11 November 2018

Remembrance Day Reprint: The Homecoming

They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning
We shall remember them.
We shall remember them.
***
One hundred 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 say that the orders actually came from the British High Command, who did not trust the Germans to respect the Armistice, and therefore decided to keep the pressure up until the last second. 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 to consider that after the war Field Marshall Haig was celebrated as a conquering hero despite having commanded the two greatest disasters in British military history,who wasted hundreds of thousands of lives to save his career, 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 McNulty, 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 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. On minute later, 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 173,000 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. As a direct result of that folly, 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. They were, as Bird wrote in his book, "more or less a stranger to themselves."
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 where 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 traveled. He became a hard drinker, a gambler and an adventure seeker. He died in a plane crash in 1929.
For a time my grandfather waited in England for his transportation home. He got some leave and traveled 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 Grandfather 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 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.

8 November 2018

Catching up.

I ran a trivia night at one of my KOC Council's parishes the weekend before last.  Unfortunately, a combination of weather and another parish having another event the same night kept almost everyone away, and only three people showed up.  On the bright side, it means I can pretty much use the exact same questions again next time I have a trivia night.

Last Saturday I tried my hand at running a Historical Walk/Streetcar ride around downtown Toronto.  Unfortunately, it took a little longer than I had planned, so we didn't cover everything I had hoped.   I had thought the weather would keep pretty much everyone away, but a few brave souls came out for the walk and talk. I lead them through the places where victims of a humanitarian catastrophe arrived; where Toronto came to grips for the first time with the abuses of power of the police; the place where a murder- unsolved to this day- occurred, and a few other little nuggets from our history. I didn't take them to the unmarked graves of the victims of an epidemic, but I can do that another day.   I also touched on the Jubilee Riots, as we were walking around that area (and in truth, the riots took place across most of the downtown core) but didn't go into depth about those.  I called the walk "Within A Stone's Throw: Catholics in Toronto in the 19th Century."  I think I'll use that as the title if I ever get around to publishing again.




23 October 2018

Here and there

We had our municipal elections here yesterday.  I have never cast a vote with less enthusiasm. This election did not seem to be about much of anything.  There were no competing visions, no clear paths forward.  There were no great vices, and fewer virtues. There wasn't anyone I really wanted to win, but there also wasn't anyone I really wanted to keep out- except for a few names on the councillor and trustee categories.  I recognized a few last names on the ballot from past elections, but not the first names.  Grown up kids were now running for their mom or dad's old position.  I want to shut down that tendency in a hurry.  I've had enough with political dynasties. 

***

I'll be running a trivia night at one of the churches that belong to my Knight's council this weekend.  My council has five churches and seven parishes, although it may have one or two other quasi parishes.  We've been trying to expand our efforts in some of the parishes we have underserved, so Trivia Nights.

I ran the first one back in June, and it wasn't a catastrophe, so I thought I would try it again.  I have been setting the questions myself, but it is painfully apparent to me that I may not be the best person for the job.  My knowledge base is too skewed.  The people who spoke to me afterwars had some suggestions.  Some thought I should ask easier questions (here's where the skewing comes in: I thought I was asking easy questions).  One family thought I should ask more questions about literature.  I looked at them as I recalled the fourteen years I spent at university earning a B.A., an M.A. and studying for, but ultimately abandoning my PhD studies with all but the dissertation written.  "You don't know what you're asking," I said at last.

I've decided on trying a themed Trivia Night this time, with a section of visual (ie, pictures) questions as well as the usual.  The theme will be, given the time of year, Hallowe'en and Saints, and both whenever possible.  In the picture section are several somewhat gruesome images- but they aren't the ones that have to do with Hallowe'en.

Image result for St Dennis

Who am I? And where am I going with my head?

I considered asking the people 'what is a  Cephalophore?', but I thought that might not go over too well.

***

 A week after that, I will attempt to put my amateur knowledge of the Catholic History of Toronto to some decent use and run a Historical walk through downtown, where we will discuss some of the sites and events hat have shaped the history of the Church here, and also the city itself.  I've called it 'Within a Stone's Throw: Irish Catholics in Toronto in the 1800's'.  I'm running it free of charge, but I won't say no if someone were to bring me a peameal bacon sandwich from St Lawrence Market to thank me for my time.

Interest in the event was quite good at the beginning, but the three people most interested and enthusiastic about the idea could not make it that day. Typical.  I may do an encore the next day or week.

27 September 2018

Today is the 143rd anniversary...

...of the Jubilee Riots. The posts I wrote detailing the event remain the worst read posts I have ever written.

