Charles Reaper



Charles Reaper figures it was his long legs that got him to the front lines as a bright-eyed 16-year-old. He had come to Canada in 1915 as a parentless lad from the Scottish county of Banffshire. Determined not to end up in an orphanage, he fibbed about his age and enlisted in Vancouver.

"It was," he says with a hearty laugh, "the only lie I ever told."

His height made the ruse possible, and today, with the help of a cane, those long legs get him around the Winnipeg apartment he shares with his wife, Anna, 91. They live independently, and he counts his blessings for that, but he very nearly failed to survive his teens with his mobility intact.

Before his 18th birthday, Private Reaper would be among the 20,000 Canadian soldiers who formed the "creeping artillery barrage" that took Vimy Ridge in Easter of 1917.

He remembers how his unit surged forward over a swell in the rolling Douai Plain. Tears filled his eyes as he watched hundreds of his comrades mowed down by German machine-gun fire ahead of him. He kept moving forward. He was hit by shrapnel and he prayed.

"What kept me alive was the man up above," he says.

Within days, Vimy would become a watershed victory for the Allied forces thanks to the tenacious Canadians, 3,600 of whom gave their lives to capture the ridge.

Mr. Reaper recovered and kept fighting. By the fall of 1917, his battalion was entrenched in the Third Battle of Ypres, a messy fight in the mud-slicked Flanders fields that would become emblematic of the futility of war.

He spent hours standing in the watery, goo-filled trenches (known as the Slough of Despond) and pressed underwear soaked in urine against his mouth and nose during mustard-gas attacks. Dry socks and whale oil to protect against trench foot were scarce. Nearly 500,000 soldiers died on both sides before Canadian troops overtook the Belgian village of Passchendaele and the battle ended.

A wound to the groin and an advanced case of foot rot put Mr. Reaper in the hospital. He was eventually sent to England for a long convalescence.

"Because of my accent, they called me an Old Country kid in the hospital," he recalls. "But I said, `No, I'm a Canadian.' "

In 1918, he returned to his adopted homeland, and eventually settled in Winnipeg, where he worked as a bus driver and transit supervisor for 48 years.

Anna Reaper says her husband has not talked much about his war experiences during their 69 years together. But unlike the survivors who went on to question the value of patriotism, he has always believed that his was a beautiful and glorious duty.

"I loved the army because I believed in fighting for my country. I was never scared," he says as he stands and offers a firm goodbye handshake.

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