Thursday, April 25, 2019

HGB Ep. 296 - Battle of Passchendaele

Moment in Oddity - Myrtle Corbin
Suggested by: Jennifer White

Myrtle Corbin was born in Tennessee in 1868. She was born with a very rare condition known as dipygus. Myrtle had a twin that was a part of her, not like a conjoined twin, but as a malformed lower half. You see, Myrtle had four legs. The two middle legs were shorter and the feet on each only had three toes. Myrtle could control them, but she couldn't use them for walking. She had a problem with one of her longer legs as well as she had a clubbed foot. As was the case for so many people like Myrtle who lived during the 1800s, she was an oddity who would find a home in a freak show. Her first stop was with none other than P.T. Barnum and then later she moved on to Ringling Bros. and finally ended up at Coney Island. She was very popular and earned $450 dollars a week. She married Dr. Clinton Bicknell when she was 19 and actually was able to get pregnant and give birth five times. The couple had four daughters and a son and it is believed that three of her children were born from one womb and the other two were from another womb. Yes, Myrtle had two sets of sexual organs and in the book "Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine" by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle it was reported that both vaginas menstruated , so clearly both functioned normally. Myrtle lived to the age of 60 and passed away on May 6, 1928. A human born with four legs, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Howard Hughes Dies

In the month of April, on the 5th, in 1976, Howard Hughes Dies. Howard Hughes was born Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. in Texas in 1905. He was born into some money, but would go on to make himself incredibly rich as a manufacturer, aviator, and motion-picture producer and director. He was not only one of the richest men in America, he was incredibly eccentric. He produced many movies, usually running over budget and including risque material. Two of those movies were the Academy Award-winning Two Arabian Knights in 1927 and Hell’s Angels. During World War II, he started manufacturing military aircraft, but these ran over schedule too and were not completed before the war ended. While testing one of the planes, the Hughes XF-11, Hughes had a near fatal crash that left him in chronic pain for the rest of his life. Another plane he built, the Hercules, came to be known as the Spruce Goose and was flown only once for one mile. It was an eight-engine wooden behemoth that was suppose to carry 750 passengers. Hughes' eccentricities included going into complete seclusion at times, obsessive-compulsive disorder and he was a germophobe. In 1953, he established the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In his latter years, he moved around a lot going from the Bahamas to Nicaragua to Canada to England to Las Vegas and finally to Mexico. While in Mexico he starved himself to emaciation and was heavily addicted to drugs. He set out to seek medical treatment in 1976, but died on the plane ride from Acapulco, Mexico, to Houston, Texas.

Passchendaele (Suggested by: Brian Morse)

They say it was 103 days in hell. Any amount of time, during any war could be deemed hell. But the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium during World War I brought a new definition of hell during war. The battle would be one of the bloodiest of the war, killing half a million men. The weather and mud at the field would contribute to dealing that heavy blow. Battlefields of all kinds seem to be epicenters for the paranormal. The blood becomes a part of the earth and seems to cry out from the afterlife. This area of ground would come to be known as Flanders Fields.

In Flanders Fields by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
 If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
 In Flanders fields.

Poppies. They're weeds. Not really anything special about them. At least there wasn't until war. It was during the Napoleonic War that poppies first became associated with fallen soldiers and memorializing them. But Flanders Fields would bring red poppies into the limelight of remembrance ceremonies and days. You see, dead bodies on a field make it unsuitable for growing many plants because of the high lime content. Poppies would flourish on Flanders Fields and for that reason they are worn on Remembrance Day in Commonwealth member states and on Veterans Day in America. So what happened on Flanders Fields? First, the Battle of Passchendaele was not the first battle fought here. This was actually the third Battle of Ypres. This was considered the Western Front and was a very strategic place because of the proximity of the railway line for supplying the German troops. This would end up being one of the most controversial battles of World War I and is still hotly debated by scholars and historians today.

Belgium is a culturally rich and diverse country. They have three official languages, Dutch, French and German, as proof of that diversity. The name "Belgium" comes from a Roman province in the northern part of Gaul known as Gallia Belgica. This area was inhabited by the Belgae before Rome invaded in 100 BC. The Belgae were a mix of Celtic and Germanic peoples. Merovingian kings would eventually rule over Belgium due to the immigration of Germanic Frankish tribes during the 5th century. Belgium would become mostly independent in the 11th century. The country became very prosperous through its wool industry that would later prove to be an issue when France would go to war with England. France expected their vassals in Belgium to join them against England, but Belgium relied on English wool. Belgian peasants later rose up against the French and defeated them and then spent decades of trading out who would rule over them, going from Burgundian territory to Austrian rule to Spanish rule then back to Austria and then the French again by 1794. After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, the great powers redrew the map of Europe and combined Holland and Belgium. The two countries proved to be too different and Belgium would finally become independent. In 1914, Belgium declared itself neutral, but that would mean little to Germany and that brings us historically to where we need to be for this episode.

