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 It was a slaughter as generals tried to fight battles with outdated strategies against new technology.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



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.

The Wages of War

I was born the year the war started. My mother told me once that she’d just come out of the hospital with me when the parade for the King and Queen was taking place in Winnipeg. She saved the newspaper from that day. She showed it to me. She said she’d stood at the side of the road, holding me, watching the parade. She was seventeen.

My life has been inextricably woven through with WW2. That’s because an airbase for training pilots was built two miles west of Gimli. That meant that my earliest childhood memories are of young men in air force uniforms.

My parents were very young when they got married. A year after they married, they had a house. Other young people didn’t have houses. It meant that their house became a gathering point, a place to visit and my parents had an open door. Young men in uniform sat in our kitchen drinking coffee, sat in our living room playing cards, lay about our front porch in summer. They held me, carried me, bounced me on their knees. One of them, when I had colic, took off his jacket and shirt and let me sleep on his warm stomach.

Young men like this training for war, preparing to place their lives at risk for all of us.

All the talk was about war. About what was happening in Europe. Sometimes, about the young men who had been killed. I was still very small when I understood that being dead meant never coming back. As I grew older, I sometimes cried when I heard that one of the young men who had carried me around on  his shoulders, chased me around the yard, tickled me, told me stories, wasn’t coming back.

My father couldn’t join the armed forces. He had bleeding ulcers and nothing the doctor did would cure them. It would be many decades later, after antibiotics were discovered and a lot of research was done that there would be treatment. He lived on milk, cream of wheat and ice cream.

Two of his brothers joined up. One in the airforce. One in the navy. Close friends were in the forces. We listened intently to the news, particularly to the theatres of war where our friends were fighting. One of those friends, Dave MacIntosh, see, I remember his name after all these decades, disappeared. We didn’t know if he was dead or a prisoner.

I hated it when my friends were transferred away. Gone and maybe never coming back. It was like a great beast was eating them up. Sometimes, I cried.

I don’t remember the end of the war, the announcement that it was finally over. What I do remember is listening to the radio in the living room, to long lists of the names of POWs. At last, we heard Dave MacIntosh’s name. He’d been a prisoner. He was still alive.

When the war was over, the airport continued to operate. Pilots trained on Harvard trainers, yellow planes that were noisy as they flew overhead. We grew used to them. Air force people lived in the PMQs, some lived on the economy, that is, they rented in town.  When we went into grade nine, air force kids were bused to town to go to school. Maybe the biggest impact of the air base were the romances between the airmen and the local girls and the romances among the high school students. The air force kids were exotic. They’d been many places, moved from city to city, town to town, province to province. Some had even been overseas. None of us had been anywhere. They brought us messages from the bigger world.

We discovered that though the airbase had an impressive fence and a guard at the highway entrance, if we walked through the PMQs, we could go right onto the base and make use of the splendid gymnasium. We also went to Air Force Days. There, we got to see the planes up close, to watch weapons being fired, to look at displays, to hear military music, to see, for the first time, men jumping out of planes on parachutes. Just like in the black and white news clips from the war.

We learned about death for the Harvard trainers crashed. One crashed right in town. My cousin Dilla took pictures of it for the local paper. Another went down as we watched, perpendicular, straight into the graveyard. The death in Europe had been far away but here it was immediate, happening sometimes right before our eyes.

It never occurred to me that there was anything different about Gimli having the airbase. I took it for granted. I had no idea that I was living in a world that was larger than that in most small Manitoba towns. I took it for granted that people from many different parts of Canada then, later, from Europe, were neighbours, friends and, sometimes, turned into relatives by marriage.

The Harvard trainers were replaced with T33s, and we learned when there were crashes, to share the distress of our classmates because, often, their father’s were jet pilot trainers. The T33s were known locally as flying coffins.

When we were in high school, there’d been problems in some of the classes we were taking. A friend mentioned to me that we could take classes along with the air force men who were upgrading so they could get promotions. We signed up, our parents paid up, and we got some of the best teaching we’d ever had. Here was a different world, a world where studying and learning were connected directly to a useful outcome. There were no hijinks, no fooling around. Education was a serious business. That was a wage that was priceless.

The wages of war? Some people, those in armaments production, or providing supplies of various kinds, made great wages, made fortunes. We were just a small town with seasonal commercial fishing, with summer cottagers but we earned something, more sophistication than we otherwise would have had, knowledge of far flung places. Sometimes even money. My grandmother rented out a house to an air force couple. In the summers when I set pins at the bowling alley, a lot of the customers were young single air force guys with nothing to do on a summer’s evening. I got paid by the game and took care of two alleys. Those were precious dollars that I stuffed in my pocket at the end of the night.

I remember my air force friends from high school fondly. They added to my life in immeasurable ways, provided wages that could not and cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. I remember the young men in uniform preparing for war who in their spare time, came to visit. I remember having conversations with young airmen who were lonely for home and family. They enriched my life, made my world bigger, gave it a depth that it would not have otherwise had.

On Remembrance Day, I think of them, all those people who passed through, the few who returned to stay, the beloved air force uncle from Boston who joined the Canadian air force at eighteen because the USA wasn’t in the war yet.  He came with his Boston accent, his brush cut, his smile and married my aunt. He took her travelling across the world, from one post to the other, but when he retired, they came back to Gimli and it was like they’d never been away.