We are the living
It has been 84 years since the end of the First World War - the war that was to end all wars. Now, we can find only 13 of the more than 600,000 Canadians who heeded the call to arms. As they tell their stories to Globe and Mail reporters across the nation, ERIN ANDERSSEN hears youthful passion falling victim to harsh reality and wonders if we are about to learn that bitter lesson yet again
By ERIN ANDERSSEN
Wednesday, October 23, 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.
They are now a thin brigade, the country's last living reminders of a war that seems ancient today, fought in the muck with the rats and won with blood. In a volunteer army of youngsters, they were the youngest - the ones who lied about their age to enlist or defied their parents or followed their brothers, dreaming of adventure and finding a nightmare.
They alone can tell the tale for Canada: the shivering nights in the trenches, the broken bodies at their feet, the lice, the stink of death. They fought at Vimy Ridge. They helped to take Hill 60 in the Battle of Ypres on Flanders Field.
We remember these conflicts as grand deeds, as moments in history when Canada - then a land of less than eight million - claimed nationhood, and named its first war heroes. Those who were there remember the battles as they were: a blind, mad rush uphill in the mud to where the Germans waited, praying their ma-chine-gun fire wouldn't get you before you got them.
This was war when it was a dirty slaughter, when mules dragged the cannons and spotters monitored the enemy from balloons, a far cry from our antiseptic age of smart bombs and satellites.
Today, you will meet 13 surviving Canadians who took part in the Great War, as it was known. They are all who remain of the 619,000 who enlisted, of whom 60,000 never came home.
Over the years, the veterans have mostly vanished into their private lives. There is no central registry to track them, and now that they are all more than 100 years old, their number shrinks by the day. In 1999, the French embassy bestowed the Legion of Honour on all vets who had served in France. After much detective work, it found about 110.
Resuming the search, we discovered that all but a very few have since passed away. Those who remain span the nation, from Halifax to Vancouver, with the youngest 102 and the oldest, the lone woman, 106.
The veterans are, with few exceptions, an astonishingly lively lot, if somewhat hard of hearing. Many still live in their own houses or in private rooms at retirement homes. Clare Laking, now 103, stopped driving only last year. James Fraser, nearly 104, golfed this summer. William Procter, who bowls and square-dances at 103, jumped out of an airplane for his 100th birthday; on Monday, he will march for Remembrance Day.
But nearly a century ago, they were young people burning to serve their country. They were the sons of farmers, a Montreal photo engraver, a West Coast cabinet minister. There was Charles Reaper, an orphan determined to make his name somehow. Clifford Holliday, who thought he'd be a bugle boy and landed in the trenches. And Mr. Laking, who at 16 hitched to Guelph to enlist, even after his preacher-pacifist father threatened to disown him.
They went in keen, for the most part as foot soldiers and gunners. But that "fighting feeling," as one called it, could not survive the horror that awaited them. Their age spared them nothing, not the birthdays that passed forgotten in the trenches, not the endless screams of the dying, not the horrible task of clearing the heads and arms left behind when the shells cleared. The darkest details they do not care to discuss; the war, even nine decades later, remains a hard place to go.
Now, as the world considers war yet again, ponders the idea of put-ting more young men and woman on the front line, these veterans have only their stories to throw into the debate. "If George Bush had [spent] a week in the front lines," Mr. Holliday vows, "he'd be running the other way."
Theirs was to be the war to end all wars, a time when humanity, on the brink of wonderful new technologies, would be so nauseated by its misdeeds to be scared into peace. This is not, of course, how the century went. And better than anyone, the veterans who have witnessed all that conflict understand the cost of it. Said Jim Fraser, who fought at Vimy: "It was hell, that was all."