Like my grandfather, I’ve spent time on Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 in France. However, my visit 100 years after him was not marked by the deafening barrage of artillery shells that rained death, but by the quiet steps of a grandson, seeking insight on a fight today: how to win an inner battle with myself.
I want to draw inspiration from the experiences of a man who survived severe shell shock and who was distinguished for his “utmost manly qualities,” according to his superiors, as I struggle with my own dreams and try to put meaning into a life shaken by moments of self doubt.
My grandfather, Burton Lawrence Broughton, was a gunner with the 36th Howitzer Battery, of the 9th Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery (3rd Division). His battery was part of the Canadians’ effort to hone the creeping barrage that provided effective cover for infantry during the successful assault on Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917.
At Hill 70, four months later, they pioneered a new form of tactical fire in which several targeting calculations were made before firing a gun so that the target would be hit without first alerting the enemy.
According to 9th Brigade war diaries, at Hill 70 (Aug. 15 – Aug. 25, 1917) their guns halted a massive enemy counter-attack, accounting for “50 men in the first 20 rounds.”
“The slaughter and confusion was so great, the enemy broke and fled in all directions,” it was reported in the war diaries. “At a conservative estimate, we accounted for 100 to 200 men.”
The newly erected monument at Hill 70 looms over the pockmarked fields of Northern France in testament to the first time Canadians fought under Canadian command (Gen. Sir Arthur Currie). An unveiling and dedication of the new monument for Canada’s “forgotten victory” is planned for Aug. 22.
My grandfather’s military records paint a picture of a war hero who earned the praise of his superiors. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” in June, 1918, when his position was hit by an enemy barrage. It was through his “coolness” that he maintained the morale of the gun crew, making it possible to “maintain the service of the gun at a critical period.”
“His courage and resourcefulness was of the highest order and enabled us to overcome very serious obstacles. I feel I am quite right when I say there was no more efficient NCO in France,” wrote his Commanding Officer, Maj. D.A. MacKinnon, in a letter to my great-grandmother.
During the battle of Passchendaele in late 1917, he suffered a severe concussion when an enemy round landed in an ammunition depot next to him. Apparently, the blast hit him with such force you could see the impression of his skeleton on his skin. He was sent back to England to convalesce.
“I thought he would never return to the front but his courage and determination brought him back again and he fought the war right out to the end,” wrote MacKinnon.
At the age of 27, my grandfather danced with death on a daily basis. His younger brother, William, saw the worst of the war with the 2nd Battalion Eastern Ontario Regiment, ultimately dying of wounds on Sept. 16, 1916, after being seriously hurt during the Battle of Courcelette. The brothers from Sydney, Nova Scotia, defended a way of life.
My challenges pale in comparison. There are no life-and-death struggles as I distract myself with a steady stream of Facebook messages and rolling Instagram posts. My stress is triggered by leaving a career in journalism after 28 years in an attempt to reinvent myself.
I counter-attack, telling myself the only thing worse than fear now is regret later. I owe it to myself to test my mettle, to battle for what I believe is a life of purpose. As I tackle my challenges, I am finding my own “courage and determination” to fight through the inner demons of doubt and cleanse myself of inhibitions.
In searching to better understand who my grandfather — who died a year before I was born — was at his core, I am searching for pieces of my own identity. At Hill 70, where 26 of his comrades were killed by gas attacks, my grandfather stood his ground. That resolve defined him as a man and gave him the courage months later to elevate himself in battle to earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The Distinguished Conduct Medal awarded to Burton Lawrence Broughton for “conspicuous gallantry” in maintaining his Howitzer after it came under enemy fire during the First World War.
He wasn’t that man at the start of the war but he became that man by the end of the war.
Burton Lawrence Broughton’s military medals from the Second World War and First World War, including his distinguished conduct medal.
I need to define my own “coolness” in battle and discover who I am in the process. My battle is right here and right now and while failure doesn’t result in death, it may kill a dream.
My goal is to discover some of the “courage and determination” he found in himself and recognize it in myself.
• Dean Broughton is a former editor with Postmedia News