I can’t find it.)

The earlier post told the story of my grandfather in Italy during World War II. A book called The Canadians in Italy gave the following terse account of the attack where Mac was killed:

Promptly at half-past five on the morning of the 17th the artillery barrage opened and the Perths began their attack. … But the enemy, aroused by the barrage, was quick to reply. In preceding weeks the Germans had had ample opportunity to survey the valley and register their targets, and now from their artillery and from well-sited mortars on the Arielli side of the Fendo ridge shells began to burst with deadly accuracy about the river crossings, and fire from heavy and light machine-guns swept down the hillside. The main body of the Perths’ “C” Company was stopped at the second ford, and thus deprived of the support of the barrage. Since the most damaging fire was coming from a large white house about 200 yards up the hill, the company commander, Major R.A. MacDougall, led a party of seven in a gallant effort to storm it. The entire group was wiped out. The remainder of the company, unable to advance, took cover in the tall rushes about the ford.

What is most depressing is the book’s conclusion that the Arielli attack was little more than a diversion, and an unsuccessful and apparently poorly planned one at that:

In spite of General Leese’s injunction not to incur heavy casualties, the “Arielli Show” had cost the Canadians eight officers and 177 other ranks. Worst sufferers were the Perths, who lost three officers and 44 men killed … Not only had the brigade failed to take and hold its ground objectives, but from evidence in German documents it would appear that the enemy had not been deceived as to the intention behind the attack.

Various reasons may be advanced for the 11th Brigade’s lack of success. Reference has already been made to the breakdown of communications which resulted in a very imperfect picture of the situation reaching Brigade Headquarters. Contributing to the obscurity was the inadequacy of the maps in use… Poor flying conditions on the 17th had cancelled the air programme… The brigade plan of delivering successive punches by single battalions has been criticized as enabling the enemy to meet each attack in turn with all his fire power concentrated in one spot; whereas, with the tremendous artillery support available to the Canadians, a joint assault with both battalions simultaneously would have dissipated the German fire and brought the attackers greater chance of success. Above all the Canadian troops, unpracticed in battle, were opposed, battalion for battalion, by seasoned veterans of a formation unequalled among the German armies in Italy for its fighting skill and tenacity, and on ground decidedly favourable to the defenders.

Mom reports that it was surprisingly easy, given the map in the book, for her and Dad to locate exactly where Mac and his group of volunteers were killed. She writes:

The fields around are vineyards now and I imagine they were then too. In any case, you can see there was not much cover against machine gun fire. The chilling thing is that I can just imagine your Dad in the same situation saying, “Machine guns? No cover? Right, let’s go!”

Yeah, I can easily imagine that too. My cousin Ian, who did most of the work for us of reconstructing the story of Mac’s company and the Arielli attack, upped the emotional ante by sending me copies of two letters: one from Mac to Helen (his wife, our grandmother), written the night before he was killed, and one from his commanding officer to Helen expressing his condolences after the attack. I won’t repost the bulk of the letters. But it’s emotional stuff, even this far removed. I don’t know which gets to me more: Mac’s stiff upper lip optimism (“Will close now Helen dear, and keep your chin up. Worry will not help anything. Love and kisses, Mac xxx”) or his CO’s fairly inadequate efforts at consolation (“What I particularly want you to know, Mrs. MacDougall, is that he more than held his end up till he was hit. When one of his officers and several men were hit he made up his mind that it was his personal responsibility to put a stop to it. He tried with great gallantry.”)

The theme of gallant sacrifice in unnecessary diversion from the main campaign is distressingly common in Canadian military history. And in military history in general, I suppose. My Mom concludes,

It all seems such a tragic waste. So much of the Canadians’ support and equipment was withdrawn to other more glamorous theatres throughout the Italian campaign, and even this attack was meant primarily to keep the Germans distracted from the American landings on the west coast. Useful in the long run, I guess, but hard to accept as a compelling reason for Granny to spend her life alone and for her children to grow up without a father.