COLUMN: Perry Bergson — June 2, 2014

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Perry Bergson
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Perry Bergson

On July 1 it will be 98 years since one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in world history.

If you know about it, you’re probably in a small percentage of Canadians.

It came during the first day of the Battle of the Somme, as Britain and Germany stared each other down with massive armies in the field. More than a dozen other countries, including Canada, were also in the battle.

It’s estimated that 2.5 million to three million men fought in the four-and-a-half month battle with one million either killed or wounded.

It’s staggering to contemplate now but it only makes sense if you understand warfare in that era.

Trench warfare took the business of fighting into an unknown new direction that wasn’t meant to last. It wasn’t two armies meeting in the field in hand-to-hand combat or even pointing guns at each other. While guns of course changed the nature of warfare, you can argue that was just an incredible improvement on the bow and arrow, which had been around for thousands of years.

But for that time, the men dug down into trenches, weathering repeated artillery assaults until receiving the word to jump out and run at their enemy, who were sitting waiting in their own trenches.

It was bloody, bloody business.

By the Second World War, fighting had become far more mechanized with advances in aircraft, tanks and artillery. The killing was just as efficient, but it was different.

A strange byproduct of the trench warfare age was that it turned men into moles. If you couldn’t kill from above, you would tunnel underneath and kill from below.

And so it was that British engineers were quietly tunneling below the German lines at the Somme, which is 140 km north of Paris and 110 km east of Dieppe, the coastal location of the famous Second World War battle.

The mine was actually started in November of 1915 but wasn’t put into action for nearly eight months, according to www.lochnagarcrater.org.

By coincidence, the Germans were tunnelling back the other way at a different depth.

As the British soldiers neared the German lines, they didn’t dare use a spade because that could be heard from above. In essence, they dug the last bit by hand, passing the dirt back to be taken from the tunnel.

The engineers planted 24 tons of something called ammonal, which was a combination of ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder.

At a depth of about 52 feet, the mine was just in front of the German line and when it went off, it threw up enough dirt to bury the nearby trenches.

It’s unknown how many Germans died in the attack but it’s estimated that in the area destroyed, more than 300 soldiers could have been stationed.

It’s interesting that the British engineers planted similar bombs in other mines but chose not to detonate some of them because they weren’t in a combat area.

A poor innocent cow paid with its life when a lightning strike set one of them off nearly 40 years later in 1955.

The explosion left a massive crater but it was just an early salvo in a long, terrible battle. It’s not a turning point but more of a curiosity.

The land containing the crater was eventually purchased by an Englishman before it could be redeveloped and it’s been maintained ever since as a historical site. The crater is 21 metres deep and 300 feet across.

Stories of man’s brutal ingenuity abound from all of the many conflicts fought over the years. There is a lethal awe to what we’re capable of doing to each other.

It might be a good time to slip by the Historical Museum to see artifacts from the wars and put some real perspective on a terrible 30-year period in human history.

 

• • •

 

We’ve been having a good chuckle here about the radio blog’s awards.

If any of that sounds suspiciously familiar, it might be because the Daily Herald brought The Best of P.A. awards to the city last summer, handing them out in October. You can see the certificates up all over Prince Albert.

Since any kind of ethics seem to rank about No. 17 at the radio blog, just behind oiling door hinges and keeping bats out of the attic, it wasn’t exactly a surprise.

I have some great story ideas for them.

StatsCan says there are 100 fewer AM radio stations in Canada than in 2000. Or how about this? SiriusXM Canada posted record revenue in the first quarter of 2014.

Those sound like good-news stories to me as they happily trumpet the decline of newspapers despite growing readership.

It’s hard not to feel like the older sibling who just wishes their bratty little brother would go bug somebody else for a while.

Our favourite part of the usual radio blog nonsense is the fact that they have a best reporter category in their awards. Naturally I’m a little biased but let’s just say I’m happy with who’s here and with who’s there.

They dropped off a certificate saying that the Daily Herald’s senior reporter Tyler Clarke was one of the nominees for best reporter in the city.

That’s nice, right?

It’s too bad they didn’t spell his name correctly. It sort of tells you everything you need to know about radio blogs and journalism.

Smart people know the truth.

 

• • •

 

This city -- and especially the Prince Albert Raiders -- loses one of its good guys on Friday.

Evan Poitras, the media wrangler for the Raiders for the last three years, is moving to Whistler to take on a new job there. He has been a rock for those of us who need to speak to Raiders players or staff. While he would sometimes give an exasperated sigh when dealing with the players, it was easy to tell that he enjoyed working with them, whether they showed up on time or not.

It’s never easy to find people who really care about their job and it was always clear that Evan did.

Best of luck in Whistler.

 

Perry Bergson is the Daily Herald’s managing editor. You can reach him at 765-1302 or by email at perry.bergson@paherald.sk.ca

Organizations: Daily Herald, Historical Museum

Geographic location: Canada, Britain, Germany Paris Dieppe Prince Albert Raiders Whistler

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