Welcome back. I hope you’re enjoying the ride, I know that I certainly am.
Today we’re following Lt-Col. Sidney Hope Dobell of Montreal otherwise known as “Choppy”. He was my great-grandfather, making him my closest relative in this series. He has the distinction of serving in both WWI (for the British) and WWII (for the Canadians). While others in this series may seem to be from a different time, Sidney is the most real in the present day for a number of reasons. He appears in my parents’ wedding photo, radiant if frail at 89. He only died in 1992, two years before I was born. That lends itself to a humorous story. My grandfather was his first-born son and my father an only child, so Sidney, in keeping with his British ideals, hoped to see another boy to carry on the family name before he died. Consequently, shortly after meeting my mother, he popped a very direct question, “when are you coming off the pill?” I’ll admit it is a bit of an embarrassing story (Mom wasn’t ecstatic about me including it), but it portrays his traditional / modern dichotomy quite effectively.
Sidney Hope Dobell was born in Quebec City on June 7, 1900 to William Molson Dobell and Constance Mary Sewell. Sidney’s older brother was Colin Macpherson Dobell, who will also be featured in this series. Four years his senior, Colin may have paved the way for Sidney’s early life as an older brother whose expectations, and career path you inherited. My grandfather has told me that Sidney always looked up to Colin.
Colin attended the Charterhouse School in England, as did Sidney. Colin continued to the Royal Military College in Kingston, and Sidney followed, graduating in 1918. The final 100 days of the War had begun by that summer, but officers were still in high demand, as no one knew the War would finish by November. The London Gazette recorded that “Royal Regiment of Artillery- R.F.A.- Sidney Hope Dobell, from the R. Mil. Coll, Kinston, Canada [was] to be 2nd Lt. 7th June 1918.” The implications of this simple statement only became clear to me through my research. Colin, his older brother and role model, had been killed on May 30 near the town of Marfaux. Sidney would have gone overseas just a few days after learning of his death. One can only guess at the complex mixed feelings this might engender – sadness and fear, anger and determination – particularly at such a young age. Imagine too how his parents must have felt to lose one son and see the next shipped out a few days later. Visions of Saving Private Ryan come to mind, except Sidney wasn’t even in Europe yet.
I have not been able to find much in the way of firsthand accounts of Sidney’s time in Europe. I know he was part of the Royal Field Artillery (British Expeditionary Force), but so were thousands of other men, and no source can tell me his Battery, let alone his Brigade. His medical card is similarly cryptic, only noting that he was a Lieutenant in the R.F.A. and (most likely) discharged on Wednesday, November 5, 1919. So I am forced to fashion a picture of his war experiences out of what I know.
The final 100 Days of War. At home, we call them Canada’s 100 Days, but Sidney was not with the Canadian Forces. So it’ll be the final 100 days beginning with the Allied attack on Amiens on August 8, 1918. Sidney’s experience as a 2nd Lieutenant, commanding anywhere between 20-50 men, would have been a different than many others because in the summer of 1918, the Great War suddenly became a war of movement.
In the spring of 1918, the Germans mounted an offensive to try and win the War before the Americans became a factor. It was in this offensive that Colin was killed at Marfaux, but the Germans failed to take Paris and found themselves overextended. Germany had been isolated by the Allied naval blockade and their soldiers had little to eat and were ill equipped for the offensive. Stories tell of Germans taking allied trenches then halting their advance against commanders’ orders to eat the Allied rations that they found. When the offensive ultimately halted, the German army had lost much of its will to fight. The allies took advantage of this opportunity and achieved significant breakthroughs all along the Western Front. The goal was to reach the Hindenburg Line, the German’s major line of defense. Capturing this line would start a less unobstructed advance to Germany across the Rhine.
A 2nd Lieutenant’s job was no longer trying to urge his men over the trenches where he knew they’d meet death. As 2nd Lieutenant was the lowest ranking officer, much of the responsibility for advancing fell to them. A platoon could now actually advance and find themselves behind previously impregnable enemy lines, cut-off from supplies and communication. Junior officers were looked to for decisions on whether to advance, dig-in, or retreat when more senior officers were absent. This represented a new strategy of mobile attack, evolved in part by the Canadians at Vimy, and less familiar in the more traditionally minded British forces where Sidney fought. As an artilleryman, charged with protecting advancing forces, a Lieutenant’s platoon would have had to be very agile. Configuring your guns to fire on and suppress enemies shooting at your forces when the whereabouts of both parties are known is difficult enough. But when your and the enemy’s forces are constantly moving and counterattacking in a manner not seen since 1914 the task seems almost impossible. This is the war into which Sidney would have been thrust.
But there is another thing about Sidney that I need to point out. He was born June 7, 1900 and commissioned June 7, 1918. On the day he turned 18, he became responsible for the lives of scores of other, older men. Able to command, unable to drink, at least back home. Hardly able to vote, expected to kill. I am older than he was when he could have been required to kill a German. It was justified at the time because it was the War to end all Wars… but it didn’t. More than anything else, this fact boggles me. I am well aware this happens today to soldiers all over the world, many younger than me. This doesn’t change how unsettling it is.
Now I must apologize for misleading you. Sidney was sent over to England, raring to go according to my grandfather, but he never got to France before the Armistice. Thank goodness for that, as his safe passage was integral to me coming into the world. I felt it necessary to describe the situation of a young Lieutenant as if it had been Sidney. Although it was not his experience, it was a real experience for thousands of young men like him, and it certainly would have been his if the War continued another six months. The fact he didn’t get to fight stayed with him for decades. He went to McGill and became a Chartered Accountant in Montreal in the post-war years. My grandfather remembers being in a car with his brother and their father in 1939 when the start of WWII was announced. Canada was not officially at War as we were no longer a dominion, but our eventual participation was presumed. Sidney told my grandfather in the car that he’d decided to enlist in order to get the chance he missed in WWI, and would raise his own regiment to ensure he could play an active role even at the age of 40. This time he joined the Canadian Forces, achieved the rank of Lt-Colonel, receiving the Distinguished Service Order in 1945. I’m not going to go deeper into his experiences in the Second World War for lack of time and space, but I can imagine they are fascinating and are worth exploring another rainy day.
That’s all for this week. I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting Sidney as much as I enjoyed getting to know him. Any more questions about his life are welcomed and encouraged.
Until next time, All the Best!
Reid Dobell is a first year International Relations student at the University of Toronto, Trinity College, and an alumnus of the 2010 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.