By Stephen Hume
Empty, austere, the arid heartland of south central British Columbia is defined by bronze-hued talus slopes under powder blue skies.
It seldom rains in this near-perfect horse country – sunburnt grassland punctuated by drifts of pine – where summer temperatures soar into the high 30s. Far below parched tablelands, intense and inaccessible as a mirage, churns the gun-metal sheen of the Thompson River.
Scattered along its banks, sprinklers chuff tirelessly. Much of the water evaporates before it reaches the ground. Here and there, at the margins of alfalfa fields, a few twisted trees struggle to survive.
Across this vast rain shadow of the Coast Range snakes the Trans-Canada Highway, reaching westward from Kamloops toward dusty Cache Creek and aptly-named Hell’s Gate canyon, then on to Mile Zero beside the lush flowerbeds of the provincial capital’s Beacon Hill Park in Victoria.
Above this heat-buckled blacktop, twisting mile after monotonous mile across the parched gulches and eroded benchlands, is the wreckage of an abandoned irrigation flume.
Desiccated by the climate for almost a century, its decomposing wood – the splintered flume once carried water to the settlement called Walhachin – frames a doorway into the nightmares of my grandfather’s generation, a collective experience now vanished from living memory.
The desert air here resonates with ghosts. Black Canyon evokes Hudson Bay Company Chief Trader Stuart Black, shot down in a First Nations blood feud in 1841. Ussher Creek recalls the police constable killed by the MacLean Gang in 1879. At Monte Creek, Bill Miner, the Grey Ghost, robbed his last train in 1906. At the Quilchena Hotel patrons may still examine the bullet holes with which a drunken cowboy ventilated what once was the bar but which now dispenses floats and sodas.
And there is the ghost town of Walhachin, the settlement that vanished into thin air. Even that rotting flume that once made the desert bloom evokes a ghostly echo. It descends from the Deadman River, itself named for Pierre Chivrette, a North West Company fur trader fatally stabbed 200 years ago while quarreling with a companion about where to camp.
A short drive west of Kamloops, Walhachin is now little more than a curious name on a map. And like so much of the past we invent and reinvent for ourselves in Western Canada, even the name serves as one more small duplicity of British imperialism.
The blocky European spelling is merely a best guess at the liquid syllables of the Salish tongue – was it Walhassen or Wal’a-sn?
Chiselled Roman letters serve to anglicise an ornate bit of marketing that gilds the lovely Salishan idiom, honest and plain as the place itself. “At the edge,” the Nlaka’pamux called the place, doubtless referring to the steep 335-metre descent to this mighty tributary of the Fraser. “Round stones,” concluded a later European translator, presumably in reference to the huge water-polished boulders below. “An Indian word signifying an abundance of food products from the earth,” claimed the 19th Century land promoters, looting the language of the Ghost Dance for a name with sales appeal.
Even the story of Walhachin now seems curiously mingled with the idea of the Ghost Circle of the Salishan peoples. To remember Walhachin is to witness our own imperial history drawn into the indigenous myth, colonised by it in return, rendered strangely similar and then floated back to us.
The past, at Walhachin, is still strong medicine.
Somehow, the Nlaka’pamux Chief of the Dead seems oddly superimposed upon the wrathful Jehovah of the Christian missionaries who came determined to dethrone the resident spirits only to be displaced themselves. At what was once the Kamloops Indian Residential School, now a museum of bitter memories and recrimination, one can still see photos of grinning priests celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by dressing up solemn First Nations’ children as leprechauns. Yet to visit what was once Walhachin, to stand in the amber light of evening with purple shadows spilling from the coulees and mud swallows darting above the muscular coils of the great river is to sense that only the gods of missionaries, commerce and the white man’s burden have proved transient. Palimpsests upon palimpsests.
The stunted, sun-blasted scrub at the field margins is what remains of a promised Eden. These are the age-blackened survivors of 16,000 trees. They once tossed and breathed, filling the hot valley with a sound not heard since the inland seas retreated eons before. Once one has heard that silver-bellied rustling of leaves on the wind, a susurration like the faint whisper of surf on distant coasts, the sound clicks forever into the templates of memory.
