Discovery in attic fuels hunt for poet of trenches
By ERIN ANDERSSEN
Monday, November 11, 2002
Did we miss you?
Believe it or not, there is no official registry for war veterans. We told you about 13 last week. Since then, we have learned of three others. However, we'd like to find more. So, if you also served in the First World War, or know of someone who did, please click here and let us know.
OTTAWA -- John Hernadi found his wartime mystery in the attic of an old house, buried under the insulation. The poetry lay in a pile of dog-eared yellow documents, folded and refolded so many times that the words had started to blur in the creases.
Mr. Hernadi imagined that they had been penned by a poetic soldier on the front lines, saved with care and carried in his pocket into combat, then forgotten long after the peace was won.
And so his search began, leading him finally to the descendants of a grieving mother who saved the poems likely as a link with her missing son, and a historian who believes at least some of the words were written in the trenches, to tell the tale of war.
The 62-year-old electrician had been working on the London, Ont., home when the stack of papers was recovered. He rescued them from the garbage and took them home. He considers himself an amateur historian, believing that "the past is something you have to look into and grab."
Besides the poetry, there was a collection of newspaper clippings and military cartoons dating back to the war, and a picture, dated January, 1916 -- a group of smiling young soldiers, identified loosely by name on the back, and on the front as the 34th Battalion, "Ready for action."
"You cry when you see that picture," said Mr. Hernadi, who would later learn that eight of the men did not return from the war. "And for what reason? We need to remember this."
After finding the documents several months ago, he recently ran several of the pictures in the local paper, and through that, was contacted by relatives of the home's original owners. He heard from people as far away as British Columbia who recognized a face in the group shot after it was forwarded to them.
Margi Gloin, who lives in nearby St. Thomas and whose aunt once resided in the house where the papers were found, is crafting her family tree. She immediately recognized the name on two unique postcards, perhaps among the most intriguing of Mr. Hernadi's find. They were sent home from the trenches by an ill-fated 19-year-old soldier to acknowledge briefly that he'd received his family's letters.
His name was John Allaster McGregor, a handsome, serious-looking private who signed up in the summer of 1916, and joined the 3rd Battalion overseas.
Allaster, as his family called him, did not live long. By December, as Ms. Gloin recalls, he was lost on a raid near Vimy Ridge. A search of German records after the war was in vain, and the family has never known what became of him. There is no trace of his body.
But there are these poems, found dusty in an attic. The author is not known with certainty -- the handwriting has not been compared. But Jonathan Vance, a history professor at the University of Western Ontario who examined the documents at Mr. Hernadi's request, says it is possible that these were the almost final thoughts of Private McGregor -- or words he treasured -- collected with his personal belongings as was the practice, and sent home to his mother.
Prof. Vance, who specializes in the culture of war, recognized only one poem, typed out on standard-issue paper with a military crest. He believes at least one other to be an unpublished original, though it is possible their true origin is just not known.
Whoever the author, the poems are "highly valuable" he said, not so much for style, but because of the context.
And they are even more important, Prof. Vance said, because they appeared to have been held dear.
"It gives you a real window into what these fellows were feeling about what they were stuck in the middle of," he said.
The main poem, scrawled in a flowing script across a tattered paper, tells the tale of the 11th Platoon, which "reached Belgium mud" and set to the grunt work with picks and shovels. It recounts the endless slog digging the trenches among the falling shells, and a near-miss during a mission at night. It concludes with a hint, hidden in a joke, of the horror the soldiers saw:
Thrilling tales were told by the men the next morn,
How work under shot and shell was born,
But none would tell how with a spoon,
Some pants were cleaned in the 11 Platoon.
The poem, which Prof. Vance deems "well-crafted" if not a masterpiece, harks back to a generation that learned to read and write through poetry, and naturally wrote their own. It was common for the battalions to publish newsletters on the front, with poetry written in the trenches. Usually it offered the reader a greater sense of the emotions of the soldier than did the letters home, in which soldiers were more sensitive to their readers. It is a tradition that has been lost in a century.
"I cannot image the peacekeepers in Bosnia writing poetry in their downtime," Prof. Vance said.
Among Mr. Hernadi's discovery was a copy of this poignant old war song, in tattered, well-read form, typed on a page with a military emblem:
Sing me to sleep where the bullets fall,
Let me forget the war and all,
Damp is my dug-out, cold are my feet,
Nothing but 'bully' and biscuits to eat
Far, Far from Ypres I want to be
Where German snipers can't pot at me.
Think of me crouching where the worms creep.
Waiting for someone to sing me to sleep.