Memories and Memorial Day

As I write this, it is the last Monday of May. For my friends in the UK, It is the Spring Bank Holiday; here in the US, it is Memorial Day.

I have previously written a little about the history of Memorial Day, and compared it to November 11, Veterans Day in the US and Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth.

Earlier today, I paid my respects at the local National Cemetery. While there, I was reminded of May 2003, when my wife and I visited Normandy and Holland.

For my British friends, hopping across the English Channel to the French coast is an easy trip. From where I live in the Western US, it was a significant journey; one could almost call it a pilgrimage.

What we had originally planned as a sightseeing vacation in England become something more when we added a side journey to Holland and France; however, most of the itinerary had already been built out, and our time on the continent was limited. There was so much to see, and not enough time to do it. But I did not know if I would ever have the opportunity to go there again, and it was important to me to see where some of the most significant events of 1944 took place.

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Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy.  All photos in this article by the author’s spouse.

We crossed the English Channel by car ferry and landed at Sword Beach at dawn, aware of the peaceful nature of the journey. There at the ferry terminal in Ouistreham was a memorial dedicated to the Commandos and Combined Operations. Our first objective was to drive to Benouville to see Pegasus Bridge. From there, it was a short drive to Ranville and the War Cemetery where many of the graves were for soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division. We then went to the Merville Battery, then took the coast road through Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches. There were monuments and memorials everywhere we looked. Our day ended at St. Laurent-sur-Mer and the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

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Memorial to the 6th Airborne Division, built in September 1944 by Airborne Engineers

The next day was spent exploring Medieval history: the Bayeux Tapestry, the nearby cathedral, the massive castle in Caen, and the grave of William the Conqueror. Another day was dedicated to driving from Normandy to Arnhem, to see where 1st Airborne had fought; once we reached the Netherlands, we tried to follow the same route taken by XXX Corps during Market-Garden. We only had one full day and part of another for Arnhem and the surrounding area, and much of it was lost dealing with car trouble. But we made it to John Frost Bridge, the Hartenstein, and most importantly, the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.

Something that struck me, and what I felt compelled to write about today, was that the Americans and British took very different approaches to burying their fallen. The British believed in burying theirs where they fell. The Americans sent the remains of most their war dead back home; those who stayed in theater were collected in large, centralized cemeteries. There are dozens of British war cemeteries of different sizes across Europe, but all close to the battlefields. Just in Normandy, there are fourteen British and two Canadian cemeteries. There are just over 2,000 men buried at Ranville; in Holland, there are just over 1,700 at Oosterbeek. By contrast, there are only two American cemeteries in Normandy; the one at Omaha Beach has over 9,300 graves.

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The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, with the English Channel in the background

The headstones are different, as well. Each British marker is engraved with the cap badge of the soldier’s regiment or corps. Below the name and rank is often a short text chosen by the family; sometimes it is a verse from the Bible or a favorite poem, sometimes it is just a short statement about the man. Visiting the graves of the Airborne soldiers at Ranville and Oosterbeek, I felt like I learned something about each man buried there; it was a rather intimate feeling, making each loss that much more sad and personal.

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The American Normandy Cemetery and Memorial

The American cemetery was just as touching, but in a different way. There are over 9,000 white crosses, interspersed with the occasional marker topped by a Star of David. My wife was particularly touched by the Jewish graves, knowing what those men had died fighting against. The cemetery is enormous; standing at one end, we could not see the other. There was a vast ocean of white marble, and it was that enormity that overwhelmed us with grief. We could also look down the bluffs to see where so many had been killed coming off their landing craft and struggling up the steep terrain.

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Sgt. A. Ashworth of the Parachute Regiment, with a personalized inscription from his family.  Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery

After returning home, I was tempted to give up reenacting. As much as I have always enjoyed living history, visiting the graves of those who died liberating Europe was a sobering and life-changing experience. Shortly after, however, I attended a public event when a an elderly Englishwoman thanked me for wearing my battledress. She noted the Pegasus flash on my arm and told me that she had not seen one since her brother had served as a Glider Pilot. That experience warmed my heart and reminded me of the real reason I do what I do.

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Two unidentified soldiers of the Glider Pilot Regiment, Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery

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“You Will Do Your Work on Water”: Hydration in the Field

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.

– Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din

The human body needs to be kept hydrated; a person can function longer without food than without water.  Therefore, no military equipment would be complete without giving the soldier a method of carrying water.

The standard British water bottles used in both World Wars were very similar; the Mark VI version issued with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment was replaced by the Mark VII, issued with the 1937 pattern equipment.  Both were made of enameled steel with a wool cover, with a stopper made of cork which was attached to the bottle with a short length of cord.  Each version held two Imperial pints of water, or 40 ounces.

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The British Mark VII water bottle in its webbing carrier, attached to the 1937 pattern equipment.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

When the 1937 pattern equipment was adopted, the original intent was that the water bottle would be carried in the haversack, or “small pack” as it was commonly called.  However, a webbing carrier was also developed; it could attach to the ends of the braces and hang below the waistbelt.  Officially, use of the webbing carrier was not the preferred method.  In actual practice, however, more equipment was carried in the small pack than the designers had intended, and the troops were forced to use the carrier simply to make room.  Because of the inherent difficulties in resupplying Airborne troops, they typically carried two water bottles:  one suspended on the carrier and a second inside the small pack.