In the summer nights of my long-fled youth, the darkest of the Cold War, I would slip out of the old house that creaked and groaned like a ship moored on the swell of surrounding orchards. I’d lie awake looking into starry skies for the transit of Russian satellites, listening to that restless whisper from the living fruit trees around me. Even now, more than half a century later, starting up out of sleep, I sometimes hear that sound in the night, just as the vanished souls of Walhachin must have heard it under the troubled mutter of barrage and counter-barrage. Historians have observed that in the letters from the trenches, home ceases to be that pastoral England the writers thronged to defend and instead transfigures into the dream of their lost home in Eden — Walhachin. Did the few ancient survivors, I wonder, still dream the sound of it in the quiet cells of their nursing homes?
Those tossing fruit trees once perfumed the high country with the scent of peach blossoms, pear and apricot, Winesaps and Wagoners and Jonathon’s and Cox’s Orange Pippins.
Walhachin was to be the reinvention of the lost biblical garden, a vision of scorched fields ingeniously made to flower in a bone-dry wilderness. There is disagreement among historians regarding the truth of what proved to be the worm at the heart of that vision.
Some say the settlement went down in the simple ebb and flow of commerce, a bad investment poorly conceived, commodities too far from market. Some dismiss it as another of the utopian adventures by romantics and dilettantes that stud the west with ghost-town ruins. But my story says Eden was laid waste during Canada’s bloody birth as the industrial nation we now inhabit.
The legend of its fall from grace was told to me long ago by old men with stubble on their faces; old men patiently awaiting their final ticket out, that gnarled cliché from the trenches still fresh in the green stuccoed senior’s home that came last on my paper route. Bony knuckles clicking under transparent skin, they’d clutch my hand and tell me of the slain heroes. One gave me his medal. Another told me how it was in the advanced dressing stations, how they’d divide the torrents of casualties – one third to walk to the next station, one third to the surgeons, one third to the dying tent. He told me the dying would sometimes moan as they were taken out: “No! No! It’s the wrong place!”
That was how I learned of the practice of medical triage.
I told these old men about the strange wooden flumes I saw from the window of my father’s Studebaker on Sunday afternoon expeditions. I loved to ride up in the cockpit of that bullet-nosed car with its divided windshield and its front end like what I imagined a Spitfire fuselage must look like. My brothers and I would sight the oncoming traffic along the hood ornament, shoot them down, jeering as the hump-backed Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs disappeared into the slipstream.
My father would look upset but said nothing. Boys at the brink of teenage rebellion seldom ask their father what troubles him. It was years before I learned how he spent his own war interned as a conscientious objector – a religious pacifist from a family with a stern military tradition, his father and uncles career veterans of the Imperial Army; his father gravely wounded at Gallipoli; his cousin Jack interceding for him, announcing “That’s why I’m there, so lads like him can make a choice.”
His beloved cousin Jack was killed in the fierce armoured battles around Caen in 1944. His cousin Eric, lost with his ship at sea off Gibraltar in 1941.
In the old folks’ home, my fading elders told me the ruined flumes were all that remained of Walhachin, a town murdered by the First World War, a flower cut down in a single desperate cavalry charge against mechanised weapons. The war to end war, they told me, changed everything, was the end of everything – but not war and the suffering it brings. I choose now to believe the truth of their legend, whatever the arguments of paper-shuffling academics regarding the facts of economic predetermination. I’ve seen some of that truth with my own eyes. The old man with the strangely mottled skin and unkempt hair, his eyes darting wildly, gabbling partial words at the frightened kids on the dusty school grounds.
Don’t worry, we were reassured by our white-haired English teacher.
”Shell-shock,” she told us, explaining the paralysing artillery barrages. Bombardments so unbelievably intense, she said, that they shook the wits right out of men. Some were still in hospital 40 years later, trapped in the memory of battles they could not escape.
Walhachin was to be a metaphor for Eden – a vision of idyllic harmony conceived before anyone could imagine mass destruction. The settlement was the culmination of the dreams of an American engineer and British aristocrats still caught up in the follies of colonial expansionism and the romance of empire. It was to be a model community, a cornucopia, a marriage of Yankee know-how and Imperial noblesse oblige. Its homes were to be built with a view of the river, a monorail, an elegant hotel offering elegant cuisine, carriage tours of the orchards, a carefree life of parasols and polo.
