Clifford Holliday


He was loading detonators into hand grenades on a moonlight night somewhere in Belgium about half a kilometre from the front line, when the bullet sheared through the "meat" of both his legs, just above the ankle. "I thought somebody had lashed me," he recalls. He spent three weeks in a field hospital and re-turned to the trenches.

Before he was injured a second time - his jaw shredded by flying shrapnel - he had survived the onslaught at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and seen the carnage of Hill 60, when his battalion went in with 1,100 men and came out with 127.

He was just a teenager, like so many, talked into a signing up by a soldier his sister was dating, inspired by his buddies who were doing the same. He had barely turned 16 when he first donned the uniform in 1914, but the recruiters had fudged his enlistments by making him a bugle boy. "I never blew a bugle," he says. He landed instead in the thick of the war, following the fiercest fighting from Belgium to France.

Today, still living his own home at 104, Mr. Holliday has better times to recall. A farm boy from Plumus, Man., he left Canada after the war for a better job, and made his name as an electrician in Hollywood, where he wired the first movie theatres for the "talkies." He once shared an unexpected lunch in a studio cafeteria with Ingrid Bergman, and worked around stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He became a prominent seniors activist in California, and in 1998, he was thanked personally for his work by then president Bill Clinton.

He is reluctant to return to the "gruesome" memories of the war. "When I came back, I just blanked it out of my mind. I didn't want to relive it." So he will not talk about the men he killed or those he watched die; it was "strictly luck" that kept him alive. "You realize you got to take care of yourself, it's your life. You get the guy before he gets you, and most times you don't even see them."

He spent his 17th birthday among the rats and body lice in the trenches, sleeping on the rubber ground sheet with whatever you carried on your back. "It was just another day."

When he took the shrapnel in his face, he was sent to England for surgery. The doctor, doubting his age, offered to send him back to the Boys Battalion in Britain.

After more than two years in the trenches, he was relieved to get out. "Who wouldn't be?" he asks. "Anybody who wants war is just a few steps out of the caveman age. Nobody can go through that and wish it on the human race again."

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