As we that are left grow old.
Age shall no weary them,
Nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning
We shall remember them.
Ninety-eight years ago, on the evening of November 10-11, the Canadian Corps had reached the outskirts of Mons, and the men began to prepare for the end of the war on the morrow. To their shock and dismay, orders came down for the men to start marching. They were to capture Mons. Will Bird wrote of the reaction among the men that night in his book "Ghosts Have Warm Hands". The men were planning their lives after the war when an unexpected visitor showed up.
"Bird!" It was the voice of the company-sergeant-major, harsh as a whip saw. "Get your section ready at once. Battle order. leave your other stuff in your billet."
The Mills brothers sat up. Jones pushed the little girls from his lap. I managed to speak. "What's up?" I demanded.
"We're going to take Mons. No use to argue about it. Get our men ready."
"Just a minute." Tom Mills was on his feet. "The war's over tomorrow and everybody knows it. What kind of rot is this?"
"Watch what you say." The sergeant-major's face was set. He was not speaking in his normal voice at all. "Orders are orders. Get your gear on."
Every man argued bitterly and it was difficult to get them ready. We formed up with the platoon while the men swore over trivial matters, hitched around and changed positions. Two cursed steadily, and with frightful emphasis, the ones who had issued the orders.
Away on the left was the report of shell bursts, and we could see a few long range crumps leaving black smoke trails. Thirteen platoon came along and joined us. Five or six of their men were shouting at us to turn around and attack headquarters. The officers were worse enemies than any German. No one tried to quiet them, and presently we marched down a street along a road and into a field...
The decision to attack Mons remains controversial to this day. No one knows exactly why General Currie decided to make one final attack in the last hours of the war. Some say it was because Currie had been attacking all along, and he did not wish to give the Germans any breathing space in case the armistice did not go as planned. Some suggest it was because Mons was the first place the Germans and British had fought in 1914, and Currie felt capturing what the British had lost would be a symbol and inspiration future generations of Canadians. Others suggest he had been treated roughly by the British in the closing weeks of the war, and he decided to show them up by taking back what they had lost.
Currie's own statements indicated he did not expect and resistance from the Germans. He was not far off: resistance was quite light, but 30 Canadians still died in capturing Mons that last day. Every dead man was someone's friend, or rival, or brother.
It had become full day when Old Bill came around the corner with Jim Mills. he beckoned me to him. Jim was wild-eyed, white as if he had been ill. "He says he's going to shoot whoever arranged to have his brother killed for nothing. " whispered Bill. "He really means it. He's hoping Currie comes here today. If he doesn't, he's going to shoot the next higher up. He says his brother was murdered."
One of the 42nd officers was walking toward us and I went up to him. He was not the one I would have chosen, but something had to be done. I saluted him and told him about Jim. He was startled, for he had not known Jones and Tom Mills were dead. But he said there was no need to worry about Jim. Take him and get him drunk, so drunk he wouldn't know anything for twenty four hours. When he came out of it he would be all right. He told me to say my piece to Bill and come back to him. Bill agreed to get Jim plastered, and I gave him the money. Then the officer took me up to where the adjutant was standing. He said there was to be a parade shortly, but the two deaths must be reported...
The decision to take Mons is the only spot on Currie's otherwise sterling record as a general. It is also ironic when you consider that after the war Field Marshall Haig was celebrated as a conquering hero after having commanded the two greatest disasters in British military history, and who did not once successfully plan a battle during the war, that Currie's reputation was ruined for a battle he won with minimal casualties.
However, not all men remembered the end with bitterness.One soldier wrote of the experience later, in a letter to the editor that mentioned my Grandfather, a soldier in the Great War.
I Was There
By a Port Credit Veteran
In the murky darkness of a November morning 41 years ago I was in Mons. Not far ahead in the blackness were the retreating lines of the German army, splitting the night with its artillery as is put up a last desperate barrage against the advancing Canadians. Before dawn had broken I was given the singular privilege of passing the cease fire order to a Port Credit man, the late Roy Finch.