To some extent, the Walhachin scheme was carried forward by the peculiar momentum that brought a flood of British settlers to the region between 1890 and 1914. Some came with great expectations and a sense of prophetic mission. Some came in search of adventure, the generation that missed the Cariboo and Klondike gold rushes.
Some came to play; hunting, fishing and riding their days away. Some came to play god, remaking indigenous peoples in their own image. Some came to hide from god and the wrath of a rigidly stratified society. Some were sent in an effort to put as much distance as possible between their indiscretions and their families.
”The country was full of the queerest people you ever met in your life,” recalled Bob Gamman in an interview for the B.C. Provincial Archives. “They all had a history behind them, you know – they all had a history. They were wealthy boys and remittance men, lots of them. But they’d all had experience. They’d hunted in Africa. They’d been to India. Why they ever came to Canada, I don’t know. But they were real men, they really were.”
One of them became Dorothea Walker’s husband. She, too, reflected for the archives on a young man bound for the clergy, schooled in Latin and Greek at Oxford, who at 19 defied his parents. He would not become a minister. “Well,’ his father said, `it’ll have to be the colonies,'” she recalled. “And so, the result was, he was sent out here as a pupil to learn farming at $500 a year. He arrived in September in a tweed Norfolk coat and knickerbockers, you know, and woollen stockings and a tweed cap.” Mud-pups, the locals called them.
James Teit was a Scottish grocer’s son. He came to work with a relative’s trading post, took to the bush where he proved an expert hunter, learned the indigenous languages, loved and married a Nlaka’pamux woman, made his name as one of North America’s most eminent ethnographers and ended his days as a vigorous activist for First Nations and political organizer in their resistance of colonial aspirations to contrived Edens.
Adventurer, fortune hunter or remittance man, most had one thing in common. Everybody was fruit mad. The orchard boom had begun when Lord Aberdeen purchased the Coldstream Ranch near Vernon in 1891 and established the first commercial orchard in B.C.’s Interior. Earl Grey, Governor-General of Canada, expressed the mania in an address to the Royal Agricultural Society to open the New Westminster Exhibition in 1910: “Fruit growing in your province has acquired the distinction of being a beautiful art as well as a most profitable industry. After a maximum of five years I understand the settler may look forward with reasonable certainty to a net income of from $100 to $150 per acre, after all expenses of cultivation have been paid.”
And that was to be it – plant the trees, water them, then lounge about picking the fruit between trout fishing and shooting, enjoying the bounty.
The partners at Walhachin easily obtained financial backing in Britain and began courting the right kind of settlers among the English gentry and would-be gentry. In 1908 they formally founded the settlement on 2,000 hectares that spanned the Thompson River. It was to offer a country squire’s genteel lifestyle in which the leisurely tending of orchards would yield abundant, well-paying crops. There was only one problem. The dry land would not support fruit trees and the river was so far below the arable benches that pumping water for irrigation was uneconomic. No matter. With absolute Edwardian confidence in the powers of engineering to overcome natural adversity, the owners began immediate construction of 20 kilometres of wooden flume to bring water from Deadman River. They planted their vast orchard and prepared to reap the rewards.
By 1910, 56 settlers had come to Walhachin. More than a dozen families were ensconced in graceful new houses with large verandas. French doors opened to the garden and hand-carved woodwork ornamented the exteriors. Those who were still waiting for their houses to be completed took up residence in the Walhachin Hotel, says Kamloops historian Joan Weir, who details the settlement’s origins in a slim monograph published in 1984. Indeed, many of these upper crust pioneers made a practice of skipping the winters to catch up on London society, to investigate prospective brides or to take the grand tour of France and Italy.
In short order, the community had a restaurant, a laundry, livery stables, competing newspapers, a bakery, ladies’ and gentlemen’s haberdasheries, real estate and insurance offices. Gordon Muriel Flowerdew, one of the dashing young English bachelors, ran the butcher shop and general store. His sister, Miss Eleanor Flowerdew, ran the Walhachin Hotel with its cool verandas and crisp white linen. The cuisine was of the highest order and guests were expected to dress for dinner in full evening attire.
