Monday, November 11, 2013

War Stories: John Thomas Bloor and the Battle of Hill 70

The commemorative plaque for John Thomas Bloor 

Private John Thomas Bloor is buried in the Pas-de-Calais, France  -just one of the 9.5 million Entente or Allied forces killed in World War I.  Six weeks ago I knew nothing about him but then he inadvertently dropped into my life and a gripping story unfurled.  Interesting timing now that we find ourselves on the Centennial eve of "The Great War".  Let me explain...

About five years ago a colleague gave me a commemorative plaque that he'd acquired at an antiques fair. He said it was British and that it was more appropriate for me (with my Anglo/Irish roots) to assume the role of its curator. I accepted the item quite willingly but did nothing with it other than place it on a bookshelf in my study where it had remained, semi-forgotten, ever since. Or at least until sometime last month when, thanks to my recent penchant for writing about war stories, I picked it up, put on my deerstalker hat and started doing some detective work.

My first task was to identify the medallion itself. That was quite easy -it turned out to be a so called "Death Penny".  These 5" diameter memorial plaques were made of bronze and issued to the next-of-kin of British and Empire service personnel who were killed in World War I; more than 1.3 million were issued. The name embossed on this particular plaque was  quite worn, probably as a result of vigorous polishing, but with some effort I made it out to be John Thomas Bloor.  Now my next task was to find out more about this fallen warrior.  My first stop was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Initially I drew a blank as no such name was registered among British troops. However when I broadened my search to include Commonwealth countries, I was rewarded with a hit: Private JT Bloor (463016) was a member of the 29th Battalion, Canadian Infantry and killed on 21st August, 1917. He was 31 years old and is buried at the imposing Vimy Memorial.

From the Commonwealth War Graves site I learned of Mr Bloor's military rank (and that although born in the UK served with the Canadian infantry) the date he died, the names of his parents and his burial place
From the Canadian Library and Archives I discovered his birthday (he was 31 years old at the time of his passing), the cause of his death was unknown and that he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Vernon, British Columbia
Now my curiosity was piqued. Was there more information available about John Bloor?  Indeed there was. From the Canadian Library and Archives I found his Attestation Papers, signed on the 23rd July 1916, in Vernon, British Columbia, for his induction into Canadian Expeditionary force. Here I learned that his birthday was 6th May, 1886 (a Taurus), his profession was listed as "seaman" and he was unmarried. The induction papers also revealed that he was born in Staffordshire, UK, to Mrs Sarah Taylor (formerly Bloor) of 18 Bond Street, Burton-on-Trent.  The Canadian Veterans Affairs website lists his father as the late John Thomas Bloor. 

John Thomas Bloor's attestation papers. Here we can observe his handwriting (notably regressive) and also learn that his profession was "seaman"
From his medical certificate a physical picture of a tall, slim, fair haired, blue eyed individual with good vision (presumably he didn't wear glasses) and general good health emerges. His religion was Church of England (protestant)

His handwriting slopes backwards quite markedly -perhaps indicating an introvert personality. His medical certificate states that he was 5' 11" tall, had blues eyes and fair hair with a fair complexion. His chest was 39" full expanded: all in all he was quite tall and slim. He had a mole in his right armpit  cited as a "distinguishing mark".  A quite clear physical image had emerged. 

And what of his upbringing?  At the time of his enlistment, John's mother's married name was Sarah Taylor. According to the BMD database for England and Wales, JTB Senior passed away in 1898 (when JTB Jr was just 12 years of age). Sarah's maiden name was Howarth, so presumably she had remarried by the time her son enlisted.  A quick look at Mrs Taylor's address (Bond St) via Google Street View shows the remains of a row of Victorian terraced houses: was this the street where young John was brought up or did Sarah move there after she remarried?  In anycase I think it can be reasonably assumed that John grew up in modest but respectable circumstances (in British sociological terms Working Class or Lower Middle Class).

