5 November 2011

A Week of Remembrance: A soldier's life

On a day in 1916, my grandfather and a group of his friends walked into a recruitment office and signed up to go to war.  He had a son, my uncle, his first child, just two weeks earlier.  They all worked in a fireworks plant, which had converted to making munitions for the war.  As skilled workers in a war industry, they would have been exempt from any draft.  The only way they could have got into the war was by signing up, so sign up they did.

I don't know about the others, but Granddad could not have signed up before 1916, on account of his size.  Prior to 1916, the minimum height to join the army was five foot three.  In 1916, the requirement was loosened, and the minimum was lowered to five foot one.  Granddad qualified.  Barely.

1916 was the bloodiest year of the war.  The war on the Western Front was dominated by two bloodbaths:  Verdun, fought mostly by the French, which ultimately resulted in 1,100,100 casualties, and Somme, fought mainly by the British, which resulted in 1,000,000 casualties. At the end of the battles, the lines had hardly changed at all.

Canadian units suffered over 30,000 casualties a the Somme, one of whom was a great uncle, My Grandmother's brother.  Its units were depleted, and they were desperate for new recruits.  The relaxing of standards led to a surge in recruits.  There were more recruits that year than any other of the war.  After 1916, the number of men signing up tapered off.  There was no one left.

He signed up to the 120th City of Hamilton battalion.  This unit was purely a reserve unit.  It was to be shipped over to Europe, and the men sent to other battalions to try and bring them up to strength.  Here is a photo of some of the men from the 120th.

An interesting assortment of men.  Some look far too young to have signed up.  Some look like they were recently released from prison.  They were all younger than me when they posed for this photo.  They are all now dead.

The motives of my Grandfather and his friends for signing up are unknown.  Other soldiers who wrote of their experience of the war indicate they thought they were signing up for duty, for revenge of a brother who had died, or they felt they were taking part in an adventure.

If they thought they were signing up for the sake of adventure, they were mistaken.  The life of a soldier was one of long bouts of tedium, followed by short bursts of hair raising terror.  Battle actually occupies a very small portion of the soldier's time.  The soldier in the Great War was required to put in eight hours of labour every day, same as a regular job.  The work was back breaking and tedious.  Digging trenches, moving munitions, shovelling out horse stalls. Some units in the army were pure work units, and were never intended for battle. Then there were the endless parades.  Pay parades, bath parades, food parades, mail parades and the insufferable orders of superior officers.

One soldier wrote of how a British officer commanding a base where the Canadians were stationed was appalled by the slipshod way the Canadians went about their bathing.  He ordered the Canadians to organize and march properly to the baths, wearing their bathrobes, their towel folded and placed over their shoulder, carrying their shaving kit in one hand, and march in precision to the bath.  The Canadians, however, had a different style of bath robes than the British.  The Canadian robe ended at the waist.  The soldiers, however, decided to teach the British officer a lesson by following his orders exactly.  They put on their too short robes, threw their towels over their shoulder and carried their shaving case in the proper hand and marched in perfect precision, naked from the waist down, to the baths.  Their path carried them past the hospital.  The nurses came out, and whistled and cheered them on as they passed.  The men neatly saluted and continued on.  The British considered the Canadians to be the most unruly of all their troops.

Sometimes they had some leave time.  Occasionally they went to the big cities.  The men were young, they were on their own, often for the first  time, and, for a soldier in the Great War, the Canadians were generally better paid than the troops of other countries.  Not surprisingly, Canadians were soon suffering from a minor syphilis epidemic.

There was one activity that soldiers did more often than fight, or bother the British, or consort with the kind of woman their mother warned them against:  Smoking.  It was during the war that cigarettes became popular.  They began to come ready rolled, they were free, and soon it was the soldiers greatest pastime.  One soldier observed

To him (the soldier) the cigarette is the panacea of all ills.  I have seen men die with a cigarette between their lips- the last favour they had requested on earth.  If the soldier was in pain, he smokes for comfort; when he receives good news, he smokes for joy; if the news is bad, he smokes for consolation; if he is well- he smokes; when he is ill, he smokes.  But good news or bad, sick or well, he always smokes.

Smoking could be bad for your health in a very direct and immediate way.  A neighbour of my mother's was killed in the Second World War.  it was only after the war ended, and the troops came home, that the family found out how and why.  He had been on patrol one night when he stopped to light a cigarette.  The flame of the match stood out on the dark night, a German sniper spotted it, and put a round through his head.

Smoking was also practical for the soldiers, as it was a way of detecting phosgene

It was a peculiar combination of smoke and gas that lead to one of the great symbols of the first world war.  During the Second Battle of Ypres, where the Canadians held the line against the first gas attack in history, a young Canadian doctor treating the wounded at  field hospital, took a break and stepped outside for a smoke.  While smoking he looked out over the crosses in the cemetery near the hospital, and the flowers growing among them.  The sight of them moved and inspired him somehow.  The doctor, John McRae reached into his pocket, pulled out his notebook and pencil, and wrote down a few lines.  They eventually became the most popular poem of the war, In Flanders Field.

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