“The large dining room overlooks the orchards and from the open balcony on the north side a good view is obtained of the orchards and of the Thompson River,” said an enthusiastic review in the Ashcroft Journal. “Spacious billiard, card and ladies’ and gentlemen’s sitting rooms occupy the east wing. Hot and cold water, gas and all comforts have had careful attention.”
There was a football club and a cricket side and golf and afternoon tea and musical evenings and many formal balls with top hats, tails and white kid gloves. Residents even rode to the hounds, although a coyote had to substitute for the fox. There was polo. And at this outpost of Imperial Britain, military traditions came with the polo ponies. Lieutenant-Colonel J. D. Willson, who served with the Mounted Rifles in the Boer War just a few years before the founding of Walhachin, had this to say of Canada’s west:
“Perhaps in no country in the world was there finer recruiting ground for light cavalry, for though the population was sparse and widely scattered, most men rode and a considerable portion of them were horse-owners and daily in the saddle. . . Our horses would have compared favourably with those of any light cavalry in the world for speed, strength and beauty, and even superior to most in toughness. Our ranks were filled with every class of the West, generally drawn from the farmers and stockmen, of a physique rarely equalled by any regiment I have ever seen.”
Gordon Flowerdew exemplified this ideal. A Walhachin company of the British Columbia Horse had been raised in the summer of 1911. The following year he was noted for setting records in both shooting and steeplechasing at the cavalry training school in Vernon. He was singled out for his performances in the Victoria Cross Race, an event in which mounted riders were expected to rescue a wounded comrade under simulated fire from artillery.
The summer this world came to an end was tawny and tranquil. When the Kaiser invaded Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Flowerdew was among the first to volunteer. Elsie Turnbull, writing in Pioneer Days in British Columbia, says that the volunteers soon included virtually the entire male population of Walhachin and that 97 of the 107 men in the village joined the army to defend the British Empire in France.
Given the cynicism of our age, it is difficult to imagine the joy with which the outbreak of war was greeted across the west by young men who saw an opportunity to shed bucolic routine for some higher purpose. The war was to be polo carried on at a higher plane.
Flowerdew admitted his boyhood dream was to win the Victoria Cross although Weir writes he later confided to an officer with suitably becoming modesty that “I shall never be brave enough to win it. Valour has reached such a standard that you have to be dead before you win the V.C.”
Older, wiser souls like novelist Henry James, whose own youth had borne witness to the American civil war, expressed a deep foreboding. “Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I’m sick beyond cure to have lived to see it,” he wrote in a letter from England to Rhoda Broughton dated August 10, 1914. “The country and the season here are of a beauty and peace, and liveliness of light, and summer grace, that make it inconceivable that just across the Channel, blue as paint today, the fields of France and Belgium are being, or are about to be, given up to unthinkable massacre and misery.”
All through B.C., spurred in no small part by the legendary North West Mounted Police and the exploits of the Mounted Rifles in South Africa, young men were clamouring to enlist in regiments with Kiplingesque names: the Rocky Mountain Rangers, the Alberta Dragoons, Tuxford’s Dandies, Tobin’s Tigers, the Kootenay Borderers, Lord Strathcona’s Horse and the British Columbia Horse.
Gordon Flowerdew was born in 1885. It was a year of imperial wars. The British were fighting in the Sudan – and in Canada. The first battle in what became known as the Northwest Rebellion took place at Duck Lake. In that fight, Metis buffalo hunters led by Gabriel Dumont forced British troops to retreat.
Flowerdew arrived in the world at Billingford, Norfolk. His family had been stewards to the Duke of Norfolk. He was the eighth son among 14 children born to farmer John Blomfield Flowerdew and Hannah Symonds. Educated at Framlingham College, Suffolk, like so many young Englishmen of his generation, on leaving school without prospects of inheritance, he went to the frontier to seek his fortune. He arrived at Duck Lake in what would become Saskatchewan, site of the famous battle, in 1903, then moved on to the Kootenay Valley west of the Rocky Mountains and finally cast up in Walhachin. In 1911, riding his horse Dixie, the handsome young storekeeper won most of the trophies at the races held to honour King George V’s coronation.
