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Vimy Ridge - Part Two

On two occasions during the preparations for battle Draycot was called upon to draw plans of the trenches. He was, as mentioned earlier, challenged by a commanding officer, who claimed that his plans were inaccurate. In the interests of truth, Draycot refused to make any changes, even when threatened with punishment. On both occasions, he was proved correct. In the earlier sections of the memoir there are numerous comments about the overbearing attitude or incompetence of commanding officers, but Draycot never dared to defy them. It was not until the Battle of Vimy Ridge that he was sufficiently secure in his role of Intelligence Officer to challenge his superiors in the interest of accuracy.

Draycot knew that lives were at stake: inaccurate plans cause unnecessary death. The narrating ‘I’ notes that there was reluctance among other intelligence officers towards comparing maps and plans. Only on one occasion did a fellow intelligence officer check his map against Draycot’s: ‘Lieut Henry of the 49th an intelligence officer believes in getting information himself, so comes to my dugout where his map is corrected to date. Wish the others would do likewise’.xxxiii Draycot consistently worked to produce the best sketches and plans possible; the mental stimulation helped him to counteract the loneliness of his position. He was interested in the latest ideas and endeavoured to become part of the planning as well as drawing operations: ‘[T]he General, quite naturally, brings back the latest ideas for trench warfare. Plotting and planning them keeps me active’.xxxiv Great emphasis was placed on quality, or ‘fine work’;xxxv indeed, Draycot’s plans were of such high quality that most were made into blueprints like the one displayed earlier, in the section on Ypres.

The descriptions of Vimy Ridge reveal particularly clearly Draycot’s sense of responsibility for his fellow man. Earlier in his memoir, it is noted that he took great risks in order to gain information. In the Vimy section the same phenomenon appears, but now there is an important addition: he notes that he was ‘worried’, he could not rest until ‘the wanted information’ was gathered, even when it necessitated entering No Man’s Land in broad daylight. On this particular occasion Draycot was nearly killed.xxxvi
There was no necessity to repeat such a performance, nor take such a silly risk – to make perfection. But, of course, that conscientious trend of thought impelled me. It must be just so! That it was and that THAT worried me – until rectified.xxxvii
The inclusion of ‘of course’ suggests that perfection is a natural and inevitable aspect of sketching as the narrator sees it. The capital letters emphasise the point. The excellence of Draycot’s work was indeed recognised by General Macdonnel, as evidenced in the statement: ‘Your draughting, sketching, and general Intelligence work has placed my Brigade far above all others. No one can even touch us in that special work’.xxxix The compliment was associated with disappointment, however, as the General informed Draycot that he could not promote him while he was still formally a member of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Regiment. Not surprisingly, the proffering of a £5 note did little to compensate in Draycot’s eyes.

Sunday 25 March 1917 proved to be an important day for Draycot. The sudden appearance of a minister of the cloth prompted him to reflect on the human condition, the minister’s Maltese Cross causing him to recall the Crusades. The Cross also brought back to him his service during the Boer War (the Maltese Cross was worn on Boer War caps). Draycot led the minister to safety. As they clambered through the trenches, the two discussed the atrocities of war. The narrator comments: ‘His Reverence represented Peace: Myself, Art and War’.xl

It is significant that ‘art’ is placed first and ‘war’ second. The cruelty of war is deplored by soldier and minister alike. This section of the memoir emphasises the gulf between God and Hell; the front is the region of the Devil (‘surely Hell’s flames were not meant for such brave men’).xli Art is one way to reduce suffering and bring the war to an end: ‘accurate, detailed, plans and miniature maps made up from my surveys’,xlii and because they were reproduced on hectographs they were the ‘most outstanding common-sense feature of the whole war ... There was some encouragement to get the damn thing over ... and done with’.xliii

Art raises man above the animal kingdom. On the day of the taking of Vimy Ridge, Monday 9 April, the memoir records:
That madness which we thoughtlessly attribute to the ‘lower’ animal, the dog, bull, and the non-domestic would be demonstrated by another form of ‘lower animal’ at dawn and with the same degree of ferocity. That, the trenchman, on both sides, temporarily transformed into that very ‘animal kingdom’ the government over which God is supposed to have conferred upon him is, to the thinker, a hideous conception. Too true is the phrase ‘The Dogs of War’ . . . not of their own choosing, but that of the Master Animals who dominate and concoct vile excuses for human sacrifice.xliv
Through his art Draycot could raise himself above the misery and foulness of war. While he could not escape its injustice or atrocities – he had to operate in the demonic world of the trenches, kill or be killed – his skill as a topographer and artist enabled him to keep one foot in the civilised world, where fineness and perfection were still appreciated. Sketch of Vimy Ridge - click image to enlarge The panorama sketch of Vimy Ridge (shown again to the right) belongs to this world. The landscape is meticulously reproduced, but it is empty; the text underneath explains what is missing: obliterated buildings and, above all, the skeletons of the Frenchmen who had fallen in an earlier battle.

To these skeletons would be added those who lost their lives to take Vimy Ridge, most of whom were Canadians. Twenty-five days later, Draycot was gassed. It was concern for his fellow soldiers that caused the accident: in trying to warn them of a gas attack, he was not quick enough to put on his own mask. So ended his four years at the front. He was shipped back to England and hospitalised until the end of the war.

Draycot returned to the land of his birth as a hero. As the memoir demonstrates, however, his new-found status was not to last, hence the comment: ‘[O]f all those people whom it was a pleasure to see and be in their company none correspond today ... over twenty years ago! The public soon forget. Hero-worship, like snow, soon melts’.xlv All that remains of the hero is his memoir, sketches, diaries and photographs.

xxxiii Draycot, Walter MacKay. ‘Pawn No. 883. Being the Adventures of a Pawn of War in the Affair of 1914-18. Recollections of My Activities during the First World War, 1914-1918.’ Unpublished memoir. North Vancouver Museum & Archives' (1938), 162.
xxxiv Ibid., 170.
xxxv Ibid., 171.
xxxvi Ibid., 174.
xxxvii Ibid., 175.
xxxviii Ibid., 176.
xix Ibid., 188.
xl Ibid., 195.
xli Ibid., 182.
xlii Ibid., 182.
xliii Ibid., 196.
xliv Ibid., 221.

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