Military historian David O’Keefe was carrying on with his normal duties one day when he came across an anonymous five-volume diary in the archives of the famed Black Watch regiment downtown on Bleury St.
Curious as to what he found, O’Keefe began reading carefully. It didn’t take long for him to realize this was the diary of a high-ranking officer. The details were written in a way only a leader would know.
“Today is the day preceeding the attack [on Vimy Ridge].
“It is a momentous day for us all, for we have put into the preparations, the preliminary work, much of our heart and all our ability.
“Our men are in good spirits, and the successful raid carried out by the 10th battalion at an early hour this morning has given them an appetite for the severe fighting which is certain to ensue tomorrow.
“Reports regarding the artillery demolitions against enemy defences and wire appear fairly satisfactory. We believe that before twenty four hours have passed, we will have repaid Bosch with interest, some of the debts we owe him.
“The Operation order issued last night by this Brigade, and covering the offensive, is most complete. A few comments thereon at this time will not be out of place.”
– April 8, 1917 headquarters, Sunken Road, Front Line.
After pondering who this diary could belong too, O’Keefe skipped to the pages dating April 9, 1917, the first day of the renowned battle of Vimy Ridge. And that is when it hit him: the journal belonged to none other than Major General F.O.W. Loomis.
“The Germans in the first trenches were taken completely by surprise. The sentries, caught by the Artillery barrage or by Machine Gun fire offered no opposition, and the other enemy troops, garrisoning the forward trenches were either killed as they came out of their dug-out [or] taken prisoner, or bombed by the parties of “Moppers” following the advance.
“The prolonged preparation by our artillery had reduced the enemies defences to a state bordering on obliteration; and wire for some distance from his front line, did not exist except in very scattered [spots] consequently the second wave swept on and in less than 20 minutes, the second line was reported taken.
“It must not be thought that up to this time, the attacking units had escaped entirely without casualties.
“Before leaving the assembly positions, Lt. Norman of the 7th battalion was killed by a shell which made a direct hit on BONAL and almost at the same time, Captain Harris, in command of N0 4 Company, 7th battalion, was killed. Lieutenant [Dayke] who acted as Staff Captain of this brigade during the leave of Capt. Herridge recently, assumed command of [C] Company.
“The pyrotechnic displays which the Germans usually indulge in when attacks are made upon their positions accompanied the fight. Flares of many kinds were used, the one which was apparently used as an S.O.S. signal, apparently being shot from a Trench Mortar. It was an exceptionally large flare, and produced a reddish yellow cascade of fire upon bursting. It was dubbed “golden rain” by our troops.” – April 9 1917 headquarters Sunken Road, Front Line.
O’Keefe had a piece of Canadian history in his hands. Before the diary was found, the author had never previously been identified and for 60 years the diary had been claimed as lost. Finding the testimony of a Major who had served in the Great War was a first in the nation’s war history; none had ever been previously uncovered.
General Loomis died in 1937 of a massive heart attack, but not before he led Canada’s most decorated and honoured regiment in history (until 1916), the Black Watch’s 13th battalion.
His leadership in the first years of the war did not go unnoticed. In 1916 he was promoted from Commanding Officer to Brigadier after leading his troops in the battle of Somme at 44 years of age. He did the same for Vimy Ridge in April 1917. In August 1918 he received his highest promotion as Major General of the 3rd infantry. On Nov. 11 of the same year he led the Last Hundred Days campaign to capture Mons.
Excited and amazed by what he had just read, O’Keefe still needed confirmation the diary was authentic. And so he called his friend Tim Cook, a leading Canadian WWI historian based in Ottawa at the Canadian War Museum.
Together, by comparing all the major events mentioned with recorded files tucked away in the nation’s capital, they determined that the diaries did indeed belong to Loomis. Likely the most compelling evidence was the matching handwriting.
The diaries were truly the icing on the cake for Black Watch. They already had a formidable reputation coming out of WWI as key players, but Loomis’ diary reinforces with first-hand accounts the importance of their role during the war.
“Casualty reports trickled in. The first estimates [were] that they had been very light, but later it was evident that the 7th and the 10th battalion had lost considerably. It was evident that the Germans had no idea of our intention to attack, and troops in the supports evidently regarded the operation as another [?] which we had been making so frequently of late. As each succeeding wave of attack reached their positions, and continually under the hammering of our guns and machine gun fire, the fight was completely pounded out of the enemy, and in the majority of cases he no choice, but to surrender.
“The battlefield today has many things to tell, and from our advanced positions, we are able for the first [time] to fully appreciate the great extent of the ground captured. The work of cleaning up the battlefield, burying the dead and gathering the equipment of the fallen, into dumps, is going on apace. Souvenir Hunters from every unit within miles are overrunning the area in search of some small token to remind them of the battle.”- April 9 & 10 Headquarters Lubecker Haus, Front line.
To help shed light on the history of Loomis and the Black Watch, O’Keefe and Mike Bechthold of the Laurier Centre for Military and Disarmament (LCMDS) took the initiative to have the journals published.
But at the risk of the diaries resembling other published works, O’Keefe took a different approach. In addition to military historians, the final product will include chapters contributed by Canadian historians of different perspectives, including social, intellectual and gender.
The journal is scheduled for release on Remembrance Day 2009 by LCMDS publishing house.