The first Canadian troops bound for the front left for Valcartier in Quebec on August 26, 1914.
The train stopped as it wound through the high summer valleys where the apples were sweet and heavy on the trees, picking up the men from Interior regiments anxious to abandon the fall harvest. The newly-founded University of British Columbia had one-fifth of its student body enlist. The sparsely populated area around Kamloops, which included Walhachin, had 4,000 men in arms. Vancouver’s population fell by 26,000. By war’s end, B.C., with barely 450,000 people, would have 55,570 in uniform.
This heavy enlistment was typical of the patriotic fervour that accompanied the early days of the First World War. “It was like an oil boom, or the subdivision of a new town site; offices sprang into existence, crowds waited at the doors, and, inside, the investors made their deposits. This was no idle punting in oil shares or mining stock; it was a solid investment in flesh and blood,” wrote Herbert Rae. “There were lumbermen and railwaymen, prospectors, surveyors, bankers, brokers, stokers, teamsters, carpenters and schoolmasters. Many had not seen a city for months, and they were frequently drunk; but the material!”
In August of 1914, the men of Medicine Hat joined the stampede to volunteer for the expeditionary force in France. Like the riders of Walhachin, they too were high-plains wranglers, among the best horsemen in the British Empire, world polo champions and bronc busters, soldiers of fortune who had taken a liking to the cottonwood coulees of Palliser’s Triangle and stayed behind while the railhead pushed west into the Crowsnest Pass and the coal fields. Four out of five of these volunteers were slain.
Once, writing in the dry shorthand of a newspaper article about Medicine Hat’s memorial park, I was later rewarded with a powerful, vivid, private letter. It bore the barely legible hand of a woman whose name I keep private, as she had kept her own grief private for a lifetime. She told me how her narrowing memory still rang with the sound of her lover’s polished boots booming on the veranda, the groan of the whitewashed gate closing forever on her youthful dreams. When I read that letter again, I hear the gates closing on Walhachin, all 97 of them, and the weeping of women like Miss Flowerdew, walking on those windy headlands above the river far below.
In 1914 Gordon Flowerdew found himself in a war in which industrial technology had made the romance of cavalry obsolete, just as it would the tranquil farm economies of towns like Walhachin. In France, chivalrous young men arrived dreaming of glory and ended living like sewer rats. Those who survived the machine guns killed each other with clubs and axes in a reeking abattoir in which shrapnel shredded men, high explosives buried their dismembered corpses, then churned up their putrefying remains again and again. The howitzer, the tank, the truck and the aircraft were the emerging weapons of mobility. Time and again the cavalry would be brought to the front, then sent back to the rear as useless. It was increasingly clear that the idea of cavalry had proved a gigantic drain on the war effort, tying up highly trained soldiers while its commanders fought a nasty political war to defy the Army Council’s attempts to disband mounted units.
From the margins, Gordon Flowerdew fretted and fussed with his fellow officers at being left out of any chance for honour in a war fought by scuttling infantry in gas masks, lumbering tanks, distant artillery and high-flying aircraft. Many transferred out of Horse to the Royal Flying Corps or to the new tank units.
Flowerdew was sent to the headquarters staff of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. He was later rewarded with the command of a squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, one of the five cavalry brigades attached to Sir Henry Gough’s Fifth Army. It was the Walhachin rider’s luck to be on leave in England when General Gough ordered the cavalry regiments to dismount and form reserve infantry behind the front lines.
In The Great War, many of the living came to envy the dead, certainly those who lingered on in mutilated bodies and maimed minds – condemned to frighten children, objects of grateful pity at first but soon reduced to irritating curiosities. Of the 43,202 British Columbians who served overseas, almost 20,000 would become casualties. From 1919 to 1933, the number of disability pensions in Canada would swell by 75 per cent.
Unlike those who became names carved into gleaming white gravestones, the living victims are listed only in the mouldering records of the national archives. One can still pay the small tribute of a walk down from the Parliament Buildings to the archives, take the trouble to disinter the call numbers of obscure files, wait the two days it takes to retrieve the records and immerse oneself in the endless 1916 lists of Canadian casualties in British hospitals.