Anyhoo, in honour of the day I have gathered all the unloved posts into one convenient location, here: https://gladius-spiritus.blogspot.com/p/riot.html

25 September 2018

Not quite the whole truth

Lately, it has become required, apparently, for every quasi official institution in Toronto to begin every communication and announcement with: "Before we begin, we would like to recognize that we are standing on the ancestral homelands/sacred land of the Iroquois, the Wendat, the Huron, the Ojibwa, the Mississauga, and the Algonqian peoples...." Younger is hearing it every day at school. I imagine it comes from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations.
First, a few observations: I am not up on my native history as much as I should be, but this list is a trifle deceptive, not because these people weren't here, but because, first, from what I recall, the Wendat and the Huron are the same people - Wendat being the Huron name for themselves. Secondly, I believe the Mississauga were a subgroup of the Ojibwa nation. Thirdly, there were Algonquin tribes, but at the same time 'Algonquian' generally refers to a large language group, which includes the Iroquois, the Huron, the Ojibwa and several other Native groups, including a mysterious group known only as 'the Neutrals'. Or, at least, that is what we call them now. The Hurons are recorded of referring to them as 'The Men Who Talk Funny,' suggesting that the Neutrals were part of the same language group, but with their own dialect. What they called themselves, we have no way of knowing. The Iroquois and the Huron wiped them out long ago. I don't believe there is any indication that the Neutrals ever occupied this area, so their exclusion from the list is probably justified.
Which sort of brings me to my second point: These groups were blood enemies. I am not sure when the Algonquians as a separate group from the other Algonquian dialects were around this area, but the Huron and Iroquois claimed this land from time to time. Eventually the Iroquois pushed out the Huron as the Hurons came out on the losing end of their centuries long struggle, which ended with Huron being virtually wiped out or assimilated into other groups. The Iroquois were in turn pushed out by the Mississauga. The point is, when you have a large number of blood enemies all claiming the same territory, you do not have anyone's ancestral homeland as the term is generally understood. You have contested territory. This was only one group's homeland until another group took it away from them.
Which may be why they switched to calling it 'sacred land' at my daughter's school. The term is a little more numinous and harder to debate when no one is really sure what is meant by that.

12 September 2018

Where are you now, Unvanquished Lion?

Three hundred and thirty five years ago today, the city of Vienna teetered on the brink of capture and destruction, surrounded by its enemies, the few people remaining tired, hungry, and sick with dysentery and plague. Still they refused to surrender.
They had been under siege by an army of approximately 160,000 Turks and their allies for months. Vienna was a great prize they had failed to capture in earlier wars. With it they could control the waters of the Danube and its trade routes, and effectively split Europe in two. The Austrians had known the enemy was coming and had sought allies of their own. The Pope himself called for aid for the Austrians. But France's Sun King Louis XIV had his eyes on Austrian territory for himself. Few seemed interested in helping. In desperation the Austrians turned to an old rival, the Poles, and sought their aid. To what must have been their amazement, the Polish King, John III Sobieski, better known as Jan Sobieski, agreed.
But the Poles were nowhere to be found when the Turks crossed into Austria and marched on the city. The Austrian Emperor declined the Turkish invitation to stay in his bedroom and wait for them to behead him, and had fled Vienna, as did most of the population. The commander of the garrison in Vienna had between 10-15,000 men at his command. Knowing the Turks were coming, they razed all the buildings around Vienna's walls to deny the Turks cover, brought in as much grain and farm animals into the city as they could, and prepared to muster what defense they could.
Meanwhile, in Poland Jan Sobieski had a problem. While he was King of Poland, he could not order the mustering of the army on his own. That order could only be given by the unanimous vote of the Polish Diet. King Louis of France, wishing no aid to be given to the Austrians, had his embassy in Warsaw offer bribes to the members of the Diet. Hearing of this, the Pope in Rome gave his ambassador free rein on the wealth of Rome, and ordered him to bribe the council in favour of coming to Vienna's aid. Sobieski himself seemed to be motivated by his own sense of honour.
Sobieski had been a general before his election as king. He had waged many campaigns against Turkish invaders to his own land and had turned them all back. He had won many victories when he had been outnumbered greatly, and had won the respect of the Turks themselves, who called him the "Unvanquished Lion." He had travelled widely in Europe and had even spent some time in Constantinople. His travels had given him a sense of the importance of Christendom, and while the Austrians were his rivals, yet they too were part of Christendom, and he knew that if Vienna fell, Christendom itself was not far behind. He would not let that happen. At least, not without a fight.
In the end, the council had its unanimous vote. They were either bribed incredibly by the Papal envoy, or they had been swept up in Jan Sobieski's fervour to defend all of Christendom. There is a story that on the day of the vote Louis XIV's ambassador stood outside the council chambers, offering 100,000 ducats to anyone who would cast a veto. There were no takers. Jan Sobieski would take Poland to war.

