124 years ago today, July 18th 1892, my great grandfather, George Andrew McDonald, came screaming into the world. In his 24th year he enlisted with the Canadian military and entered the Great War. He volunteered likely believing the war would be over by December and thus set sail for England, I imagine, excited for adventure. I know very little of the man though he was one of my father’s principal early care givers.
When I graduated from high school my father gifted me George’s WWI service medal. That gift seemed to somehow connect me to this man. From the regiment number stamped on that medal I obtained his attestation paper from his military enlistment. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has made these available online. I then went on to pay the photocopy fees to obtain his service record from the LAC. Practically everything I know about the man comes from these documents. It isn’t much.
George was five feet six inches tall and likely weighed around 140lbs. He had light brown hair and grey eyes and I imagine that if he and I were standing side by side we might just be mistaken as brothers. He was 23 years old when he enlisted in late November 1915 in Sarnia Ontario. He was assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps and the 70th batallion. His initial medical report indicates that he had no distinguishing physical marks. Within a year there’d be scars: physical and mental. He was discharged August 23rd, 1918 “being medically unfit for further general service” the record states. He had taken a bullet just above his left knee, “external to the joint,” though I wonder if he walked with a limp from then on? He took that bullet somewhere along the Somme, France on the 12th of October 1916 nearly 100 years ago.
The Somme was a muddy, bloody cess pool. Men literally rotted in trenches as we struggled to learn this new “modern” warfare. His record tells a grim story of the aftermath of that experience though in the most clinical and perfunctory way. One doctor reports that he “claimed” to be shell-shocked 4 or 5 times. I know he was at the front but how long exactly I can’t say. He was in France for 5 months. He developed a slight tremor in his hands that could be seen also in his tongue. He couldn’t keep his food down and lost about 20 pounds. He was nervous all the time and easily excited. If he was anything like me his resting pulse rate should have been in the mid to low 50s. After his time at the front it was 108.
When I learned I would be going to France I hoped that my travels would take me close enough to the Vimy Ridge memorial. George didn’t fight at Vimy (that was a few months after he was wounded). Vimy is the Canadian war memorial to see in France. It is widely regarded that our victory there was the birth place of the nation. France gifted the ridge in perpetuity to the people of Canada and on its hallowed ground stands an inspiring monument to the sacrifice made there.
TO THE VALOUR OF THEIR COUNTRYMEN IN THE GREAT WAR AND IN MEMORY OF THEIR SIXTY THOUSAND DEAD THIS MONUMENT IS RAISED BY THE PEOPLE OF CANADA.
It was raining as we drove through the French countryside, avoiding the toll road, toward Vimy Ridge. The country is flat here and well cultivated. We passed through many small French villages where row homes of weathered brick pressed close against the narrow road. The steeples of Catholic Churches rose majestically above each community against the back drop of storm darkening skies. Then suddenly between villages appeared the familiar white font on black background of Canadian government signs, a small red maple leaf in the corner. This could not be a sign for Vimy Ridge as it was too soon, but I was intrigued. I made a left as directed and followed the signs to an unknown, to me, Canadian memorial. The narrow road narrowed more and more until it was essentially a single paved lane winding through French fields. Then just off the road was a small plot, maybe 30 meters square, of fenced coniferous trees with close cropped grass. In its centre lay a rock monument with the statue of a caribou dominating its top. Gueudecourt. I would learn that a regiment from Newfoundland fought bravely and won here at extraordinary cost. Newfoundland was not a part of Canada at that time. It wouldn’t become Canada’s tenth province until after the 2nd World War. Yet, a Canadian monument all the same.
The small grounds of this memorial are meticulously kept. Even the shallow trench at the foot of the caribou statue was filled with well groomed grass. The rain fell lightly as I reflected on the beauty now found here. I wondered if George felt the sting of that bullet somewhere close by. Perhaps it was a rainy day much like this one and he was in this trench at my feet. His feet rotting in his boots as he anticipated the command to climb out of the mud and charge the enemy. I learned that this line, this trench at my feet, became the front line of the Somme. Indeed along this line somewhere George had fought. Along this line now stretching off into well cultivated fields George had sat in the mud as explosions shook the ground around him and men died in squalor. Yet, when he arrived the trench had already been dug and the ground watered with the blood of Newfoundland’s boys and when he was done others would come to make their sacrifice. It was sobering to stand there in the rain.
We drove on to Vimy Ridge. Every Canadian has seen this monument. It is on our 20 dollar bill. Two granite spires reach out of the earth toward heaven and at its base a single tomb to represent the thousands lost here and elsewhere in the war. Above the tomb the lone figure of a woman, Canada, shrouded in her granite cloak mourns the loss of her sons. Her eyes are downcast staring at the silent tomb unable to see the view presented by the ridge she stands upon. It was for that view of the plains her sons had fought and died. Fought and died. Sixty thousand Canadian soldiers; 1 in 10 from a force of 600,000. 1 in 10 from a country of a mere 7 million.
I wandered around the monument lost in my thoughts, grateful for the sacrifices made and saddened that it was ever necessary. I placed my hand upon the names of the fallen carved in that granite and felt a small touch of survivor’s guilt. George was only a boy who likely had little concept of the fate that awaited him when he signed that attestation. Sure there was some courage there, some patriotism, some sense of duty but it was probably the uniform, the call of adventure, the smiles of the girls that compelled him to the theatre of war. The dark clouds roiled above us but did not obstruct our view of the valley which seemed to stretch out a hundred years and into our prosperous lives.
Just a few days later Lisa and I joined hundreds of thousands of Parisians at the foot of the Eiffel Tower to celebrate Bastille Day. A day of freedom. Later that night when the fireworks had ended we learned that a man had used a truck as a weapon at a similar fireworks show in Nice, France. He indiscriminately smashed through the crowds killing and maiming men, women, and children. In a great act of evil he took the lives of nearly 100 people and injured twice as many. Tens of thousands more mourn their loss. Their eyes are fixed on the tombs at their feet. It is a new “modern” warfare. There is no trench to climb into and if there were those firing from the other side are surrounded with innocents. Is there a weapon made with hands that could find our enemies without giving rise to more? I won’t claim to have the answers but it seems clear to me that the soil at our feet has an infinite capacity to drink the blood of man.