A century later, the chronology of suffering still shocks. At first the hospitals themselves filled up, then public buildings were commandeered, then schools, then the stately homes of the English aristocracy. The files document the confused logistics of special hospitals for the legions of the blind, for the gassed, for the burned, the legless, the armless, the faceless. Oh, yes, the bloodless memoranda reveal even the personal trauma of military bureaucrats grappling with the moral dilemma of accommodating men whose facial disfigurements were so grotesque as to prohibit their release into public life.
What was the future, in an era before reconstructive surgery, of a man whose lower jaw had been torn completely away? And what was the nature of a culture that preferred he should die rather than linger to offend our eye?
When I opened the first box of water-stained cables and smeared carbon copies, I reeled from the stench of death that rose out of the stiff cardboard boxes. It was, I know, only an active imagination associating the musty door of slowly decomposing paper with the smell of trench warfare. Yet I felt as though I had opened a grave from which the ghostly scent of the Great War had emerged to hover above the names of its forgotten victims. It seemed an appropriate dopplegänger, certainly truer in its way than the illuminated script and gleaming parchment of the official Roll of Honour which graces the Peace Tower in Ottawa.
Each day that stainless page is turned by an immaculate white-gloved hand to present the public with the names of those who had the good taste to be slain.
It is history sanitized. The names of those who managed only to suffer and survive, to endure the embarrassments of missing jaws and faces, the shell-shock cases, they remain buried in the banker’s boxes at the Renfrew storage facility. Or in the yellowing medical studies that still surface in used book stores, catalogues of the infinite varieties of battle neuroses: men condemned to cower in a protective crouch for the rest of their lives; a man who could only go to sleep in a hole in the ground.
Battalions raised in Western Canada commonly provided the cannon fodder for the First World War. They were crammed into the front lines at a rate of 1,000 men for every 800 yards of trench and their lives were spent at the rate of ten men for every yard of ground gained. A battalion of a thousand men could be used up in two battles, noted historian Alan Morley. In 1917, the 46th Battalion lost 70 per cent of its men in a single afternoon. A few days later the 49th Battalion lost 75 per cent.
“There were streets in Vancouver where every house had a man overseas and in which every block mourned two or three dead before the armistice came,” wrote Morley. “For sheer, grinding, continuous, merciless slaughter, the Hitler war never approached it. Death or disablement were not matters of ‘if’ but of ‘when’.”
If the war changed B.C. economically, it also changed the province psychologically. About 14 per cent of the able-bodied men in the province in 1914 were dead or wounded by 1918.
“I hate this murderous business,” wrote Talbot Papineau in one letter from the front. “I have bound up a man without a face. I have tied a man’s foot to his knee while he told me to save his leg and knew nothing of the few helpless shreds that remained. He afterwards died. I have stood by the body of a man bent backward over a shattered tree while the blood dripped from his gaping head. I have seen a man apparently uninjured die from the shock of an explosion as his elbow touched mine. Never shall I shoot duck again or draw a speckled trout to gasp in my basket – I would not wish to see the death of a spider.”
Some estimates hold that 60 per cent of the actual casualties to the Canadian army came from west of the Great Lakes. Perhaps this is not surprising considering the west’s enthusiasm for the grand adventure and the correspondingly grisly casualty rates suffered by Canadian regiments in the front line.
By 1917 the butcher’s bill for the British was running at roughly 1,000 casualties a day.
The civilization from which the volunteers’ romantic ideas sprang was snuffed out forever in a cloud of poison gas in the Ypres salient in 1915. Poet and classicist Guy Davenport argues persuasively that the twentieth Century itself was stillborn in the mud of Flanders, that our own age actually limps on through a cacophonous interruption between cultural epochs, a castrated, shell-shocked culture incapable of self-realisation.
The sudden change in the character of newspaper headlines in 1915 lends weight to Davenport’s argument. Ebullience gave way to grim reports of gallant young westerners dying not in glory, but – in the angry words of the Calgary Herald — “mowed down like sheep” during a battle in which British generals marched them into the machine guns in neat, straight lines.