As I said, Belgium had declared themselves neutral when World War I started and King Albert was ruling in 1914. The Germans requested that they be given passage through the country, so that they could attack the rear flank of the French. King Albert refused, so the Schlieffen Plan was launched and the German army invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914. The Race to the Sea began in September and the first Battle of Ypres would begin on October 19th and end on November 22nd. The end put a stop to the German advance in an unconventional way. The Belgian army flooded the Yser plain by deliberately opening the locks at Veurne-Ambacht, Nieuwpoort. The second Battle of Ypres would come as a devastating surprise chemical attack by the Germans. On April 22, 1915, the Germans released chlorine gas and the effect was immediate, killing thousands of Allied troops and driving them back. The success of the gas was so surprising to the Germans that they lost their advantage by not giving a full attack. The battle would be over by May 25th after the British basically blew the top off the hill where the German army was stationed. They had burrowed underneath and blew it up with mines.

This strategic spot had not seen its last battle. The Third Battle of Ypres would start on July 31st in 1917 and this would be the Battle of Passchendaele. The Germans had established a submarine base at Bruges, which was around 44 miles from Ypres. Germans had been using U-boats very successfully and the British were on the verge of defeat by them. The Germans called their submarines Unterseeboot or U-boot for short, which we anglicized to U-boat. While many might think that U-boats were mainly battle ships, they actually conducted a more damaging attack by raiding merchant ships and blocking shipping lanes. This cut off supplies. But the U-boats also sunk a large number of battleships starting with four of them in September of 1914.

So the Allied forces needed to do something to destroy this submarine base in Belgium. First they would need to seize the railway line that ran beyond the German line. General Douglas Haig of Britain would direct the attack. Haig took his plan to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. That plan was to attack the Ypres Salient and if successful, the British could push all the way to the ports on the English Channel coast. And since I didn't know and I imagine some of you don't, a salient is a military term for an area where one side has pushed into their opponent's territory and it looks like a bulge. The three sides of the salient are surrounded, so the army within the salient is vulnerable. Usually trench warfare is the form the battle takes. Nobody was crazy about Haig's plan, namely because the British barely outnumbered the Germans. There was a fear that there would be a great loss of life and that fear was going to be realized. The plan was approved.

The offensive began with the detonation of 19 mines under the German lines at Messines Ridge. The explosions were heard all the way in London. Before talking about the battle to come, I need to explain how the land here was set up. Much of this was farm land and there had been an ancient drainage system set up to pull away the water and keep the land from getting soggy. All of the prior offensives had not only wiped out all of the vegetation, but the drainage system was destroyed. There was nothing to keep this area from becoming an apocalyptic quagmire. If there was any rain, especially a lot, these soldiers were going to be in big trouble. And we all know how it rains in this area. General Haig chose General Hubert Gough to lead the British offensive. Gough was unfamiliar with the Ypres Salient and that is probably why Haig chose him. He figured the man would do his bidding with aggression and without question. It was a fatal error.

So the British began their attack at 3:50 am on July 31, 1917. The British intially gained ground, but eventually were pushed back. Dozens of tanks rushed to help the British, along with a French contingent. For the next month, fighting went back and forth, as the ground became more sodden. Haig knew they were getting nowhwere, so he asked the Canadians to attack the French city of Lens occupied by the Germans to try to draw some of the Germans away. The Canadians opted for a different strategy and were really successful. Haig continued to falter and by September, politicians in London were calling for him to pull out of the Battle of Passchendaele. He refused and pressed on. The Australians and Kiwis came to reinforce the British, but the results were the same as they had been all along. The Allies would gain a little ground and then get pushed all the way back again. The Germans also attacked with chemicals once again, but this time they used mustard gas rather than chlorine gas. The mustard gas was nicknamed ‘Yperite’ after the city of Ypres. The gas blistered the skin, eyes and lungs. The death was painful. By October, Haig was turning to the Canadians again, but this time he wanted them to come to Passchendaele. Their leader, General Currie, didn't want to come, but he had no choice so he made sure to reinforce gun emplacements and rebuilt roads. He was worried that there would be at least 16,000 Canadian casualties.

