2014 marks a couple of historical milestones: first, the beginning of the First World War; second, 70 years since my parents married, and my Dad was in France during the Second World War. I also had two uncles who participated in WWII, both in the Air Force. My mother’s brother was killed, aged 22, in 1942 in a training crash. My Dad’s brother made it through, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. So when November 11 comes around each year, I always find myself thinking about them. However, I never knew very much about what actually happened during my Dad and my Grandfather’s involvement.
My paternal grandfather, who had emigrated to Canada in 1910, signed up and fought as a Canadian soldier. I recently went back through old family papers, and found that he served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, signing up in 1916, and serving with the 102 Battalion Comox Atlin. That bit of information lead me, because of old records being made accessible on the net, to find out something about what he may have done. He started as a Private, and ended his service in 1919 as a Sergeant and served in France and Belgium. From the ‘Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group’ page:
“The 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion was organized in November 1915 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. Warden under authorization published in General Order 151 of 22 December 1915. The battalion was mobilized in Comox and recruited in northern British Columbia.
The battalion embarked at Halifax 20 June 1916 aboard EMPRESS OF BRITAIN, disembarking in England on 28 June 1916. Its strength was 37 officers and 968 other ranks. The battalion arrived in France on 11 August 1916, becoming part of the 4th Canadian Division, 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade. It was later reinforced by the 16th Canadian Reserve Battalion. The battalion returned to England on 4 May 1919, disembarked in Canada on 6 June 1919, was demobilized on 14 June 1919, and was disbanded by General Order 149 of 15 September 1920.”
This battalion fought in France and Flanders: SOMME, 1916″, “Ancre Heights”, “Ancre, 1916”, “ARRAS, 1917, 18”, “VIMY, 1917”, “Hill 70”, “YPRES, 1917”, “PASSCHENDAELE”, “AMIENS”, “Scrape, 1918”, “Drocourt-Quéant”, “HINDENBURG LINE”, “CANAL du NORD”, “VALENCIENNES”, “France and Flanders, 1916-18”.
I also found a fascinating account of the 102 Battalion, written in 1919, right after the war, by L. McLeod Gould, called ‘From B.C. to Baisieux; being the narrative history of the 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion’. I have read parts of it, and it is very direct. How the men survived is amazing. When they began to train in Comox, they had no rifles, so all they did was march. They only received arms training, for a few weeks, once in England. There is a second site about the battalion’s history which also refers to Gould’s book, plus photos and one soldier’s diary.
Knowing from history about these battles, I am amazed that my Grandfather survived. I don’t know any specific details, but with the information I now have, I might be able to find out more with further research. My Grandfather married my Grandmother in 1917 in England, and my Dad was born the following year. They came back to Canada after the end of the war. He was a founding, and lifelong member of the Great War Veterans’ Association which later joined with the Royal Canadian Legion.
As for my Dad, I really knew nothing at all, until just a few weeks ago. I just knew he was in a tank, in France, and was wounded. Period. He never talked about any of the experiences of actual fighting. He would tell the occasional story about meeting aunts and cousins and his brother, who was in the Air Force. Recently, in talking to my brother about family things, he told me that he did once talk to our Dad about his experiences. Our Dad died over 30 years ago, of cancer, just after his 62nd birthday. I often wondered if it was as a result of his war experience because he was in tanks, which were lined with asbestos. Anyway, my brother told me what battalion he was in, and a little about what Dad told him. I hope to find out more in the future, but from what I learned, and what I have been able to find out, again online in the past few weeks, well, it gave me some sleepless nights and a few tears, and also some resolution to many questions I had.
I didn’t know that he had first tried to enlist in the navy, but was refused because of his poor eyesight. Which was interesting because he was accepted January 1942 in Vancouver into the Infantry. He was assigned to the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and headed off to Borden in Ontario to undergo training as a communications person in the tank division. Again, how underprepared these men were. In January 1942 when this division was set up, from a report called the Flames of War, was the following information:
“The immediate problem was that not a single member of the division knew anything about tanks, nor did they even possess a tank. The only place that had tanks was the Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicle Centre at CFB Borden. A group of division personnel were sent to Borden to train as instructors in February so that they could begin to train the rest of the division.”
