In Flanders Fields the poppies bloomed around the graves of soldiers, nature’s reminder of the deaths of the very young with their lives before them. The very young, tragic cannon fodder, fighting the war of their elders, these elders securely ensconced in their clubs and offices. We have a large harvest of poems written by World War I soldiers turned poets, poignant messages to posterity about their heightened perception of nature and love of life, as they faced their deaths—and so many did die, including our own famous poet, Colonel John McCrae.
Each month in legion halls there is the tender affirmation from Lawrence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” that “They will not grow 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 will remember them.” With the response, “We will remember them.” In the legions, these young dead are truly not forgotten, year round.
The poem concludes with these evocative lines: “To the innermost heart of their own land they are known/ … As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,/To the end, to the end, they remain.”
On November 11 not only are the dead remembered in a large national service but also all across Canada, in each small town, in a smaller service of remembrance at 11:00 am. Below a statue of a soldier, are inscribed the names of all the local young men who died in war. The last names are often still familiar today as their descendants live on in the area.
But what happened to the weary survivors of this war to end all wars, those brave soldiers, around the world, returning with their recurring flashbacks (now, but not then, given a name: post traumatic stress disorder; now, but not then, given medical treatment and a disability pension)? What happened to their fiancées, wives, parents, sisters, dealing with the howling nightmares, their children, those others widowed and orphaned by the war; those mutilated families, what of them? How did these valiant people manage to go on with their lives, year after year after year? This is the tale of one such group.
A snapshot of my father’s family before the war shows the father, John, an engineer employed at a substantial salary. Three elder sons, Jock, Jim and Will, had a thriving accounting and bookkeeping business together. Isabella (Belle), the elder of two daughters, both engaged to be married, held a secretarial position at Collins Publishing House and her sister, Helen (Nell), helped their mother, Elizabeth, in the home. They all lived together in a large apartment on the top floor of a substantial Victorian sandstone building in what is now part of the preserved heritage in Glasgow, Scotland. My father, Alexander, the youngest son aged 15, having won a full scholarship, had started studies at the Glasgow School of Art. Also at the age of 15, he had completed his university entrance exams and at 18 would go on to Glasgow University after completion of the art studies. All was prosperous and well.
Then the World War 1 opened its jaws. Aunt Belle’s fiancée and Jim were killed. By two years after the war’s end, of the five wage earners only one, Aunt Belle, survived. Jock returned suffering from sleeping sickness. Will had severe shellshock and never again worked full time. My father, who had enlisted at a recruitment booth conveniently situated near the School of Art, needed two years of surgery on his ankle before he recovered. Soon after the war’s end, their mother Elizabeth died of a heart attack suffered after attending a Victory parade, quickly followed by their father, John.
Through the long years following, the remaining family, and there were many like them across the Western world, pulled together. For obvious financial reasons, my father abandoned his pre-war plans and left for Shanghai, China, where he joined the Shanghai Municipal Council’s police force, becoming superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Department. Until 1941, when another war reached the Far East, he sent substantial monthly cheques to help his sisters and especially for the support of Jock, who was cared for at home until his death in 1939. It was only then that the younger aunt, Nell, married. By that time, she and her faithful Davie were too old to have children, of which there were none from that large family, except my brother and I.
Like most survivors, our father rarely mentioned the War. How could he, or any of the survivors, describe the experience: the cold, terror, hunger, exhaustion they felt, the lice, rats, slime, body parts with which they routinely shared their space?
But there were little snatches of information followed by silence. Usually when there was time for reflection on one of our walks in the country outside the town where we lived, my father would suddenly remember. He once told me about being buried alive in an explosion. There was a small pocket of air and my father debated whether to use it slowly to hang on to his life a little longer, or use it up quickly to call for help. My father chose the latter action and was rescued, the only survivor from his battalion. He was cared for at a military field hospital and sent back to fight. The soldiers were told not to drink water from wells which might be poisoned. My father described how his tongue swelled up from lack of fluid.
On another of our walks, he described how he was seriously wounded in an explosion and he and his unarmed stretcher bearers on their way to the field hospital met a German soldier with his gun ready to fire. However, in an act of mercy, the German allowed them to pass. Later, when travelling by train for evacuation to Britain, my father was in great pain and was gritting his teeth hanging on to a divider between his bunk and that of the next wounded man. The other soldiers called and called for a nurse to come and give him pain-killers. When they arrived at the other end, a nurse asked about my father’s wife and children. Still a teenager, only recently 18, he must have aged during his experiences. My father’s photo, taken while he was convalescent, shows him as having recovered a younger appearance. This is how young the soldiers were, some younger, as young as 15.
Like many other fathers who survived war, our father was always a compassionate and wonderful father, never allowing the negative experiences to affect his relations with us. As well, like other families dealing with the aftermath of war, the remaining family in Scotland kept up a cheerful front. With respect and affection we remember our father and his family, and many like them across the world. We honour them for the long years they spent, without complaint, dealing with the effects of the First World War.
Statistics released a few years after the War’s end showed that over 37 million soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. France suffered a particularly high death rate. One-third of France’s young men of fighting age died. It took over a generation to replenish the French population—just in time for World War 2.