The Canadians arrived and assaulted the Passchendaele ridge, but it made no difference. October had brought pure hell. The rain fell continuously. Shells rained down too with only a few being cushioned in the mud. That mud that made explosions less damaging also gummed up rifle barrels, slowed down stretcher-bearers and made it hard to detect the front line. Soldiers drowned in puddles, some being swallowed up as they slept. Private Richard Mercer described the horror of the mud in this way, "Passchendaele was just a terrible, terrible place. We used to walk along these wooden duckboards – something like ladders laid on the ground. The Germans would concentrate on these things. If a man was hit and wounded and fell off he could easily drown in the mud and never be seen again. You just did not want to go off the duckboards."

November would change things and the Canadians were successful as they launched their third large-scale attack on the ridge. They captured it and took back the ruins of Passchendaele village. One final assault captured the remaining high ground on November 10th and the battle was over. In the end, the losses were huge. The Allied forces had 275,000 casualties and the German had 220,000. Currie's prediction of 16,000 Canadian casualties was almost spot on with 15,600. Canadians were awarded nine Victoria Crosses, the British Empire’s highest award for military valour.

Churchill would describe the Battle of Passchendaele as a "watchword for the wasteful horror of the Great War." Another way to describe the battle would be a total waste. Within a few months, all the ground won would be regained by the Germans during the Spring Offensive of 1918. Two more battles would take place on the battlefields here. The Germans would finally be pushed out. Many of the remnants from those battles still exist today and there are dozens of cemeteries in the Ypres Salient area for the dead from these World War I battles. There are memorials to the missing and unidentifiable as well. The Menin Gate at Ypres features a memorial with the names of 54,000 men who died in the area during World War I. Although the medieval town of Ypres was never occupied by the Germans during the Great War, it was basically razed by the battles. During the 1920s and 1930s, it was reconstructed, brick by brick. Hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians died in Flanders. Conditions were inhumane. There can be no doubt that something sorrowful, fearful, angry and negative has been left behind. What remains in the paranormal ether from the Battle of Passchendaele?

The village of Passchendaele experiences multiple hauntings. The disembodied sounds of battle are heard throughout the village and this is accompanied by the screams of men. Machine gun fire is heard in the distance.

BBC News Magazine journalist Chris Haslam, wrote a piece entitled “Does the WW1 tourist trade exploit the memory of the fallen?” In the article he writes, “My disquiet is caused by something less solid – a brooding sense of malevolence oozing from the earth, as though the violence has a half-life. I’m no believer in spooks but the old lady I meet walking her dachshund most certainly is. Her name is Beatrijs and her dog is called Robert. As we amble down the muddy track, she tells me about mysterious lights seen flickering in no man’s land, of half-heard screams in the night and of corners of fields where generations of Robert’s ancestors have refused to go.”

Another ghost story goes back to World War I itself. The German army stationed at Ypres had a weird experience. In 1918, a British captain named Hayward reported watching the Germans throw granite and shot at an empty piece of land. The soldiers clearly seemed to be fighting against something, but he couldn't see what it could be. The Germans finally retreated and the British captured them. Captain Hayward asked the German colonel heading the contingent about what he had witnessed. The German officer claimed that there had been a white cavalry in the field. What did he mean by a white cavalry? The Germans swore they saw white riders on white horses and that they trotted right through bullets and got closer and closer until the Germans had to retreat. Did they see a ghostly cavalry?

John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields for his friend Alexis Helmer who had been killed in the war. McCrae took care of wounded soldiers at a bunker in Ypres. He eventually died in 1918 of pneumonia. The site is now part of a memorial near the Ypres Canal. There are two ghosts reportedly here. People claim to have seen the full-bodied apparitions of John McCrae and his friend Alexis Helmer. The echoes of disembodied gunshots are also heard.

On a side note, there was a 2008 movie named Passchendaele that was shot in Calgary, Alberta, Fort Macleod, Alberta, and in Belgium that featured the experiences of a Canadian soldier at the Battle of Passchendaele. One of the places where part of the movie was filmed was in the Prince House in Heritage Park Calgary. The house is said to be haunted. A grandfather clock in the downstairs parlor started to chime during the movie. It chimed and chimed and the crew couldn't figure out how to stop it. So they called security to come help. The security forces were perplexed. They said that there was no way to stop the chiming because the clock had no innards. There was nothing inside to make it chime. Several tour guides at the house have heard it chiming as well. Security claims to see lights coming from the third floor. One guard called the manager to report it and the two men were stunned because there is no electricity on the third floor. The guides claim that whatever ghost is at the house, it is friendly.

Much blood was spilt on the fields of Flanders. The Battle of Passchendaele was the most devastating. Do the spirits from that time still roam that sacred ground? Is the Passchendaele Battlefield haunted? That is for you to decide!

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