Bond Street, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England: at the time of his enlistment, Private Bloor's mother lived here (at #18, unfortunately now bulldozed to make way for a car park) in a modest Victorian terraced house. He was certainly brought up here or in the vicinity -a solid lower middle class neighbourhood. Picture from Google Street View.

Then we have a gap. I'm not quite sure how Mr Bloor found his way to Canada but the catchment area for Vernon, BC, includes the spectacular seaport of Vancouver. It's easy to imagine, given his occupation of seaman, how he could have ended up in in that city. Even a century ago it was a vibrant, attractive, prosperous place full of New World vigour and a refreshing change from the dreary British midlands. So if his travels brought him there, it wouldn't have been a difficult decision to stay.

Photograph of Vancouver, British Columbia, c1910. By the turn of the 20th century it was a bustling, prosperous seaport set in a jewel of a location. It's easy to understand why young Mr Bloor would have wanted to settle here after his upbringing in the drab Victorian English midlands
Patriotic fervour was common in the Canadian New World: many new immigrants felt it was their duty to serve their newly adopted country. Approximately 60% of serving Canadian troops in WWI were born in the UK
And so John Thomas Bloor, by now a Canadian resident, enlisted for the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was inducted at Vernon, British Columbia, a somewhat desolate training camp, 250 miles east of Vancouver on the 21st August 1915. There he was attached to the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, also known as "Tobin's Tigers" after the commanding officer,  Lt.-Col Henry Seymour Tobin.   Tobin mustered the 29th in the first instance by amalgamating the 11th regiment of the Irish Fusiliers of Canada and the Duke of Connaught's Own Rifles.  The 29th itself was subordinated to the Canadian 6th Brigade, 2nd Division. It's not clear when he reached the Western Front in France. Basic training took 12 weeks and usually some additional training (for bombardiers, heavy weapons specialists and the like) followed.  In any event it's unlikely that he departed for Europe until some time in 1916. The first tranche of the 29th sailed from Halifax to Devonport, UK in May 1915, on the troopship, RMS Missanabie. As it happens, the Missanabie is an interesting story in itself. After four years of intrepid service, it was torpedoed and sunk off Daunt's Rock, Co. Cork, Ireland, by UB87 on 18th September 1918, with the loss of 45 crew.  But I digress. So it's likely that Private Bloor made landfall in England, probably in Plymouth, in the winter or spring of 1916 (see Post Script note at bottom of page). From Devon he would have likely been transferred to one of the several CEF camps in East Sussex where he would have undergone additional training. 

Aerial view of the CEF training camp, Vernon, British Columbia. Located approximately 250 miles east of Vancouver, the small town was dominated by the military presence
Life under canvas at the CEF training camp, Vernon, British Columbia. Traditionally, each battalion marked its entrance in the manner above -unfortunately I couldn't find a photo of the 29th's tents but it was formed from elements of the Duke of Connaught's Own Rifles seen here
Cap badge (L) and uniform patch (R) of the 29th (Vancouver) battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, also known as
"Tobin's Tigers"
I'm cheating here as I've added this picture non-contemporaneously. It's of a postcard JTB sent to his Mother prior to shipping out from his basic training to England. I imagine it was sent from a railhead, maybe Kamloops, BC, before JTB made the long cross-country train journey to Quebec or Nova Scotia. The card was kindly sent to me by Janice McPhee, a cousin twice removed, of Pvt. Bloor, when she discovered this article
The flipside of the card bears just a terse (for security reasons) message from JTB to his Mother. I learned several things from the information here (1) he used his middle name (Tom) possibly to avoid confusion with his Father's first name was also "John" (2) the picture is of the Canadian Rockies and the postmark appears to be "M(oose) Jaw & Calgary PO -presumably a mail stop on the railway line and (3) the card is dated "27 Aug" -assuming the cross-country train journey took 3-5 days then JTB would probable have sailed to the UK in early September 2015
The RMS Missanabie owned by the Canadian Pacific Line, was used as a troopship by the Canadian government  throughout the war. Records indicate that it mostly sailed to Liverpool although the first contingent of the 29th travelled on it and made landfall in Plymouth, Devon.  Halifax, Nova Scotia was the Canadian port most commonly used as an embarcation point although ships did sail from Vancouver. The Missanabie was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank off the coast of Ireland in 1918 with the loss of 45 crew. These individuals (43 men, 2 women) are commemorated at the Tower Hill Memorial.

