More Questions Than Answers
After having read Vimy by Ted Barris, and absorbed his detailed and thoughtful description of what the soldiers endured, I recalled the little I know about my mother's father. Here is the only picture I have of him. Since he was born in England, married in England (twice) and had three children in that country, it is strange that this photograph was taken in Canada.
The following story is based on research my sister and I have undertaken about our grandfather.
The setting of the interview with the writer is fictional.
I'd like to thank my sister for her assistance in providing information that helped me in writing this piece.
Some words are in italics - this is because I used this piece as my word challenge story to read during an Uxbridge Writers' Circle meeting (each month we read something we've written that includes pre-selected words).
He wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t tell me anything about the war. It wasn’t until a writer came to meet my grandfather, while he visited from England, that I was able to convince him to share some of his story. The writer interviewed veterans who had served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War. For some inexplicable reason, my grandfather became enraptured by this stranger, but still didn’t give away much of his past.
I waited for him to dismiss me from the room, but he appeared to be oblivious of my presence. I sat in a chair in the corner, a little behind him, and waited to soak up his secrets like a sponge.
The first question I had was what was he doing in Canada in 1916? He wasn’t asked so I didn’t find out and I still haven’t to this day.
The writer asked why he had joined the army. Yes, he’d heard some stories about the horrors of the war, but he had a duty to do his part. Couldn’t let those Germans take over the world.
I could imagine the twinkle in his grey eyes as he told the writer that he was part of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles. His shoulders straightened when he said that he was a horseman first and foremost. He squared those shoulders when asked about his experience with horses, and explained that he was an expert in horse care, you see, as well as a proficient equestrian. Why, he’d been a jockey in Vancouver.
He lived in Courtenay, BC at the time of enlistment. No, he wasn’t a Canadian Citizen. He was born in Oxford, England.
I know he had a daughter in England and on his attestation paper he states he is married – to his first wife who I’d thought died years before. He lies about his age in order to be accepted into the BC Bantams as they were known. He was 43, but, on the form, he claims he’s 36. He was only five feet tall, and hadn’t met height criteria to enlist, but the creation of the 143rd Battalion with their lower height requirements, provided the opportunity. He told the writer none of this, however.
He said that even though he was older than nearly all of the recruits, and short, he was fit and strong because of the physical work he did. He didn’t elaborate, but my mother said he worked at lumber camps primarily caring for the horses.
He folded his arms and said that the training camp was tough but fun too. And he was glad of all that he learned once he finally arrived in France. He knew how to lay railway tracks, dig trenches, excavate tunnels, load ammunition, carry heavy loads and cool the big artillery with water. He was disappointed that he ended up with the infantry. He missed working with horses. But the regular rum ration always felt good and gave him a boost.
The writer asked what he liked least about the war – was it the killing? He fidgeted and looked out of the window. I thought he would be too disturbed to answer, but he turned back to face the writer. No, it was seeing his mates trudging up the hill in muck and slime, as if they were under the spell of a pied piper, who led them to their death or worse. And trying not to look at these brave boys, as they lay in shell holes, blown to pieces. And hearing the injured cry out in pain, their screams piercing the roar and thunder of the guns.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I thought I’d choke. But the writer continued with no emotion in his voice. After all, he’d heard it all before.
Did he get injured? Yes. He got hit by mustard gas. A yellow-green cloud descended like an evil menace. He said he had to take off his fogged-up gas mask to load the big gun. He grabbed the arms of his chair and coughed. He mumbled something about pain, the sensation of burning as if his insides were suffering a sudden severe drought, and later enormous blisters on his arms and left side. But his eyes got better.
My mother had mentioned skin grafts when I asked about Grandpa’s paler patches of skin. He’d got burned, was all that she would say. I don’t know how extensive the skin grafts were and I’m not sure if I could tell them apart from scars left by the blisters, even if I’d had the opportunity to study them. I’ve found out that the gas would settle like an oily liquid, and seep through uniforms. Not usually fatal, but extremely painful and debilitating.
After he was injured, he returned to the South Camp at Seaford in England, but he wouldn’t say anything about where or how he was treated for his exposure to mustard gas. He jumped to 1919 when he was married for the second time, this time to a first cousin, Alice. I had been told that they were second cousins. I stifled a gasp. He and Alice were the parents of my mother.
The marriage certificate, a copy of which I saw later, stated that his profession was Sergeant, but there is no record of his promotion in the Canadian Expeditionary Force data base.
I was surprised that he shared his marriage to his first cousin with the stranger, but he made no mention of his first daughter. I don’t know where his daughter was during his training in BC and in England, or during his deployment overseas, and his rehabilitation.
As if the sharing of his experience at the front had exhausted him, my grandfather wouldn’t give the writer any additional material for his book.
At the time, I’d done no research into my family history, and only knew what my mother had told me, which I’ve since learned is not accurate. Who told the untruths, I don’t know.
The writer used none of my grandfather’s story in his book, but in the meantime, my sister and I have done some research, which, so far, has raised more questions than answers. He died at the incredible age of 84 without revealing any more of his past.