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'One from our family is plenty'


If you have no one specific to mourn this Nov. 11, spare a moment of remembrance for Private Jay Batiste Moyer. Pte. Moyer did not have a chance to live out much of his life. He never got to experience a joyful reunion with his family in Ontario. He never even got to turn 20.

He was probably no better, no worse than most of the other 60,000 or so Canadians who lost their lives in the orgy of killing naively known as the War to End All Wars.

But as Anne Frank's story shows, it's only when we learn about individuals, and multiply them by millions, that we are able to grasp the real horrors of war. Thanks to descendants of the Moyer family who kept almost every letter he sent back to Canada in his army years, it's possible to get to know Pte. Moyer.

He left school early. He had no literary talent. But his letters ring true. They tell the story of an innocent kid who can fuss over boxes of goodies from home one moment, then turn dark the next, as he writes about what life is really like at the front.

His final letter, with traces of mud still visible on the last page, was written to his sister Violet on April 6, 1917. Three days later, Pte. Moyer was fatally wounded during the epic attack by Canadian troops on the previously impregnable stronghold of Vimy Ridge, one of the war's few clear-cut victories and still a symbol of Canadian nationhood today.

The brief letter shows little sign of the carefree teenager he was when he enlisted at 17, so anxious to join the war that he lied about his age.

"I want to tell you about this last trip. It was about the longest I have yet experienced," he writes. "The mud was terrible. Our platoon feels pretty blue as we lost the best officer that ever came to France. He was a real hero. And quite a few of the boys are gone either to Blighty now or across the great divide."

He concludes: "You see it was this way, they call for Volunteers to make a bombing raid at ..... [censored] ..... in the morning. I was one of the fortunate ones that came back unhurt except for having my clothes badly torn by barb wire. This is about all I will be able to tell you. We were paid today 15 Francs and had a bath. Love to all at home Jay."

Pte. Moyer was part of a pioneer family that settled in the Niagara Peninsula hamlet of Jordan Station in 1799. His parents were in the fruit business, and Jay was the third child in the family of four girls and three boys. After his death, he was rarely talked about, even by his grieving mother. "I think it was just that, with all those deaths from the war and the Spanish flu, you put it behind you and you went on," said his niece, Marie Troup. "You didn't expect all your kids to live."

But his mother and siblings never forgot him. They saved all his letters and medals, and the correspondence about his death. His brother Bruce named his first son Jay after him, and it was the current Jay Moyer who submitted his uncle's letters.

"We have a family tradition of keeping letters, and I have a feel for family history," he said. "It's all a bit ironic. When they settled here, our family was Mennonite - pacifist and non-political. And then we have a guy from our family killed in the Great War."

Pte. Moyer's letters were discovered in a back closet by Ms. Troup after the death of the last of the aunts still living in the family home. Among them, she points out a delightful picture of the young private smiling to beat the band in his new army uniform. "He looks pretty pleased with himself, doesn't he?"

In his first letter home, while still at a nearby training camp, Pte. Moyer writes, "I like military life very much." He adds, "Bruce and I are now going to see Charlie Chaplin."

His letters document that initial, boyish enthusiasm, his unvarnished delight at every letter and boxful of treats from the family, his nostalgia about skating on the frozen ponds of home ("the only ice we see out here is on some mine crater where we break a hole to get water for our much beloved mulligan") and, toward the end, his increasingly sombre viewpoint - albeit mixed with a craving for peanut butter and honey.

"Modern warfare is not hell, it's worse," he writes Violet in 1916. "At night, it's just like a night in the grandstand at the Ex for fireworks and coloured lights and plenty of noise, too."

Later, he mentions huge rats carrying off his rations, and awful scratching because of lice, "our little crawly friends." Finally, the same soldier who couldn't wait to enlist makes a special point to warn his brother Bruce against joining up.

"This last trip in was certainly tough. It was the side of war you never read about in story books. ..... Tell [Bruce] he is too young to last out here and not to dare enlist even as a bugler," he writes to Violet just before Christmas in 1916. "One from our family is plenty.

"I would tell about this in stronger lingo only am afraid of the censor. Keep an eye on Bruce." Soon after, he writes, "So Bruce is going to Jordan for Easter is he. Oh how I would like to go with him, but I guess it will be the front line for my Easter Holidays."

Pte. Jay Moyer was among more than 10,000 Canadian casualties at the battle of Vimy Ridge. His final letter was read out at a ceremony in 1997 declaring the towering Vimy memorial a national historic site. But that wasn't the last letter of the correspondence. Eighteen days after the battle, Pte. Moyer's mother wrote to her son, not yet knowing he was already dead and buried.

Ending a chatty letter, she writes: "Dear Jay let us hope it will not be long until you come home, we are just living for that. Be good & brave my boy whatever happens. I feel that you will be spared to come home when the victory is won. Goodbye for this letter. Much love from home and mother."

Private Jay Batiste Moyer, 1898-1917: Rest in peace.

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