I think it's reasonable to assume that Private Bloor would have crossed the English Channel to France around the summer of 1916.  Here would have spent time in the rear echelons while acclimating to (the atrocious) field conditions and undergoing further training. Typically troops would be moved towards the front line when their commanding officers saw them as battle fit. Canadian troops were considered exceptionally well-trained: this was largely because of the influence of their Commander-in-Chief, Sir Julian Byng, an enlightened, unassuming and well-liked Englishmen endowed with fine leadership skills.  Unlike many of his peers, Byng was relaxed about military formalities but was a meticulous planner and superb field commander.  The 29th Battalion were further helped by their own Commander, Lt-Col Henry Seymour Tobin. Tobin forged his troops into a formidable fighting force, mainly through advanced tactics and endless training. 

Lt-General Sir Julian Byng commanded the Canadian Corps on the Western Front from 1916-1917 and was instrumental in forging his troops into an elite fighting force. He was much liked by his men
Lt Col Henry Seymour Tobin.  It's perhaps a sign of the times that "Tobin's Tigers" now have an entry on YouTube and their own page on FaceBook. Photo from British Columbia Archives collections
If Private Bloor and his elements of the 29th saw action in the late summer/autumn of 1916 they would have been engaged in some ferocious engagements. It is highly likely that they were thrown into the Battle of the Somme that raged through the summer and autumn of 1916. Other fights occurred at Courcelette, Pozieres Ridge, Thiepval Ridge, Ancre Heights, Regina Trench, Desire Trench and then in April 1917, the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Vimy was a remarkable victory for Sir Julian Byng and his men. They trained intensively and employed several new gunnery tactics, including the "creeping barrage" in which the infantry advanced 100 metres behind a curtain of exploding artillery shells. Tanks were also used. A detailed account can be found here. 3,600 Canadian troops were killed and 7000 wounded -a heavy price but the victory was a defining moment for the Canadian military. Private Bloor was almost certainly involved in this battle.

Canadian troops fix bayonets and prepare to go "over the top" on one of the battles of the Somme in 1916                          
A camouflaged MkII "female" tank advances at Vimy Ridge. They were crude, unreliable and  vulnerable to relatively light field weapons such as mortars. However they did protect the crews against rifle and machine gun fire and initially terrified the German troops.
The next major engagement in which Private Bloor and the 29th were involved was the Battle of Hill 70. Unfortunately it was to be his last along with 1,505 of his comrades; another 4000 or so were wounded or suffered poison gas injuries. Nevertheless it was another fantastic victory for the Canadians. The purpose of the battle was to control the hill (Hill 70) which dominated the town of Lens.  Taking this position would prevent the Germans reinforcing their positions at Passchendaele. By this time the Canadians had a new commander, Sir Arthur William Currie. General Currie, like Byng and Tobin, was also a superb field commander, and not surprisingly found himself in disagreement with the Allies' Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshall Haig. Currie was also noted for his meticulous planning and made extensive use of the Royal Flying Corps for both both intelligence gathering and close air support.  The battle started in earnest on 15th August 1917 and was hard fought. Both sides used gas, especially the blistering agent, gaseous sulphur mustard,  delivered in cannister artillery shells. The Germans also introduced a terrifying new weapon, the M.16 flammenwerfer or flamethrower.