As a Sergeant in No. 3 platoon, 'A' Company, 19th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force, Roy Finch, D.C.M., M.M., had been left in charge of the platoon when his officer had been killed 10 minutes before the order was received. Another Port Credit man, the late Fred (my grandfather), was responsible for carrying the good news to many war weary Canadians. He was a runner with the same battalion.
This incident remains fresh in my mind as other memories remain fresh in the minds of all Canadian relating to both past wars. This is as it should be, and to observe these memories each November 11 is little return for the great sacrifice made by so many. We who were there can never forget, the the remembrance is a permanent inspiration to us, as it should be to all.
At 10:59, Canadian soldier Private Price was killed by a sniper as he took part in a patrol near Mons. He was the last Canadian soldier killed in the war, possibly the last soldier of any side to be killed in the war. At 11:00, the guns fell silent for the first time in four years. The war was over.
As that long ago November day wore on, the Canadians found themselves in the middle of celebrations, parades and parties. No man would present would ever forget that day and the cheering joy that rang in their ears. The war was over. They had won. For a time they were delirious with joy. But soon their thoughts turned to their distant homes. Much to their chagrin, the soldiers soon found out home would wait, as they were still in the army, and for a time they were to be part of the occupying force of Germany.
The Canadian Corps' record of achievement throughout the war was singular: no other unit could rival the Corps. The Germans apparently invented a new word to describe the Canadian troops: "stormtroopers." But their victories and their reputation came at a price Of the 440,000 men who served in the four divisions of the Corps, 67,000 died, or one in seven. In terms of Canada's total population of the time, nearly one percent of Canadians died on the battlefields of Europe. A further 173,00 were wounded, bringing the total casualty rate to one in two, or fifty percent. Recent studies have indicated that should a military unit suffer a casualty rate higher than twenty percent, the survivors suffer from irreparable psychological damage. By that standard we are left with the disturbing possibility that the next generation of Canadians were raised to a large extent by men who were not wholly sane. Worst of all, the peace treaty, when it finally came, was a disaster, though none knew it yet. The young men through their blood and sacrifice had bought a chance to make a new world. The old men took that chance and merely recreated the old one. In twenty years the sons of the veterans of the Great War would be back to fight a greater, bloodier war.
It was 1919 before the Canadians were back in England, awaiting their transport home. Some men couldn't wait for the return. Others began to dread it. The young men had grown up in war, had come to manhood in war. As men, war was all they knew. What were they to be in peace time? Other men began to sense something was different within themselves. They had changed.
Slowly the men began to trickle back to Canada to find a country which had made no preparations against their return. The men were expected to simply pick up their lives when they had left off. Some men found a way to do it. For others the change had been too great. Men of war, they could not cope with the peace. Men like Captain Agar Adamson of the Princess Patricias. Adamson was a very rare bird: he had served almost the entire war. Throughout the war he had written letters to his wife almost every day, telling her details about camp life, battles, and the deaths of friends. He signed all the letters "Ever thine, Agar." "Ever" turned out to be a year. Shortly after his return he found peace no longer suited him. He abandoned his family and travelled. He became a hard drinker, a gambler and an adventure seeker. He died as a result of a plane crash in 1929.
For a time my grandfather waited in England for his transportation home. He got some leave and travelled about a bit, even going to Ireland where he met his grandfather for the first and only time. He returned to camp and waited. On May 14th, 1919 he and the rest of his battalion boarded the ship SS Carolina and set sail for home.
