Thursday, May 28, 2009

To Open Or Not To Open

I appeared in print in The Maple Leaf, the Canadian Forces newspaper, last week. Here's how.

The story behind this old bottle of champagne was told in The Maple Leaf, 8 April edition:

To open or not to open
by Steve Fortin

It all started April 10, 1917. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was underway, and there were so many bodies strewn about the battlefield that it looked like an open-air cemetery. The enemy was tough, but the allied forces simply had to take the ridge, given that it was a key strategic location. In this battle, heroes were born.

Private John George Pattison, of the 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Alberta Regiment), is one of those heroes. On that day, Pte Pattison earned, for his bravery, the highest military decoration of all, the Victoria Cross. To stop a German machine-gun that was riddling the Allied positions with rounds, Pte Pattison pushed forward, jumping from one shell hole to another until he took shelter just 30 metres from the enemy. With German rounds flying all around him, he managed to throw several grenades toward the machine-gun nest, instantly killing the gunner and some of his comrades. Emboldened by his success and with no munitions at all, he sprinted across the short distance that separated him from the survivors to finish them off with his bayonet, thus ending the barrage of deadly fire that was raining down on his brothers-in-arms.

Pte Pattison was a proud representative of the 50th Battalion, which was part of the King’s Own Calgary Regiment. This unit distinguished itself during the First World War through its numerous exploits and its participation in several important battles, such as the Somme in 1916, Arras in 1917 and 1918, Vimy Ridge in 1917, Ypres in 1917, Passchendaele, Amiens and Scarpe in 1918.

Military history buffs will find an unusual reminder of the Battle of Vimy Ridge at The Military Museums in Calgary, in the space reserved for the King’s Own Calgary Regiment: a bottle of Tournant-Salomon champagne bought by members of the 50th Battalion who survived the nerve-racking battle to celebrate the event.

Al Judson looks after the King’s Own Calgary Regiment display. “The bottle was given to Sergeant Persil A. Blain, a sniper, who kept it safe until sometime in the ‘60s, after which he gave it to the King’s Own Calgary Regiment,” he says, explaining how the item came to be in its possession. “His intention was not that it be drunk immediately, but rather that it be opened exactly 100 years after it was purchased, i.e., on April 10, 2017, in order to commemorate the soldiers of the 50th Battalion who fought on Vimy Ridge.”

The bottle is a concrete link to the sacrifice of thousands of Canadians during the First World War. But what will become of Sgt Blain’s wishes? Should we respect them and drink the nectar of the gods on April 10, 2017? Or, since the precious object is so historically significant, would it be better not to open it at all so that it can be put on display completely sealed, which would mean that Sgt Blain’s wishes would go unfulfilled?

For Mr. Judson, the answer is simple. “I think we have to respect Sgt Blain’s wishes and open the bottle on April 10, 2017, so we can drink to the memory of the former members of the 50th Battalion,” he says. “But that is just my opinion, and many disagree. Museum visitors are also divided on the issue, so it is clear that deciding the fate of the Tournant-Salomon will not be easy.”

What would you do? Would you open the bottle as requested, or keep it sealed so it could be put on display?

When I read this piece, it made a connection in my military history addled mind, and I dashed off this email to the editor. I was delighted to see it in print in the May 20 edition.

Dear Editor

Your piece on the bottle of champagne held at The Military Museums in Calgary (The Maple Leaf, 8 April), and the wish of Sgt. Blain that the bottle be opened 100 years after the battle of Vimy Ridge, was a wonderful piece of Canadian military heritage. It reminded me of a similar story told in Richard Moe’s excellent book The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Regiment (Minnesota Historical Press, 2001), a regimental history of one of the most well-known Union regiments of the US Civil War.

After the war, the voluntary association of the unit’s veterans agreed to purchase an expensive bottle of wine or champagne (I can’t remember which and I don’t have Moe’s book to hand) with which the last living member would toast his deceased comrades. The last reunion of the 1st Minn was in 1932. As both attending veterans were in ill health and knew they would not likely meet at another reunion, they agreed to open it and make the toast together. Unfortunately, the bottle had gone bad over the 60 plus years, and was quite undrinkable.

Because Steve Fortin’s article ended with a question, I’ll contribute my two cents’ worth. Possibly, Tournant-Salomon is a more robust vintage than whatever plonk the 1st Minnesotans were able to secure, and will still prove good, but this example of a similar story from military history suggests that the bottle be left unopened as a tribute to the 50th Battalion.


Padre Mike Peterson

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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