The commander in Borden happened to find out that there were 165 tanks sitting on the docks in Halifax waiting to be shipped to England. He managed to get permission for a few of them to be sent back to Ontario. This is how they ended up training:
“No regiment had more than fifteen tanks, so each squadron took turns operating an actual tank while the remainder did dismounted drills with wooden H’s made of 2” x 2” lumber.” Incredible!
From what I can figure so far, he went to England in March 1944, shortly after he and Mum were married. They took the train to Winnipeg as their honeymoon, and he kept going East. She came back to New Westminster.
There are several sites that have reports on where his division fought, most notable, right after D-Day, as part of the push to liberate Belgium and France: Flames of War; The Falaise Gap (Canada at War); The Canadian Army 1939-1945; The Falaise Pocket. So interesting to see that both he and his father fought in the same areas – France and Belgium.
On History Channel, for the past two nights, and continuing tomorrow, has been short programs called War Stories and they have covered this exact period. It has been both awful and enlightening to see the film footage and to hear the quiet stories of the men, from both sides of the war. Horrific doesn’t begin to cover it. From what my brother told me, Dad was in the tanks that participated in this. He told of having to drive over bodies on the road, of seeing the tank next to him blown up, with his childhood friend in it. At one point, their division, along with a Polish division, were caught near the German tank division. Apparently, of the 28 tanks, only about 5 made it out, his being one. Sometime later, I don’t know when or where, his tank was hit. The two men in the lower part of the tank were killed instantly. Dad was sitting higher (that’s him on the right, partway out of the hatch); the sole of his boot was blown off. He and the fourth man, who sat at the top of the turret, escaped before the tank burned up. As they were running for a ditch, Dad was shot in the leg, and the other man dragged him for quite a long way until they were safe. I don’t know any more, other than he eventually was back in England, and what he did until he came back home, is unknown at this point. Watching the film, there were several shots of tanks and I wonder if one of them was his. In the sky, the Air Force was bombing massively. Was that his brother up above him? Quite likely.
When I look at the photo of the two brothers before they went overseas, they looked so relaxed and easy. Coming home later, I know my Dad was affected, and now I have a bit of a better idea why and how. How could anyone even stand that mentally? I don’t think they could, and they returned with something fundamental broken.
For my Mum, her only brother, the youngest in the family, signed on to be a pilot. I have a few letters he wrote to her from Regina, Calgary and Comox. He died when his plane crashed in Patricia Bay, Victoria. They were close, in age, and as brother and sister. His death ended their line of the family, which had been traced back to 1662. Their family was deeply affected.
My Uncle, who was killed.
There has been a lot about the military in the news in the last while, maybe because of the various anniversaries around the two world wars, about the continuing unrest in various parts of the world, about PTSD (a term which only came into official use in the 1980s), about available help or lack thereof, for military personnel who are injured, in body and/or in mind. For these soldiers, they were expected to buck up, shut up, go home, and get on with life, which they did to greater and lesser degrees. This latter issue has been on my mind for a while.
Recently on the CBC radio program The Sunday Edition, there was a feature on PTSD. The interesting thing was the response letters that were sent, most from children of WW II veterans. All I can say is ‘yes’, that’s how it was. There are good memories, and there are not so good ones. Grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, children, all affected.
Little by little, more is being written about our generation and the effect of WW II on our families. One that resonated was from the Huffington Post. It is helpful to finally find such information. Maybe someday the chain of the effects of war on families will be broken, so that our families are not. In a peaceful and safe country like ours, Canada, we still see the effects of war 100 years later, on the ordinary people who left their homes, travelled a long way, and experienced the unimaginable. If fighting stopped today in other parts of the world, it would be another 100 years before the effects on those ordinary people would begin to diminish.
I loved my Dad, my Grandfather, and my Uncles, ordinary men, three of whom somehow survived the far from ordinary. So on this Remembrance Day, marking 100 years of the start of WW I, and 70 years after my Dad’s participation in WW II, I remember and reflect, and think about the legacies.