My Grandfather and WW1

 

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Today and tomorrow, i will think a lot about my grandfather, William John Smith (Bill). He was born in Ireland. He emigrated to Winnipeg, Manitoba because his three sisters were already there. When  he arrived in Manitoba, he worked at various jobs available for new immigrants: glazier, drayman. He joined the militia. Joining the militia was normal. He was Northern Irish, loyal to the Crown, and the armed forces had deep connections to England.

He was shipped to France in 1915. During his time in the trenches he was gassed. When he recovered from that, he was sent back into the trenches to be both a sniper and a machine gunner. Men were killed by artillery fire all around him. Killed by bullets. Drowned in the mud and water. He was wounded by shrapnel in his right hand. It would have healed but it became infected. There were no antibiotics.He spent the rest of the war in hospital in England and, at the end of the war, was shipped back to Canada where he spent time in a hospital in Quebec.

He was one of the lucky survivors. Except the damage to his lungs could never be healed. Mustard gas does terrible things to lungs. He never complained about the war except to say that the treatment of ordinary soldiers was dreadful. Officers dined well and the men on the front lines atebully beef out of a tin and strawberry jam. He never had anything to say about the German soldiers except that they were very brave. I once asked him if he’d killed anyone during the war and he said, “Thousands.” And explained about an enfilade, machine gun trajectories crossing over each other on both sides, slaughtering the soldiers charging toward them. It was a slaughter as generals tried to fight battles with outdated strategies against new technology. The senior officers were often so clueless that they matched the French generals who were shown machine guns in action before the war started and one of them said, “Interesting, but what would you use them for?”

But that’s not what I will think about today and tomorrow. What I will think about is that the cold winter weather of Manitoba made it difficult for him to breathe because of his damaged lungs. He could never afford a car and rode his bicycle to work at the railway roundhouse. Sometimes his lungs were so affected by the cold that he couldn’t get his breath and  he would fall from his bike. My grandmother, on more than one occasion, saw him crawling through the snow toward the house.

War is not business as usual. Soldiers are not just another group of civil servants. While my grandfather suffered bombardment, saw his comrades torn to shreds by explosions, killed by snipers, killed by mustard gas, made to mount attacks in impossible situations, politicians in Ottawa and elsewhere lived in comfort and safety. For many, the war was about making money. For them, war was an opportunity to become rich. Once the war was over, my grandfather and all the other cannon fodder were a nuisance, a cost instead of a profit and responsibility for them was cast aside. Read the history of the General Strike in Winnipeg, the unemployment, the refusal to accept responsibility of the plight of the returning soldiers by the politicians who had spent the war in comfort and security.

There was no glory in scarred lungs. No glory in a shattered hand. No glory in a lifetime of memories of the horrors of war. Celebrate the bravery of people like my grandfather but don’t make war glorious. There is no glory in it.

 

Who Am I?

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My grandfather came to Winnipeg from Ireland before WWI. He already had three sisters in Winnipeg, all three married to Scotsmen. His Winnipeg world was very Anglo-Saxon. He and my grandmother lived on a street with an English family on one side, a Scots family on the other, and an Irish family across the way.

From the time I was very young, I was shipped on the bus from Gimli to Winnipeg. My mother would take me to the bus, explain to the bus driver that my grandmother would meet the bus at the station in Winnipeg and off I’d go. My grandmother, always faithful, would be waiting at the spot where the bus pulled in, standing on her tip toes to try to see into the bus windows.

The bus trips, especially in winter, weren’t without some anxiety. Dark came early and with it the landscape, especially the long stretches of highway without any farm houses or roadside stores, disappeared. There was just the fragments of highway, the odd sign, the occasional passing car, outside the tunnel of the bus’s lights.

Even when I was too young for school, as I sat in my plush bus seat that was too big for me, too high for me, I worried about what would happen if I got off at the wrong stop, if the bus broke down, if it went to some place unfamiliar, if my grandmother wasn’t there to greet me. How would I find my way back home? How would I find my way to my grandparent’s house in a distant part of the city?

