10 November 2007

Voices From The Past

I stand in a line of military men. My father served in the Second World War. His father served in the First. His father was in the military at the time of the Boer War and the First. He lied about his age to sign up for in 1916- he said he was forty four, but then gave his correct birth date on his enlistment papers. He was caught, and sent to guard the Welland Canal against fifth column activity. Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, and I thought I would speak little of them.

My father spoke of his war lightly- tales of scrounging for booze, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble- anecdotes for the most part. I have told a few of them, like the time a priest said Mass at the Front, or the time he wandered into a chicken coop while on patrol. He had other stories which gave a different picture of his time in the war. Friends dying horribly, being bombed by his allies, walking into traps, cracking the Hitler Line, the Gothic Line, the Scheldt Campaign- he could speak of such things, but he preferred not to, unless something amusing happened at the time.

For instance, he once spoke of an attack on an airfield somewhere in Italy. Dad was a truck driver attached to the Cape Breton Highlanders at the time. (Truck drivers did take part in battle, especially near the end of the war when many were converted to combat troops.) The drivers were sent early in the day to pick up 19 new trucks just delivered- the paint wasn't even scratched yet. The drivers got their trucks, picked up their troops and drove to their objective, and right into a trap. The Germans had arrived before the Canadians and held the high ground beyond the airfield. They waited until the entire line was in view, and they opened up.

The Canadians were trapped in what Dad called the worst fire fight he saw of the war- with the exception of one in the Netherlands/Belgium he refused to speak about. The Germans had ranged their guns while they waited for the Canadians, and now they had the whole field covered. They shot at any target. They used the trucks for target practice, basically. The Canadians dove for cover in shell holes, ditches, a latrine, anything- while the field around them burst with fire and smoke. The Officers sent out a call to HQ, calling for artillery support. The call came back: there would be no support, now get on with it. The Sergeants and the Lieutenants drew their pistols and pointed them at their own men. The message was clear: get up and fight, and you may die; stay here, and you will die. The men rose from their little holes, swallowed their fear, moved forward and did the impossible. Within a few hours the airfield was in their hands. But this being Dad's story, it had to have a punchline, and here it is: Of those nineteen new trucks, only two were left.

I didn't join up, because my father talked me out of it. I asked him once, while he was reading the newspaper, if he thought I should join. At the time I was debating between university, the military, or the priesthood. He lowered his paper, and looked at me with a haunted, penetrating, unreadable gaze. "It's not what you think," he said at last, and he raised the newspaper again.

My Grandfather, on the other hand, never spoke of his war to his sons at all. He was a decorated hero, and his death was carried on the front page (lower left hand corner) of one of the Hamilton newspapers. He never told his sons why he got it, and only said: "They handed it out with the rations." We later found out he captured some prisoners, including an officer, possibly at Amiens. He may have got it for that.

He signed up in 1916, at 29 years of age, married about a year with a son a few months old. He was a short man, and he only qualified to be a soldier because the government had lowered the height requirements of men volunteering for duty. His records place his height at 5 foot 1, but my father said that was only if he stood on his toes. His first major battle, as near as we can tell, was Vimy.

I am fortunate to have in my possession three of his letters, in which he barely mentions the war. The three letters also coincide with three titanic battles of the war: Passchendaele, Amiens, and Drocourt-Quaent. I will reprint here the one from Passchendaele. But let me say a few words of the battle. (I suggest you click on the link)

There was a horror associated with that battle found nowhere else in the war. It was supposed to be a breakthrough battle, but the breakthrough never happened. British heavy shelling had failed to destroy the German defenses, and in fact, its main effect was the destruction of the irrigation and drainage system of the battlefield, just in time for the wettest summer and autumn on record. The whole battle field became a swamp, and man sank into the mud and drowned. When one of the British High Command, General Kiggle, came forward to inspect the battlefield, he said to his driver, "Good God, did we order men to fight in that?" to which the driver laconically replied: "It's worse farther up, sir." The general broke down and cried.

The British, and then the Australians, made some headway, but by the end of September they had not yet achieved the objectives of the first day of battle- the town of Passchendaele. British Commander Field Marshall Haig knew he would be sacked if he didn't at least capture the town, and he called upon the Canadian Corps to take the objective. The Canadian General, Sir Arthur Currie, argued with Haig. "It'll take fifteen thousand casualties," he said. "And it's not worth one drop of blood!" Haig repeated his order, and Currie was left with no choice. The Canadians took the town 90 years ago today- November 10, 1917. Haig's job was safe. Currie was almost exactly right in his prediction of 15,000 casualties.

During this battle my Grandfather took a pencil and wrote a letter home to his father. Mice have chewed on it, and a few words are lost, but it goes like this:

Somewhere in Belgium
Sat, Oct. 27/17

Dear Dad,

Just a line or to(sic) to let you know know I received your welcome letter of Sept 19th....sure was glad to hear that you are keeping well... as this leaves me that...way at present but like yourself I don't like the idea of another winter in this place knowing their(sic) is a pretty good chance of it being over by Xmas and heres hoping it comes true. Your ever welcome gift of smokes came in mighty handy Dad in fact I was beginning to look for your letter to come as I was out that time. I think I got those other letters of yours all right..... glad to hear that...were up on pass again .... hope you get lots of them... this is sure some place for mud & rain it is the limit. Well Dad I will close now as we are busy around here so will write again first chance I get with love to all.

Your loving son, Fred.

Another veteran of the battle, William Bird, wrote of the aftermath of Passchendaele:

Captain Arthur was kind to us. He stood and gazed at our pitiful ranks, gazed without speaking, and I saw in his eyes things of which no man speaks- the things words would kill. We had little drill, but rested and slept and had good food until finally we were more like human beings. But every man who had endured Passchendaele would never be the same again, was more or less a stranger to himself.

From such men I come. To such men I owe my home, my freedom, my life, my everything, and as long as my breath holds I shall tell people of these men, and I shall hand what I know on to my children, and their children, that such men may not be forgotten but be revered forever by a grateful people.

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