It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down to write one of these - Summer is long over, and Fall has come and gone, so here’s a long overdue update.
AGM and changing roles
We held our AGM this fall and I decided to step down from the presidential role - that honour goes to one of our longstanding members, William Lindsay. Thanks Bill for all the work you do. And a big thanks to the rest of the returning board and our dedicated curator, Patti Campbell.
The Ghosts of Medak Pocket
Remembrance Day is here, and I thought it would be appropriate to write something for our veterans. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II and that was always my connection to the holiday.
Recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with a couple veterans, and one told me about their experience at ‘The Medak Pocket’, a post-Cold War conflict in the Balkans scarcely talked about, and often referred to as “Canada’s secret battle.”
If you’re wanting to know more about the impacts and legacy of the conflict, Carol Off has written a book about the soldiers who were there - titled The Ghosts of Medak Pocket.
In September 1993, Canadian Peacekeepers were sent by the UN to enforce a ceasefire line in southern Croatia, which had been occupied by the then Serbian Republic of Krajina. French troops had been attempting to resolve the situation with little to no success.
Forces from many sides - Croatians, Serbians, and Bosnians, were all fighting to secure and expand their territorial claims in the former Yugoslavia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Sept. 9, the Croatian Army rained down heavy machine gun and artillery fire, attempting to force the Canadians out of the Medak Pocket. They expected our troops to retreat, but the peacekeepers returned fire and held the line, fortifying their position and forcing the Croatians back.
Official records state that the fighting lasted two days, with 27 Croatians killed and only 4 Canadians wounded. However, 11 villages were razed to the ground - the aftermath of a brutal genocide perpetrated by Croatian soldiers who butchered Serbian men, women, children, and elderly.
No survivors were found by the peacekeepers, only remains. In total, 16 charred and mutilated corpses were discovered.
William Ray of the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry described the carnage in detail for the National Post in 2018.
“There was a stench of burned metal and plastics, and another, dankly sweet organic stench,” wrote Ray. “Personal belongings were scattered everywhere. People’s memories, their realities, were spread like shrapnel on the ground in this smoking testament to inhumanity.”
Many who returned from Medak described the experience as a living nightmare, with PTSD affecting regular duty and reservists alike - it’s considered one of the most severe conflicts seen by the Canadian military since the Korean War. 875 men were sent from Canada, a mix of regular and reserve soldiers, with 70% of the battalion being reservists.
Medak remained largely unknown for nearly a decade, as the Canadian Government never publicized the conflict due to a military scandal, which happened the same year in Somalia. Shidane Arlone, a Somali teenager, was beaten to death by two Canadian soldiers participating in peacekeeping efforts there.
At the time, it was thought that the public would view Medak Pocket and the increasing dangers in the Balkans negatively, despite the intervention preventing further loss of life.
The silence on Medak was finally broken in 2002 - when Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson bestowed the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation on the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
The battalion documented the tragedy thoroughly, leading to the conviction of several Croatian officers for war crimes.
“Your actions were nothing less than heroic and yet your country didn’t recognize it at the time,” Clarkson told them.
Lest We Forget
We’re also featuring World War I Battlefield Artist Mary Riter Hamilton this month. Hamilton was the sister of the late Frank Riter of Hudson’s Hope.
After the war ended, Hamilton travelled to Europe to paint the battlefields. Her paintings documented the destruction and devastation of World War I, depicting the locations of Vimy Ridge, Somme and Ypres.
350 paintings were completed over the span of three years. In honour of her, the museum will have Irene Gammel’s book The Story of Battlefield Artist Mary Riter Hamilton available. A wreath will also be laid by our board president at the Hudson’s Hope Remembrance Day ceremonies in honour of all our veterans.
For the past few years, author and historian Jay Sherwood has been putting together a book about the life of my Great Uncle, Willard Freer, Kechika Chronicler: The Northern B.C. Diaries of Willard Freer.
I was shocked and saddened to learn that Jay passed away in October.
I had been meaning to call Jay and ask how the book is coming along, and I wish I had called sooner - we’ve lost a good writer, a great historian, and a friend to the museum. He’ll be missed by many. However, the book is finished and has been sent for editing to the publisher - no word on a release date for now.
Freer was one of the cowboys hired in 1934 for the Bedeaux Expedition, which saw Citroen half-tracks make their way through the wilderness of Northern Alberta and B.C. The journals chronicle Freer’s life after the expedition, from 1942 to 1975. He spent much of his time living along the Alaska Highway in Fireside north of Fort Nelson, along the Liard River.
On a positive note, a transcript of the diaries is now available thanks to Jay, with copies being sent to both our museum and UNBC.
The Hudson’s Hope Museum is open five days a week, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. We’re always looking for volunteers, if you’ve got time to support local history.
If you would like any further information, please call 250-783-5735 or email at email@example.com.
Tom Summer is Vice-President of the Hudson’s Hope Historical Society.