Which is almost literally what he did. He mustered the entire Polish army and began the march. He left Poland almost completely defenceless. And yet, his own army was a few more than 40,000. He expected to meet with some allies on the way to Vienna, but even so he would still be severely outnumbered. That did not daunt him. He had been outnumbered before, and he had been victorious before. He began the long march, turning aside briefly to take the army to a shrine to Mary, where he put all his men, and all of Europe, under her care. Then he resumed the march to Vienna. Before him lay either victory or annihilation.
Meanwhile, in Vienna the situation had been deteriorating for the defenders. Unable to approach the walls openly, the Turks had taken to digging trenches to protect their men as they approached the walls. The defenders held slowed them down, but still they crept closer and closer. Below the ground, the Turks took to digging mines to try and bring the walls down from below. The Austrians dug counter mines, and stopped most of them, but the Turks kept coming. They had time and numbers on their side.
The horrors of siege war began to take its toll on the defenders. Rations grew short as the siege stretched on. The men were tired from the constant fighting and bombardments. Dysentery and other diseases set in, leaving the men in no shape to fight. By the beginning of September, perhaps 4,000 men were in any shape to continue the fight.
And they were losing. The Turks had captured the outer defensive works, driving the Austrians back to their wall. Some Turkish mines began to reach the walls, and a hole had been blown open. The city stood ready to fall.
And then something strange happened. The Turkish commander halted the assault. He sent word to the Austrian commander ordering him to surrender. The Turkish commander hoped to have Vienna surrender to him, so he could take the city intact and he could therefore claim all its wealth as his own. But if his troops sacked the city, they would be allowed to keep whatever they took for themselves. He felt certain the Austrian commander, his garrison dwindling, his walls breached, would capitulate. But the Austrian did not, and sent back defiance. The Turks prepared to continue the fight the next day, the twelfth of September. So fixed were their eyes on the city, none seemed to pay any attention to the campfires that began to burn that night on the hills outside Vienna, nor did they know what those fires meant: Jan Sobieski had come at last.
It was said he and his allied commanders looked upon the Turkish encampment from their vantage point. The others were dismayed by the size of the Turkish forces: that force outnumbered their own by at least two to one. But Sobieski, who had fought at a disadvantage many times before, laughed. "Look at how he has arranged his camp!" he exclaimed. "The man knows nothing of war!" The other generals wanted to wait and survey the situation before they began their attack, but Sobieski, perhaps believing in the advantage of surprise, insisted they attack at the first light.
As the Turks were prepared to end the siege that morning, all their forces aimed for the breach in the walls, when they found themselves under attack on their flanks. German and Austrian troops were attacking on one side, and on their rear Polish infantry were driving into their lines, wreaking havoc. The Turkish commander seemed to pay little attention to this. He responded to the attacks with less than half his forces. He kept the main body of his troops focused on the city. Yet the Christians were pushing them back and making more and more headway. And then, on their flanks, the Christian cavalry appeared. Over eighteenth thousand armed and mounted knights, the largest cavalry charge in history. pressed forward. At their head were three thousand Polish Winged Hussars, the finest troops of Poland, and at their head, leading the charge was the king himself. Jan Sobieski, the Unvanquished Lion, had come personally onto the battle field.
His appearance terrified the Turks. They ran and fled before his charge. The troops from the city, seeing the Turks falling into chaos, mounted a sortie from the city themselves, leaving their walls and fighting their foe on the field. And the Turks fled before them. They threw down their arms, and left their baggage and supplies behind as they fled the ferocity of Sobieski and his men.
In three hours the battle was over, the field was in the hands of the Christians and the Turks who had not fled lay dead on the ground. Sobieski sent word to the Pope: "I came, I saw, God conquered."
Sobieski was hailed the saviour of Christendom. The Pope named him Defender of the Faith. Accolades were rained down on him by the allies who had fought alongside him, and by his own men. The commander of the Austrian Garrison hugged and kissed him on the field, and called him his saviour.
That gratitude, unfortunately, did not last. The Austrian Emperor, for instance, paid little respect to Sobieski and was angered that Sobieski had entered Vienna in triumph before he arrived and without his permission.Sobieski's defeat of the Turks at Vienna marked a turning point in history. For the next hundred years the Turks were retreating, not advancing, before the Christian forces. A little over a century after Vienna they had been driven back into Turkey. But if the Turks were gone from Europe, so, too were the Poles, or at least, their country. A little over a century after Vienna, Poland had been annexed by Russia and Austria, the very Empire her greatest hero had saved.

27 August 2018

At times like this...

...I find it good to remember these Lines Written in Her Breviary by St Theresa, translated by Longfellow:

Let nothing disturb thee
Nothing affright thee.
All things are passing
God never changeth:
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting
Alone God sufficeth.