Seven Days in Hell by David O’Keefe - When I saw this book in bookstores before Christmas I hesitated to buy the story of Canada’s Black Watch Regiment in battle in Normandy in July of 1944. I have long been interested in the Canadian Army in France but I knew from other books they had been decimated in that week. I was not sure I wanted to read the details of that deadly week. And then I was given the book as a Christmas present from my sons. Once I started reading I was caught up in the drama of the Black Watch. O’Keefe is superb at narrative and maintaining the momentum of the book.
I knew little of the Black Watch beyond it being considered an elite regiment until I read O’Keefe’s book. While the regiment had members from across Canada the Black Watch in 1944 was three-quarters composed of young men from Montreal. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and social classes and were almost all English.
The men took pride in being an elite status. The Black Watch had been the Canadian Army’s most decorated unit in WW I. Their commanders were determined to have them gain the same recognition in WW II.
Sniper and scout Hook Wilkinson described his body as containing Black Watch blood not normal blood.
Arriving in Normandy a month after the invasion they deployed near Caen.
O’Keefe provides detailed descriptions of soldiers settling in and starting to apply their training. Few works of military non-fiction provide the particulars of an operation to clear a village of potential snipers.
The demoralizing effects of artillery are explained in terrible detail. The exploding ground. The randomness of who would live and die as shells fell upon them. The descriptions show why even well trained soldiers could crack because of artillery bombardments.
I cannot recall a more powerful book on what loss is like on the front lines. O’Keefe’s immense and intensive research allows him to personalize the dead and wounded by naming and describing the lives of so many of them. From the initial artillery shell that killed 3 men through their first battle that chewed up a company through the further battles of that crushing week in July the losses are not numbers but men the reader has come to know.
The week culminated on July 25. 2nd Canadian Army Commander General Guy Simonds under some pressure from British Generals Montgomery and Dempsey planned an attack on the Verrières ridge before which the British and Canadian Armies were stalled.
In the attack, the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch, was ordered to take the village of Fontenay-le-Marmion. In his autocratic manner Simonds prepared an over complicated plan with precise timing.
As customary in battle there were disruptions and unexpected issues and the Black Watch was hours behind schedule. As they gathered their Colonel was killed and the 2nd in command badly wounded.
The Black Watch attack was now 4 hours late and the tanks to assist them had not arrived. Ordered by Headquarters to press on Major Phil Griffin did not hesitate. The pride and honour of the Regiment dictated they carry out the attack.
Griffin led his 320 men into a field of wheat in an attack that was to go up and over the ridge. It was a suicide mission. German tanks, artillery, mortars and machine fired on them from 3 sides. With great courage they pressed on with a few men getting over the ridge. Not a soldier reached the objective.
Of the 320 who advanced into the field 296 were killed, wounded or captured. The next morning 24 shocked survivors gathered. The battle with 94% casualties, is the highest percentage of loss in Canadian history I am aware of in Canadian history.
The impact of the immense loss became so personal with the image of Black Watch padre, Canon Cecil Royle, sitting down at his typewriter to write 300 letters of condolence and packing up the personal belongings of each soldier killed to send to their families:
Vic Foam, the consummate company sergeant major who died leading his company from the front, left his leather wallet, a trusty penknife and his pair of highly polished black oxfords. A stack of letters from home formed part of the collection of Private George Crogie, along with a Waterman pen and pencil and Eveready flashlight - used, no doubt to scrawl letters home after lights out ….. A math textbook and a collection of short stories betrayed John Henry Harper’s desire to better himself, while Private Harry Mahaffy left a set of leather gloves, a toothbrush and his personal identification bracelet (a gift from his family), which matched a personalized cigarette case.
Accountability for the disaster will be discussed in my next post.