Home was becoming real for the men now. Many of the men, mainly the newer recruits who had only arrived just before the very end, looked towards home with unbridled enthusiasm. The older men had mixed feelings. Will Bird wrote of his journey home:
In my fine sheets I could not sleep and began to forget where I was. I seemed to be in an atmosphere rancid with stale sweat and breathing, the hot grease of candles, the dampness of the underground. I saw cheeks resting on tunics, mud streaked, unshaven faces... men shivering on chicken wire bunks. Then, from overhead, the machine gun's note louder, higher, sharper as it swept bullets over the shell crater in which I hugged the earth... the rumble of guttural voices and heavy steps in an unseen trench just the other side of the black mass of tangled barb wire beside which I lay... the long drawn whine of a coming shell... its heart shaking explosion... the seconds of heavy silence after, then the first low wail of a man down with a blood spurting wound... It was too much. I got up and dressed, although it was only four o'clock in the morning.
It was cold but I wore my greatcoat, and to my amazement there were other dark figures near the rail. We stood, hunched together, gazing ahead into the darkness. Presently another figure joined us, then another. In an hour there were fourteen of us, and no one had spoken, although we were touching shoulders. The way we stood made me think of a simile. Ah-we were like prisoners. I had seen them standing together, staring over the wire into the field beyond, never speaking. And we were more or less prisoners of our thoughts. Those at home would never understand us, because something inexplicable would make us unable to put our feelings into words. We could only talk with one another.
All at once the watchers stirred,tensed, craned forward. It was the moment for which we had lived, which we had envisioned a thousand times, that held us so full of feeling it could not find utterance. Far ahead, faint but growing brighter, we had glimpsed the first lights of home!
But Halifax and the East Coast of Canada was not home to my Grandfather. Home for him lay two thousand miles to the west, with a woman he had not seen in three years, and a son who had been but two or three weeks old when he signed up. Many of the milestones marking a child's progress were long in the past. He had missed his son's first steps, his first tooth, his first words. The two would not recognize each other, and would meet as strangers.
If he looked into the future, he might have seen three more sons (my father being the first of those three, born in 1922) and one daughter who died in infancy. He would return to his job of making fireworks. The job was dangerous, and explosions were common. Every Saturday night would see him at the local legion hall with the other veterans. Will Bird was correct: they could only speak to each other, and sought the regular comfort and company of each other. My Grandfather never spoke of the war to his sons, not even my father, who followed Grandfather's journey across the ocean to serve in the Second World War, and was a vet like his father. My Granfather had even received a medal from the war for some act of bravery, but no one knows for certain what it was, or why.
Grandfather and his battalion disembarked at Halifax, boarded a train and began a long journey to Toronto, home drawing nearer. The men were excited to be returning, but they knew they were leaving something behind. Gone was the camaraderie of the trenches, the bleak humour, the brotherhood. Gone was a life lived only in the present, where the next moment may not exist and therefore was unimportant. For years or months they had lived only in the present moment, the future being an unreal possibility. Now a normal span of life stretched out before the men. Once again they would grunt and sweat under the weary burden of the future, a future that seemed more of a question mark now than ever before. They would find a way.
The train carrying the 19th and 20th battalions arrived in Toronto on May 24th, 1919 at the Toronto station of the CPR, now known as Summerhill station. The men were formed up in parade formation and they marched together for the last time. Crowds in the street cheered and threw confetti at the men as they marched to the old Varsity stadium, where there was to be a reception. Officials and politicians had gathered planned to give speeches to the men and their families before the men were dismissed.
But at the the sight of the long lost men the crowd could not contain itself. They burst past the barricades and rushed the men. The police tried briefly to retain order, and then gave up. The politicians threw their hands up in despair: they never would give their speeches. No one noticed. No one cared. Once again the men of the army found their ears filled with a roar and noise; once again they stood in the midst of chaos. But unlike the noise and confusion of the war which carried fear and death, this was the noise of Joy and Life. People wept and kissed as they met again after years apart. Some soldiers found time to say good-bye to old comrades as they went off with their families. The men forgot the past, forgot the future as they reunited again to the present, only the present. Here was another day no one would ever forget for as long as they lived, for the men were home.
The men were home.