It's amazing what you can find on the internet. The entire War Diaries of the 29th Battalion have been scanned and are available for downloading
The War Diaries reveal that initially the 29th battalion was held back in support of the 5th Brigade. Things were relatively quiet although there was action at the Cinnabar Trench in Lens (other sources report that the 29th lost 85 men and 250 were wounded)
The battle peaked on 21st August: Hill 70 was taken and all counter attacks were repelled. John Bloor, having survived bloodier battles, was somewhat unlucky to meet his end here as casualties were relatively light: 7 officers were killed, 183 "other ranks" were wounded and 50 ORs were listed as missing (presumptively killed or captured)
The battle starts here  -on the 14th/15th August 1917. This operation was meticulously planned and prepared by Sir Arthur Currie

Map of Hill 70 and the town of Lens showing the target objectives for each of the Canadian battalions. The capture of Hill 70 was necessary to hold the town
While Hill 70 was stormed, a diversionary attack was made on the town of Lens. This map  shows the tactical plan for harassing fire
General Currie made extensive use of the Royal Flying Corps for intelligence gathering as well as supporting his troops in battle
Troops advance across No Man's Land towards Hill 70.  In this battle the Canadians introduced the concept  of the "creeping barrage" whereby the soldiers move forward 100 yards behind an advancing curtain of artillery fire
Canadians soldiers occupy a captured German trench on Hill 70. Photograph: Canadian War Museum                                       
Both sides made extensive use of gas in attack and counter-attack. The blistering agent, sulphur mustard, delivered by artillery canister shells  was particularly nasty
German WW1 gas artillery shells . Number 5 (blue with red cross) contains mustard gas otherwise knowns as nitrogen sulphur or "Yperite".  Its purpose was to cause blistering injuries to the skin and lungs

A machine gun crew equipped with PH-Helmet (phenate-hexamine) type gas masks. These were complex chemical hoods and were only partially effective. Vision was restricted and it was difficult to aim weapons while being worn
The battle for Hill 70 saw the Germans introduce the terrifying flammenwerfer or flame thrower: they were effective against trenches and were also used against tanks
Sir Arthur Currie had studied the German tactics well. He observed that if they lost ground to the Allies, their usual behavior was to rapidly counter-attack. Currie's plan was to take the objective (Hill 70 in this case) and then counter the counter-attack. To do this, he got his troops to consolidate their position very quickly and then installed a large number of machine guns to defend the hill
German shells bursting close to a camouflaged Canadian gun position (foreground) at Lens. Photo: Canadian War Museum    
Sir Arthur Currie's planning and preparation paid off.  The Canadians took the Hill quickly and with relatively few casualties (by the standards of the day). They then fought off no fewer than 21 counter attacks. The battle raged for six days. During this time the Germans were met with massive firepower and suffered huge losses. Hill 70 remained in the hands of the Allies for the rest of the war. During the battle, the Canadians had held off five German divisions (approximately 50,000 men), inflicted 20,000 casualties and taken 1000 prisoners. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded including one to Irish-Canadian, Sgt. Major Robert Hanna of the 29th. All in all the victory at Hill 70 was not only important strategically but it confirmed the reputation of the Canadians as clever, tenacious, warriors and indeed an elite fighting force. My account of the battle has been, by necessity, quite brief: much more detailed descriptions can be found here, herehere and here. Furthermore the official history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, can be downloaded here.  More information about the 29th as well as other Canadian battalions can be found at the Matrix Project. Maps of the engagement can be found here.

Sadly, John Bloor did not survive the battle. He died on the 21st August 1917: the second anniversary of his enlistment. The cause of death has not been documented. Whether he died of wounds occurring earlier in the battle, or through shell, machine gun or small arms fire we'll never know. One pleasant surprise did come at the end of my investigations, however. On looking at the inscription of his name on a gorgeously elaborate memorial tribute to fallen servicemen in his hometown of Burton-on-Trent, I noticed his rank was "Corporal".  I have no doubt that this modest promotion was richly deserved.

