My Grandfather and WW1

 

WilliamSmith copy

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 It was a slaughter as generals tried to fight battles with outdated strategies against new technology.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.

 

Remembrance

fighter plane

The Cost of War In the time leading up to Remembrance Day, I think often of my grandfather, William John Smith.

He left Ireland for Canada. He went to Winnipeg because he had three sisters there. He joined the militia. After WWI began, he joined the regular army and went to France to fight for Britain.

He was a crack shot. The army made him a sniper and a machine gunner. He was so accurate that on a number of occasions, he was asked if he’d like to volunteer to be a tail gunner on an aircraft. The lifespan of tail gunners could be measured in minutes. He declined.

He was gassed. The mustard gas damaged his lungs so that in cold weather when he was back in Winnipeg after the war, he found it difficult to breathe. Sometimes, when he was coming home from his work in the railway roundhouse, he would collapse and have to crawl through the snow. This was a man who had been a champion boxer in his military unit.

He was wounded by shrapnel in his right hand. It wasn’t a major wound and normally would have healed but it infected and, in those days, there were no antibiotics. He spent the rest of the war in hospital in England, then in Montreal, before returning to Manitoba.

When I was a young boy, I asked him if he’d ever killed anyone. “Thousands,” he said but he would say no more about it. He’d only talk about trying to kill the rats in the trenches with his bayonet.

My father never went to war. He had a wife and two children and a bleeding ulcer that nothing would heal. We never had to fear getting a letter saying that he was missing in action or dead. When we listened to the news, we didn’t have to wonder if he’d been killed in the latest battle. Our fear was for our friends who were overseas.

I remember that although I was only six crying when we listened to the list of names of Prisoners of War being read on the radio and discovered that a close friend who was missing in action was still alive.

Many years ago, I married Mary-Anne Tooth. We were both very young and eventually got divorced. During the twenty years that we were together, I got to know her father or, perhaps, I should say, I got to know who he had been.

Three days past his 28th birthday, his squadron, the 407 of the R.C.A.F., known as the Demon Squadron, attacked a German convoy. It was May 15, 1942.

Mary-Anne had been born three days before. He never returned from that mission. No one saw his plane go down. Hitler and his ambitions didn’t just kill Arthur Tooth. He also wounded Arthur’s wife and his daughter. Helen lost a husband. Mary-Anne, a father.

It is these casualties that go unspoken when we see books about people in the armed forces who were killed in the Great Wars, who have been killed recently in the Middle East. It is these people who have to live with memories, with empty spaces, with what might have been.

Women remarry, men remarry, children get stepfathers or stepmothers, but there’s always what might have been. Always.

Arthur Tooth was just one of 45,400 service people, most of them men, who died in WWII. There apparently is no record of the number of widows or widowers, the number of children left without a father or mother. There is no record of how many mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts who were left bereft, their lives shattered. Yet, they are the casualties of war.

Arthur Tooth. I wish I had known him. He was both a football player and a poet. Quite the combination. He wanted to be a writer. He went to University in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He volunteered to fight for Britain. Just as my grandfather had done in 1915.

Just before he was lost in action, Arthur wrote a poem called, “Requiescat in Pace”. It is the first poem in the collection of his poems that his wife gathered together and published in his memory. It’s a fine poem and a good memorial not just for Arthur Tooth but for all those who went missing in action and were never found. Here are the first few lines.

“Not I nor mine shall ever lie

Thus ordered in the church,

Gravestones of white and red

And black shall never mark

Our resting place—nor cheerless

Words shall ever lie like boulders

On our name—nor flowers dead-within a pot

Uptilted on our head. “

“This prophetic poem was received in a letter three weeks after Flt Sgt. Tooth was reported “missing” in action. It was written in the graveyard by the Chapel, Fenny Strafford, where many of his ancestors are buried. “—Helen Tooth

Those who romanticize war, who romanticize the dead, do a terrible disservice to those who have fought, those who have died. There is nothing romantic about war except in the mind of the gullible and the immature. War creates terrible pain. Women without husbands, mothers without sons. Children without fathers. Families without nephews and nieces–yes, now that women take on combat roles, both mothers and fathers can be sacrificed to some war mongers fantasy and ambition.

Holding ceremonies, building statues may make some people feel important but they do not bring back the dead,nor do they heal the living. Remembering is important, if for no other reason than respect and gratefulness, but it is not the same as romantically glorifying the tragic, terrifying deaths of those whose reward for their bravery and loyalty is the grave.