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'God bless you lads'


Christmas at the front: There was never a more emotional time for the millions of weary, miserable troops who spent four years killing each other, in a conflict few had much stomach for once they got there.

The story has come down through the ages of the spontaneous Christmas truce at one spot on the lines in 1914, when soldiers from both sides set aside their guns and ventured into no man's land to sing Silent Night together. "Then they went back to shooting at each other the next day," said Gordon Hendery, a fit-looking 82-year-old, with a red poppy pinned prominently on his blue blazer. "It just shows how ridiculous war is."

Mr. Hendery's father, also named Gordon, spent two Christmases away from home during the First World War. He would have spent a third had he not been badly wounded during the murderous assault on Passchendaele in the summer and fall of 1917.

On his first Christmas overseas, Mr. Hendery received a thin, handmade Christmas card clearly meant to provide memories of home. The bookmark-sized card has a tiny mauve bow and a Dominion of Canada crest on the front; two poems on the first inside pages (including "To Our Men," which concludes, "Women of Britain's race/ As Forth You go/ Wish you with proud, glad face/ The best they know,/ God bless you, lads!"); and a pair of real, red maple leaves pressed and glued onto the last page.

Mr. Hendery must have been touched by the card - he was still carrying it in his black documents pouch 22 months later, when he was wounded by shrapnel.

Who sent the card, however, turned out to be a bit of a mystery. The notation reads: "Gordon Hendery, With our love and best wishes, W.H. and J.S.H, Christmas 1915, 13 St. Mark St., Montreal." Underneath the inscription are tiny black-and-white photos of an older man and woman. The Memory Project's panel of experts assumed they were the soldier's mother and father.

"Oh, gosh no. They're not his parents," the younger Mr. Hendery said, taking a close look at the photos. "It might be his brother. Make of it what you want, old boy. I can't tell you who they are." But The Globe and Mail library was equal to the task: A few calls to the Westmount Library found that a James S. Hetherington resided at 13 St. Mark St. in 1915. Mr. Hetherington was in the wholesale tea trade, as was Mr. Hendery's father, Alex.

The name Hetherington rang a distant bell. "Yes, yes. I have heard that name before," Mr. Hendery's son remembered, over the phone. "Either he was a very, very close friend or a distant relative. I'm sorry I can't tell you much more than that."

Whatever the Hetheringtons' relationship to Mr. Hendery, the simple card they sent meant a lot to him.

The younger Mr. Hendery said his father was a lifelong victim of the First World War, even though he managed to survive the actual fighting. He was traumatized afterward, from his own experiences as well as the death of his younger brother. He also suffered from severe bronchitis for the rest of his life after so much time in the cold, wet trenches. "He died from a stroke in 1960," his son said, "still a young man."

Gordon Lawton Hendery enlisted in the Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles in 1915 at the age of 19, full of vim and patriotism. "We were an English, Scottish family. He would do anything England would do. He was all for [King] George," his son said.

The terse, no-nonsense entries in his diary portray a rough-and-tumble sort who took whatever came his way. On the day he was wounded, he writes matter-of-factly: "[The boys] went about 1000 yds. Heavy losses. Took Foley out, shot through both lungs. Going back a second time I got it myself.

"Walked to dressing station, then a mile down road to trucks. ..... there to collecting camp. Train to [indecipherable]."

Mr. Hendrey's patriotism survived the experience. He signed up for the Second World War, hoping to be sent overseas again. Instead, he wound up guarding German PoWs in Canada, while his son took the Hendery name into battle, helping with the D-day landings in 1944.

"He was so thrilled I was in uniform," said his son, noting there was a similar sense of fatalism among the soldiers in both wars: "If you were going to get it, you were going to get it. That was the feeling inside the landing crafts as they prepared to hit the beaches on D-day. I remember someone telling me as we neared land, 'Well, Gordie, this is it.' But there was no worry. No fear."

Yet the differences were many, besides the "absolutely horrible conditions" of the first war: "When they went to war, there was cheering, waving flags, the whole English nation was behind them. They were going to lick the Bosch. But nobody won the damn thing. There was nothing like that in World War II. We knew what to expect."

The younger Mr. Hendery has assembled a small museum of family military photographs and wartime relics in his home, many now adorned with poppies as Remembrance Day nears. As in other families, the renewed interest in the long-ago Great War has rekindled pride in the older generation that fought it.

"I can tell people my dad was a solider, and he is attached to Canada in a special way," the D-day veteran says. "He served his country. I'm very, very proud of that."

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