Thursday 5 November 2015

In the Trenches

At first glance it looks so innocent.

Kings County Museum Archives
On a plain sheet of paper, printed in soft charcoal grey ink, is a map dotted and crossed with unusual red lines.

A closer look reveals that it is a “Message Map”.

Further scrutiny uncovers the notation “Trenches corrected to 16-10-17”.

Then, as your eye follows the network of roads that converge in the upper right corner, the name of a town – the most important detail of the map’s story – is revealed; this is a military map of Passchendaele from 1917.

The battles at Passchendaele are well-known as some of the worst fighting experienced by Canadian soldiers during World War I. They entered an impossible landscape torn to shreds by endless bombing and soaked by torrential rains that never seemed to let up. Men and animals were mired in the muck while an endless barrage rained down from German forces holding the town. Thousands were lost – some from enemy fire, some from falling into shell holes filled with water where they drowned in front of their helpless comrades who had no means of getting them back out of the mire.

The challenge of this place was accepted by thousands of Canadian soldiers who waded through the hellish landscape to push through those 'red lines' of German trenches and guns. The seriousness of their task is revealed not only on the front of our map, but also on the back.

The reverse side of the map contains the “message” portion of the message map. This side is a series of scenarios that a soldier carrying the map would choose from and fill in to describe the success (or failure) of their particular mission. 
The first options on the form are simple – a line to indicate you have reached your objective, another option that your company is together and consolidating. The further down the form, however, the worse the situation to report. If the soldier fills in line 8, his troops are “no longer in touch with” the others to his left or right. If filling in line 13, “Reinforcements wanted at…”, one can surmise that this particular action has not gone well for his troops. 
The deteriorating situation as you progress down the form is extremely stark. Worse is the realization that once this form is filled in, one of the company’s men would be given the task to carry the map and its message back through the same hard fought terrain to try to get word back to the others. This was a day before cell phones, texting, and instant communication. The message map was the communication option available.

And like Passchendaele itself, it was a hard option.

Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum CO_002246
For first-hand accounts of the battle of Passchendaele from Canadian soldiers, listen to CBC Radio’s “The Bugle and the Passing Bell”. This series re-broadcasts interviews with WWI soldiers from the time of 50th Anniversary of the start of the Great War. 

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