In the Library and Archives of Canada, the circumstances (or lack, thereof) of John Bloor's death can be found. This tersely worded certificate states "Previously reported Missing, now for official purposes presumed to have died".  My thanks to Niall of Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada, for unearthing this piece of information.
A distant view of the magnificent Vimy Memorial. It was built on the vantage point of Hill 145, the highest point on Vimy Ridge: it is dedicated to the memory of all members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who lost their lives during the war
John Thomas Bloor's name inscribed on one of the walls of the Vimy memorial. Thank you for your service  -it was an honor to become acquainted with you in this unusual way 96 years after your earthly existence. I really did feel I knew you at by the end of this article. RIP, Sir!
The imposing Vimy memorial in the Pas-de-Calais. It was designed by Walter Seymour Allward and unveiled by King Edward  VIII on 26th July, 1936
Back to the beginning! The town hall, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, UK (contemporary photograph).  John Bloor's sacrifice is recorded here

The war memorial wall in John Bloor's hometown of Burton-on-Trent. Listed are the townsfolk who lost their lives in the 1st and 2nd World Wars. JT Bloor is of course listed here and at the end of the story there was a pleasant surprise. Somewhere along the way, the valiant Private Bloor was promoted to Corporal. I have no doubt this advancement was richly deserved. Photographs of the Vimy Memorial and the Burton-on-Trent Memorial are from the War Graves Photographic Project
A facsimile of the Letter from King George V that accompanied the Memorial Plaque  "Death Penny" at the top of the page. Replication service by Eddie Fatharly, the "Trench Detective"

In nearly a decade of blogging, this is by far the longest post I've written  -arguably with the least starting material. It's taken six weeks of research and fact checking to put it together and during this time the article acquired a life of its own.  I've learned a lot about the WW1 conflict (even though I thought I was quite well informed beforehand) as well as the training, weapons that were employed, the personalities involved and the zeitgeist of the era. I've also been reminded about the unrelenting, horror, misery and human suffering that is part and parcel of war. But  most of all I became acquainted with a heroic young man whose physical appearance and personality developed as I continued with my quest for information. At times I felt I was marching along with him and now my research is almost finished, I'm going to miss him: I certainly felt some reluctance to describe his final battle as I knew his fate in advance.

If anyone spots a factual error in my essay or can provide me with additional information on John T Bloor or the events in his life, please let me know.  Finally, if any reader has a legitimate and verifiable genealogical link to John Bloor or his greater family please get in touch with me via the comments section below: I have something that should be returned to its rightful owner...

I would like to thank Mr Eddie Fatharly of South Ockendon, Essex, UK, "The Trench Detective" (Ebay: "efatharl") for providing me with a facsimile of Cpl. Bloor's honour letter from King George V as well as battlefield maps and some 27th battalion battle diaries; an excellent service. Christopher Shortland (Ebay: "theessenceofcool") provided detailed WW1 battle maps on CD. I have acknowledged all other sources in the text.  Lastly I must thank Clint Schmidt, PhD, for allowing me to be the bearer of Cpl. Bloor's memorial plaque for a few years; I hope I have discharged my duty satisfactorily.

P.S. Since publishing this article, I have been in touch with Dr Ian K Bloor of the Bloor Society: Ian kindly circulated the details of this story and subsequently I've been contacted by Ms Janice MacPhee a resident of British Columbia, Canada.  She is a bona fide cousin (twice removed) of Mr Bloor.  Janice, I can't tell you how happy I am to have heard from you. Hopefully we can meet up in the not too distant future and I will be able to return JTB's memorial plaque to its rightful place with a family member.

P.P.S. In correspondence with Janice MacPhee, the postcard from JTB to his Mother surfaced in which he announced he was en route to England. It was dated 27 August and thus I infer that his basic training was only 6 weeks. JTB travelled by train cross-country and would have arrived on the east side of the country around the end of the month. As far as I can discern from Matrix Project records, the most likely troopship sailing was from Montreal on the RMS Missanbie on 4th September in which case JTB would have docked at Plymouth on 14th September 1915.

This post was uploaded at 11 minutes past 11 (AM, European Continental time) on 11th November, 2013. Armistice Day (Veterans' Day). Exactly 95 years after the guns fell silent.