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. 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 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