Paul Metivier


Paul Metivier was still sleeping in his tent on the English coast when he heard the rumble across the Channel. It was before sunrise on April 9, 1917, and, although he didn't know it then, he had been awakened by the sound of the Canadian guns firing up the ridge at Vimy. It was months later before he stepped on French soil - a ballsy 16-year-old from Montreal who, together with his best friend, had lied about his age to get to the front line, and signed up for the artillery because he wanted to ride a horse.

"They were hungry for men," he recalls. "And we thought we'd play cowboy."

Instead, Private Metivier was as-signed two mules - named Sixty-Four and Israel - and the job of fetching shells for the 18-pound field cannon his unit manned. His first sight of Vimy Ridge - "a mountain of mud" - is also linked to his most enduring wartime memory: the thick, sopping guck that seeped into a soldier's boots and from which, with no shower in sight, you never escaped. "To me, the mud was worse than meeting a German."

But the mud, perhaps, is only the easiest memory. In the year that Mr. Metivier passed his 17th birthday near the front lines, he saw so much blood it ran down the roads like water. He watched soldiers around him blown to pieces by falling shells. He learned to focus on his task, to block out the screams of soldiers dying on the ground nearby.

He was grateful, he says, that a private's main assignment is to follow orders without asking questions. "I just did my best with a little job," he says. But he knows the weight of the little jobs combined. "Canada is what it is today because of what we did."

Mr. Metivier's time in France was cut short when his mother asked a local MP to yank him out since he was underage. He had been sending her $20 of his $33 monthly wage and a whack of letters, and she had sensed his crumbling morale. He was unhappy about leaving, he says, but not enough to refuse. He arrived home in Montreal two weeks before the war ended.

On Monday, Mr. Metivier will stand in his blue jacket at the National War Memorial to observe the Remembrance Day moment of silence. He is now legally blind and hard of hearing, but he can walk without a cane and can still debate the role of the United Na-tions in dealings with Iraq.

After the war, he became a photo engraver, and eventually, the chief of reproduction in what was then the Department of the Interior. When his son was gunned down off the coast of Spain during the Second World War, Mr. Metivier was churning out maps for the pilots, with Berlin circled in red.

He has been back to Vimy several times since the war to see the forest and cemetery that now stand where he remembered only mud. And on Tuesday, he received a standing ovation in the House of Commons. "I never thought to have an honour like that."

The Top 85 artifacts by category

2003 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.