The original water bottle carrier was made of webbing straps.  A later version consisted of a webbing sleeve; while this version used more material, it was easier to manufacture and saved labor costs.  The earlier type was often called the “skeleton” carrier, and the later type the “envelope” carrier.  Some modern militaria vendors have tried to assert that the envelope version was only issued to Airborne troops, implying somehow that it was more rare or specialized, and therefore more desirable to collectors; that is completely untrue and easily disproven.

Three Carriers

Three water bottles with carriers.  The top right is the original version, sometimes called the “skeleton” carrier.  The other two are examples of the later “envelope” version.  Note the brass buckles for attaching to the brace-ends of the webbing equipment.

The envelope carrier has a web strap at the bottom to support the weight of the water bottle, but is open at the top.  The skeleton carrier has a retaining strap that is closed with a large snap or press-stud; some Indian-made versions closed with a buckle.  The intent was obviously that the water bottle would simply be lifted out, with the carrier remaining attached to the rest of the webbing.  However, I have found at living history events that this is easier said than done.  Over the years, I have used several different carriers, of both types, and all of them have been very tight.  Getting to the water bottle has often required significant effort, or assistance from a friend.  Between events, some of my friends have experimented with soaking the carrier in hot water and stretching; the most successful method involves placing wooden shims between the bottle and the wet carrier, then allowing it to dry.  I assumed that the carriers had all somehow shrunk while sitting in a warehouse for the last several decades; surely they could not have been so difficult to work with during wartime.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of my favorite authors is George MacDonald Fraser.  His book, Quartered Safe Out Here, is an extraordinary memoir of his service in Burma, fighting the Japanese as part of Slim’s 14th Army.  Fraser’s title was inspired by Kipling; I thought I would follow suit with this article.  There is a remarkable segment in Fraser’s book dealing with the water bottle and its carrier.  It is a somewhat lengthy and colorful narrative, full of slang and foul language; I will summarize rather than reprint it here.  A significant battle was going on, but Fraser’s section was on the flank and had not encountered the enemy.  It was a hot day, and one of the other soldiers found himself very thirsty and naturally wanted a drink.  He was the largest member of the section, and had a nickname that reflected his size.  He asked one of his section-mates to borrow his water bottle, as he could not easily get to his own.  His mate refused, but countered that he would help the first man with his own bottle.  What is significant in this exchange is the fact that the second soldier did not offer to pull the first man’s bottle out of its carrier; instead, he offered to unbuckle his comrade’s carrier from the rest of the webbing.  This exchange was astonishing when I first read it; my assumption that the carrier must have been easier to use in wartime was shattered.  The narrative continues with the troops finding a local well, using their slouch hats attached to rifle slings to bring up water, and adding purification tablets; all that effort was still apparently easier than accessing the water bottle.  It was at that point that the section took fire from the enemy, and Fraser ended up down the well.

This story of unbuckling the water bottle carrier from the brace-ends must not have been an isolated incident, and I have been trying to find other examples.  While I have not found any other narratives, I did find a rather remarkable photograph showing this method.  The picture shows troops from 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden, and was taken near Divisional Headquarters in Oosterbeek.  The photo shows two Airborne soldiers in a slit trench; one is in the act of drinking water, with the water bottle very clearly still in the skeleton carrier.

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Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  The man on the left drinking from his water bottle has clearly detached the webbing carrier from the rest of his equipment.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

In another part of his memoir, Fraser describes being issued with a canvas water bag for certain patrols.  This water bag was a clever item; it had to be soaked in water prior to use, which would cause the fabric’s fibers to swell and, somewhat counter-intuitively, make the bag water-tight.  This item was called a “chaugle”, derived from the Urdu, but the troops often called it a “chaggle”.  I have only seen references to its use in the Far East, despite its obvious superiority to the enameled water bottle.

Providing clean water to the troops was a logistics challenge even in the best of conditions.  In the deserts of North Africa, fresh water had to be trucked out to the troops on a constant basis; it had to be chlorinated to kill any bacteria and prevent algae from forming during transport.  Even in Northern Europe, where troops could fill their water bottles from the many rivers and streams, it had to be assumed the water was contaminated.  In Fraser’s narrative, he referenced the use of water purification tablets.  These were universally issued regardless of theater, for use when the men had to obtain their own water.  The “sterilizing outfit” was issued as a small tin; inside were two glass bottles.  One bottle contained the actual purification tablets; however, these tablets gave the water an unpleasant flavor that was supposed to be neutralized by the tablets in the second bottle.  I have one of the tins in my collection, but not the glass bottles.  One of each of the tablets was to be dissolved in the water to be treated; shaking the water bottle was supposed to speed up the mixing of the contents.  In Fraser’s story, the soldiers argued whether chewing the pills prior to drinking the well-water would do any good.

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The sterilizing outfit:  the two glass bottles go inside the tin.  The “thio” tablets were supposed to counteract the unpleasant taste caused by the sterilizing tablets.  From the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

I feel rather relieved that my personal struggles using the water bottle at living history events seems to be an accurate reflection on historical precedent.  I have occasionally seen fellow reenactors hide modern plastic water bottles inside their basic pouches, but I consider that cheating and bad form.

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Instructions printed inside the lid of the sterilizing outfit tin.  Author’s collection; I only have the tin without the contents.

A note on terminology:  to the British, the item that held water was called a “water bottle”, while the American term for such an item was “canteen”.  In British usage, a canteen was a shop, restaurant, and social club specifically for service members.  As an American who reenacts as British, I believe it is important to use the correct terminology.