IDEN HERBERT BALDWIN
|Iden Herbert Baldwin when he was 22 years old and waiting to return to Canada after fighting in the First World War.|
Copy Photo: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
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Lance Corporal, 28th Battalion
The German shell blew the ground from under his feet. As he tumbled out of his trench and into the newly formed crater, Herbert Baldwin felt a fair chunk of French countryside land on top of him.
The handsome teenager with the square-set jaw gasped - he was buried alive. Then he realized that his helmet had fallen over his nose, creating a small air pocket that kept him alive until "some fellow's fingers moved some dirt away from my mouth and I was able to breathe."
Mr. Baldwin describes his brush with death from the hospital bed he has set up in the dining room of his home in midtown Toronto. Today, he turns 105, but he was just 17 back in April, 1915, when he joined the army in Prince Albert, Sask. The youngest of 15 children, he had come to Canada from England four years earlier with two sisters and a brother-in-law after his mother had fallen ill.
While he was in action, his comrades were picked off by German snipers, he fought at Vimy Ridge, he underwent repeated shelling and he earned a distinguished conduct medal for capturing an enemy machine-gun post. Even now, as he celebrates his birthday with his wife, Ann, and long-time friends, he still has a piece of shrapnel lodged in his hand.
"Why did I decide to go to war? Because our country was threatened. Now, if we had another war, it would be immediate conscription, but every man in our army was a volunteer."
The call to arms attracted so many prairie youth, Mr. Baldwin recalls, that "they decided to make one battalion in Saskatoon and one in Prince Albert." Which meant that he was fighting along-side hometown friends. "We were all just lads - when you're young like that, you have no idea what you're going into."
He went to England as a commissioned officer assigned to training, but then a close friend, a family man, received word that he was bound for the front. Mr. Baldwin asked to be made a private so he could go to France in his friend's stead.
Any romantic thoughts of ad-venture that might have contributed to his decision to enlist didn't last long when "men were continually getting killed." And the killing went on to the bitter end. On Nov. 11, relief turned to grief when the battalion lost a man to a sniper.
The truce wasn't the end of the line for Mr. Baldwin, who spent two more years in Germany keeping the peace. He came home, became a plumber's apprentice in Prince Albert and moved to Toronto in the early 1920s. He remained single until 1954 and then, after his first wife's death, married Ann, whom he had known since 1945, in 1981.
Today, he has difficulty hearing and doesn't spend too much time out of bed. But the memories re-main fresh even if the war "was a long time ago now."
- Gloria Galloway