The Canadians had died with great courage and in perfect alignment. Their staff commander, watching with binoculars, wanted to know why the damned colonials lay down and refused to advance.
”Because they’re dead, sir,” a junior officer volunteered. Four days apart at the end of October, 1917, the South Saskatchewan and Edmonton regiments advanced into a sea of liquid mud. The wounded sank into the slime and drowned, lying submerged until the gases of putrefaction squeezed the bloated corpses back to the surface weeks later. Shell holes filled with water and crusted over with a thick, lethal scum which bubbled and seethed, occasionally belching mustard gas.
Dawn and dusk were greeted with the monstrous uproar of barrages and counter-barrages along hundreds of miles of front. At night, the ghastly landscape was illuminated with star shells. The sputtering red ghosts of Very flares signalled sorties and ambushes and always, pulsing like sheet lightning along the lines, were the orange and magnesium-white of exploding shells. For the men of the Edmonton and South Saskatchewan regiments the sojourn at the front was brief. Almost eight out of ten soldiers were killed or wounded in the first day of battle.
In the B.C. regiments, where one in 10 of the total provincial population was serving, almost half were to be killed or wounded by the end of the war. The famous 7th Battalion, the British Columbia Regiment, in which many Vancouver men found themselves serving, had 9,000 pass through its ranks in three years at the front. Of these, 1,400 were slain and 7,000 were wounded.
It is difficult now to grasp the depressing fatalism, the sense of a vast, irresistible doom approaching that would soon grind everything to powder. I got my own first glimpse of it as a boy at mid-century, accompanying my parents on a holiday to the long white beaches arcing down the west coast of Vancouver Island. There, in a water-stained cottage nestled among towering sand dunes, the pictures on the walls were of stiff young men who had flocked to the colours in France and found themselves, in the succinct words of Ezra Pound, “eye-deep in hell.” Throughout the nights, the sea hissed and whispered, making the familiar sounds of apple orchards in the wind. By candle light, I read old magazines from the closet reporting battles at places with strange names – Polygon Wood, the Salient, Passchendaele and Amiens.
Not until decades later, after a long day’s journey through the microfilmed pages of 1915 newspapers, did I fully grasp the sense of doom and futility that fell across a generation of survivors. There is a moment in the public record when even the propaganda and jingoism drain into sepia tones and the spirited names of the regiments are replaced by numbers as the war itself is changed by the statistics of attrition. The 1st Battalion gives way to the 31st, the 50th, the 222nd.
Even the most grandiloquent headlines wilt into hollow nonsense.
On November 21, 1917, the list of casualties took a whole page of the Vancouver World. Two days later, the new list took another full page. Then, abruptly, the long lists of names vanished from the pages of the newspapers — the deaths of local heroes became a state secret, shared only by the generals and the bereaved.
At 5 a.m. on March 21, 1918, with a dense fog masking the flares and a devastating artillery barrage rolling before it, the Kaiser launched Germany’s last great offensive directly at General Gough’s positions. Almost overnight the dismounted cavalry became the front lines. Within days the Fifth Army ceased to exist as a fighting force. In desperate rearguard actions, both mounted and on foot, Lord Strathcona’s Horse covered what was officially known as The Great Retreat but might more accurately have been called The Great Rout. The Germans had overrun 600 guns, taken 30,000 prisoners and were threatening the vital railway junction at Amiens that would open the way to Paris. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig – who thought the machine gun an overrated weapon and believed in the bracing ordeal of massed frontal assaults — ordered his retreating troops “to die where they stood.”
On the morning of March 30, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was ordered to a frantic counterattack. It would seize a position known as the Bois de Moreuil which the Germans were attempting to occupy. The position was crucial because from it the enemy would have a commanding view of Amiens and the railway to Paris. For once the British army would need horses to get them there in time.
C Squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse was ordered to deny the heights to the enemy.
Private Frank Richmond had enlisted with the regiment as a 15-year-old. As they cantered forward, what remained lodged in his memory until he died in Victoria 78 years later was how closely the countryside resembled that open western parkland of British Columbia.