These were the days before parents worried about abductions of children by strangers, of pedophiles prowling bus and train stations, or would be pimps lurking around transit points. My fellow passengers were young airmen. There was an airbase outside of Gimli and there was such a shortage of transport that the buses often had stools with metal legs and canvas tops that could be lined up along the aisle.

In those cases where an airman would push me out of my paid for seat, the bus driver rather than getting into a fist fight with some young, aggressive and often drunk passenger, would get me to come to the front and sit beside him on the flat hump between him and the stairwell of the front door. I could sprawl on it and no one had thought yet of seat belts or the danger of flying bodies or suitcases.

My life with my Irish grandparents was uneventful. They left Ireland for opportunity, peace and tranquility. They did not carry the conflict from Northern Ireland with them. In their house there was little to identify their ethnicity. My grandmother listened to the singing of John McOrmack. My grandfather listened to the BBC news on the radio. When I was little, he sat me on his knee and recited “Master McGrath”. Once a year, he pulled his Orangmen’s sash out of a box, put it on and marched down Portage Avenue to drums and bagpipes. We watched the parade and didn’t know about the Troubles in Ireland because neither my grandmother nor grandfather talked about them. After the parade, we went to some nearby community for a picnic. Off in the distance there would be a stage and people made speeches. We ate ham and potato salad and the men had a beer. The only anti-Catholic thing I ever heard my grandfather say was “Down with the Pope.” That was after about three beer. He never said it after tea or coffee.

We tried to make them more Irish by giving them gifts made in Ireland. My brother and I both gave my grandmother a Belleek teapot and cups. They never got used. They sat on knick knack shelves, too precious to risk at tea time. We gave my grandmother an Irish towel but it was for Southern Ireland. No one had bothered to teach us any Irish geography or history.
When I was six or so, I remember my grandfather taking me to watch some soccer matches. It was cold and uncomfortable and didn’t make any sense.

I’m half Irish, that is both my grandparents came from Ireland. My mother was one hundred percent Irish. I guess I could go to Ireland and apply for Irish citizenship. I’m not sure what the point would be. Although she often told me that she was going to take me back to Ireland to visit, my grandmother never did. She never returned to Ireland. My grandfather returned to Ireland when he was on leave during WWI. That’s when he met my grandmother.

When he came back to Canada on a hospital ship in 1918, he was very ill from a shrapnel wound. It was a long time before he was able to leave the hospital. The war to end all wars was over. He didn’t choose to return to Ireland to farm.

He wrote my grandmother to ask her to come to Canada and marry him. She did that. As she said, there was nothing in Ireland for her. The land was entailed and she’d have spent her life being a servant for her brother’s wife, raising her brother’s children. In Canada, she had her own husband and children and her own house.

I miss them, I miss their accents.

A Northern Irish accent is wonderful. It is like being washed in warm water. I sometimes wish that my grandmother had kept her promise to take me with her to Ireland when I was in grade school. I’d have met some relatives, visited some castles and seen Loch Neagh and where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Who knows, I might have developed a passion for Irish literature instead of the literature of the American South.

They didn’t ask for their ashes to be sent back to Ireland. Their bodies are buried in a small Manitoba graveyard that is inclined to flood in the spring. They are within hearing distance of the waves of Lake Winnipeg on a windy day. They’d lived out their lives in Winnipeg with its fierce winters and muggy summers. They had a cottage at Gimli, the centre of Icelandic immigration to Canada. It was to Gimli that they moved when they could no longer manage on their own in Winnipeg.

They lived with my parents until they died. They couldn’t bring much with them for it was a tiny house, even for two people, never mind four. My grandmother kept her Belleek and my grandfather kept his black thorn walking stick. They kept their accents but not much more. Maybe that was appropriate because they’d left Ireland a long time in the past.

And me? Who am I? Are fragmented memories three generations on enough to claim one is anything? That essential Canadian question in a country that does little or nothing to help us define ourselves and saying we’re not American isn’t an answer.