Lest I Forget

By David Turner in Community

In my job which takes me through the small towns of Midwestern Ontario, I always make a point each Remembrance Day of pulling off to the side of the road when the eleven o’clock hour approaches. That two minutes of relative silence gives me a chance to collect my thoughts and try to comprehend what it meant to actually “go to war.” After several years I’ve deduced it can’t be done…therefore, those of us too young must discover our own ways of remembering this special day. Of course it’s not as if we are completely free of war. Anyone who has lost a family member in Afghanistan for instance, knows all too well war’s sacrifice. But the scope and magnitude of the two “world wars” is almost unimaginable to me and
my generation.
During World War One, my grandfather Sergeant-Major Will Carruthers trained new army recruits for overseas duty from the Armed Forces site at Camp Borden Ontario. Now here was a war that few really understood! Several East European countries had been squabbling for decades over land claims of one form or another, but on June 28, 1914, some guy who was the apparent heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was assassinated. Events continued to worsen over the next month as blame was assigned and countries picked their partners. In the beginning it was basically Germany, under Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm, along with Austria-Hungary and Turkey…against Russia, France and Belgium. Great Britain had little choice but to defend its neighbours across the Channel and on August 4, declared war on Germany. Because of Great Britain’s mighty geographical empire at the time…it now truly was a “world war”
Patriotism was paramount in 1914…“If Great Britain is at war…Canada is at war!” was the rallying cry. Young men lined up by the thousands at enlistment offices, many lying about their age just to get a chance to join in the excitement of a good battle. Most had regular jobs, there’d be nothing wrong with a few months off. A dollar a day and free board would be a nice change from routine. Most were familiar only with the perceived nobility of war anyway.
Even England had no idea of the sacrifices of a global war. It had fought wars all its life…if you could call them that. For centuries, whenever life at home became too boring they’d recruit the farmers and townspeople to capture or recapture some useless plot of ground. If the “war” was consuming too much time and harvest time was nearing, they’d simply return home, take care of the crops then resume hostilities at a more convenient time.
Most Canadian soldiers naively believed they’d “kick the Kaiser’s ass” and be home by Christmas or by spring at the latest. Reality dictated most didn’t even leave England for France until February 1915, where they joined a struggle that had already settled into a monotonous pattern that would change little until war’s end. From flooded, muddy, rat infested trenches, tens of thousands of soldiers fought a continuous series of skirmishes with the same piece of ground being fought over, regained, lost, captured and recaptured, with nothing but dead and wounded soldiers to show for it. The sacrifices are almost unimaginable. At Vimy Ridge France in April 1917, 3600 men died in four days and nearly 10,000 were wounded. In Passenchendaele Belguim, between October 26 and November 7 of the same year, more than 15,000 out of a regiment of 20,000 Canadians died or were wounded in order to capture the German held city. To put the Passchendaele loss into perspective and perhaps parallel something we might understand…it would be as if the city of Owen Sound which I travel through each day, were hit by some super virus or environmental disaster that over a period of twelve days struck down three quarters
of the population!
However this would be the kind of hell to which my grandfather and hundreds like him would be sending waves of platoons. 60,000 Canadians would lose their lives in that war…10,000 who were residents of my grandfather’s hometown of Toronto. It’s probably a good thing he had little idea what awaited these innocent lads in the “war to end wars”.
Then came September 1939 and another world war. At least this one was easier to understand. A crackpot dictator Adolf Hitler was threatening to take over the world with a Nazi regime that would in his words “last one thousand years” When Canada declared war on Germany, every city, town and village immediately opened temporary registration offices. Everyone received a number and were asked general questions concerning what segment of the armed forces they might be interested, also if they had any special skills. The questionnaire basically served to find out who was who and where you lived. If and when a draft notice was issued, a more thorough report would be completed. By Christmas 1939, more than 50,000 new recruits were being trained at various bases across Canada. This time there wasn’t the carefree, can’t wait to fight stampede. Memories of World War One were too vivid.
At this time, my parents were living in Artemesia Township in Grey County, just a couple of miles from the Eugenia hydro power station. The very week war was declared, huge spotlights were erected at the dam site, supposedly to thwart any act of sabotage by infiltrating German armies. Supposedly, dams were the first items blown up during occupation. The intense lighting caused mixed feelings among the locals, figuring illumination only made the site easier to spot. Time would dictate Eugenia spared from attack, but among any gathering of those in close proximity, rumours were rampant of German sightings. One account explained how Germans were capable of parachuting to earth complete with folding bicycles, which with just a few seconds preparation, could be ready to pedal off in any direction to create chaos and destruction.
My uncle Verdun “Mac” McIsaac was drafted in early 1942, and by November of that year was part of the Allied Forces North African campaign. Through the fierce desert heat of Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia, Libya and Egypt, went my uncle and a hundred thousand more. Inching their way forward by day and pitching tents at night. Then came the arduous struggle up the Italian Peninsula, facing winter rain, mud and treacherous terrain not to mention a hardened German army every mile of the way. In one incident, a shell explosion knocked Mac from his motorcycle while on night convoy duty, fracturing his shoulder. Another shell hit the tank in which he was riding, cracking both eardrums, but the tank’s steel walls prevented more serious injury.
On Christmas Day 1943, while Allied troops which included my uncle were preparing to attack Rome, a leading Canadian magazine in an effort to bolster spirits back home, featured in its December issue a picture of a soldier leaning against a fireplace, chatting warmly with “family” members. Above the photograph a caption read: “Home for Christmas.” The model soldier featured was Mac McIsaac.
Back home, his wife waited…one year, two years, three years…like all servicemen’s wives, my aunt lived from one letter to the next. Always relieved to find the letter with the familiar handwriting in the mailbox, but forever afraid to discover an “official” letter disclosing contents you dared not even imagine. Every day the war casualties were listed in the newspaper and just as regularly, one of those names was someone you knew…no one was immune from this conflict.
Finally came that day in the late summer of 1945 at Toronto’s Union Station…the same station from which he’d departed forty-two months earlier. Disembarking from the train into the welcoming throng, Mac McIsaac looked as handsome as ever in his uniform. However like all arrivals, the years of combat showed no matter how wide the grin. Like the tens of thousands who preceded or followed him home, the transition back to “normal” would be difficult. On a daily basis these soldiers had existed in a world filled only with fear and uncertainty and chilling visions of war’s insanity. One moment you were fighting side by side with your best friend…the next his body was scattered to bits by a shell and left behind in the mud. Small wonder some returning soldiers would have nightmares to last a lifetime.
One last thought…His name was Ted Edwards, a neighbour of ours. I was only six or seven, but I recall him telling my father how terrified he’d been each evening on the regular bombing runs over Germany during World War Two. Ted was a tail-gunner on a Lancaster bomber and each night his squadron would fly off into the inky blackness, and each morning without fail at least two or three planes would be missing. These men were well aware of the odds facing them every mission, realizing each night’s exercise might be their last. They knew it would be for someone. One evening it was the bomber in which Ted’s brother rode that never returned.
I’m not sure why I remember that conversation. At that period of my childhood during the mid-1950’s, adults occasionally related stories of their days in the armed forces. Uncle Mac from time to time would mention something about his war years…but then he came back. I guess I just figured everybody did.