Peter Preet


In a war fought by young men, Peter Preet was one of the youngest. His 17-year-old legs earned him the job of runner - the soldier who carries messages to and from the front line.

As the bombs dropped at Vimy Ridge and the snipers picked off their targets, the slightly built teenager scampered from trench to mud-filled trench. One day, the landscape lit up around him and the artillery fire was relentless as he bobbed and weaved over the terrain until it dawned on him that he could no longer speak. Mustard gas had penetrated his lungs.

"I didn't feel it at all," he says from the small seniors apartment in Toronto he has called home for more than a decade. He is still slender, but his agility has given way to a walker and visitors must shout to be heard. But Mr. Preet's mind is sharp and he remembers well the day he went mute. "I never knew I was gassed until I lost my voice and the fellow who was with me says, `I think I'd better take you into one of the English hospitals.' " He was sent to England to re-cover and assumed he would re-turn to Canada after that. But soon found that "I wasn't going home, I was going back to the front."

A year earlier, the lure of adventure had been so strong that he had skirted the rules to enlist at the age of 16. "They wouldn't take me down at [the Toronto recruitment centre], I was too young," he says with a shy giggle. So he persuaded a friend to take him to Uxbridge, north of the city, to try again. This time, he was successful. "I was young and I didn't know any better," he says. "At 16 in those days, you didn't know any-thing." He also was from a large family - five boys and three girls - with an older brother who had already been to battle, so it seemed appropriate that he should follow. "My brother got wounded and was in England getting ready to go home and I was ready to go ahead."

He spent more than a year in France and any visions of glory he may have had were shattered. When the German shelling began, he watched many men die. They were "falling all over you. . . . That's all you heard was bombs and noise. I stuck it to the end of the war. How did I get out alive? I don't know."

That's why his heart sank when he learned he was being sent back to France. "I didn't want any more of it." But before he could make the journey, the Armistice was declared and he learned he could go to Canada after all. "It was only a week or so and then I got shipped back."

Once home, he went to work for his father's fruit and vegetable business, then opened a produce store with his brother. He never married and no longer thinks much about the war, but he does admit that the mustard gas still causes nightmares.

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