When Flowerdew led Richmond and the rest of his four troops around the wood at a gallop, he encountered two lines of enemy soldiers advancing with machine guns on both flanks and in the centre. He ordered one troop to dismount and make a diversionary flanking movement. The other three troops he led in a frontal cavalry charge against the machine guns. His shining moment had arrived. This was the Victoria Cross Race for which he had trained so diligently while a storekeeper in peaceful Walhachin.
In the face of a withering fire from rifles, machine guns, trench mortars and howitzers, Flowerdew led Lord Strathcona’s Horse to the attack at the full gallop with glittering sabres raised and courage that observers compared to the Charge of the Light Brigade. He had lost 70 per cent of his men when Richmond and the few survivors reached the German lines, passed through, slashing the gunners with swords, then wheeling to attack again. Although seriously wounded in both thighs, Flowerdew then ordered the remains of his squadron to dismount. They attacked again on foot, fighting hand to hand. The Germans fell back. The next day they retook the position. Then they lost it again. Amiens and the way to Paris were denied.
Did the gallant action of the Walhachin rider change the outcome of a war that would reshape the world? The old men who told me about it certainly believed that he and his little town had been placed at the fulcrum of destiny.
Gordon Flowerdew had led the last real charge of cavalry in the history of warfare and in that sense his accomplishment marked the dying of one world and the birth of another. The horse had given way to the internal combustion engine. Across Canada, the equilibrium shifted from rural agriculture to the assembly line. Already the great migration from country villages to industrial cities had begun. By century’s end, 80 per cent of Canadians would live in a few dozen urban sprawls and the empty countryside would be filled with place names that were once thriving communities.
Somehow all this dying and grief seeped into the marrow of the west, burrowed into our collective literary imagination. Today, the First World War has receded from living memory into documents. the process of its transformation into myth intensifies my own need to understand the enormity of this hinge in Canadian history. Somewhere, somehow, in the endless churning under of Kamloops cowboys and Walhachin gentry, Canada claimed its nationhood. It was there that the newly sovereign nation abandoned its agrarian roots and finally entered the industrial revolution. Women obtained the vote. Returning soldiers, themselves profoundly changed by war, found a country transformed almost beyond recognition.
“The place we had left off wasn’t there anymore” wrote Norman James in The Autobiography of a Nobody, published 30 years later. And it was during this process of transformation that many of our still-festering wounds were inflicted — the wounds of class and language, labour and capital, urban and rural, French and English, East and West.
On March 31, 1918, Frank Richmond was shot from his own horse by a strafing warplane. The same day, his gallant young commander from Walhachin died of his wounds, never to know that his last ride had won him the Victoria Cross, the one final trophy he had despaired of ever winning. In that sense, the village of Walhachin died with Gordon Flowerdew and the western riders who fell before the machine guns at Bois de Moreuil.
What then is the truth of Walhachin? The fatal collision between romantic folly and a hard and unforgiving landscape? The fact that soil surveys later found not one hectare suitable for fruit trees? The making of flesh and blood into ghosts of memory? The palimpsest of the First Nations country emerging through the peeling varnish of colonialism? I’ve come to understand that the truth is seldom to be found in the facts. It is almost always discovered in the heart. And beating at the heart of Walhachin’s fleeting history is the emergent myth of Gordon Flowerdew and the relentless scythe of the First World War that swept him and his settlement away.
Many men did not return to Walhachin after the war. Widows left, the few soldiers who did come back – among them Gordon Flowerdew’s brother – seemed changed in strange ways, unable to cope or care. The flume fell into disrepair. Unseasonable rains washed it out. Untended fruit trees, deprived of water, withered and died. Within five years of the armistice, the last settlers were gone. Today, the elegant Walhachin Hotel, the polo matches, the card games in the lounge, the languid romances of that last serene and golden summer, are all ghosts we have allocated to received memory. In the runnels of that ancient orchard, a new desert blooms.
Stephen Hume came to British Columbia in 1948, arriving on the first train to reach Vancouver after the Fraser River floods that spring. He wrote for western Canadian newspapers, the last 27 years as a columnist with The Vancouver Sun. Hume has written nine books, contributed poetry, essays, criticism and reportage to 25 more books and his other periodical credits range from Life Magazine to Canadian Geographic.