My mother had four brothers who all went overseas to fight in World War II. They all returned home safe, and all lived long lives. (The last of my uncles died earlier this year, just short of his 100th birthday. My mother made it past her 100th).
But for some reason, when I think of Remembrance Day, I think of a tenuous connection I have with World War I.
We bought our house in Swansea in 1976, and at the time I worked in the Robarts Library. I made use of the old Might City Directories to look up the history of our house, and its former inhabitants. It was built about 1936; the original owner was a woman named Ida Gray who lived there until she moved out or died about 1970. (Her son held the mortgage when we bought it). Following her back through earlier years I figured out that she was married, briefly to a Walter Gray who disappeared from the directory about 1917-18.
A young war widow was my guess, and indeed, for a number of years after we bought our house, we benefited from that, as the City had granted tax reductions for war widows, and somehow that stuck with our house for a few more years after we moved in.
Later, courtesy of Google, I did confirm that Walter Gray was indeed killed in WWI, and I learned a bit about what happened to him. The little I found out about his story is sad, and echoes the horror and futility of that war.
He signed up to go overseas on Aug. 3, 1915, listing his occupation as “commercial traveller” (travelling salesman?).
He was promoted to Lance Corporal, but later demoted. These are the events noted in his Veterans Affairs biography
- Nov. 16, 1916: treated for 3 fractured ribs “by unknown causes” at the end of the 4 1/2 month Battle of the Somme, where almost a million men were killed or wounded.
- Dec. 9-12, 1916, went AWOL, and was punished by losing 4 days pay
- Jan. 3 1917, for disobeying an order was “tied to an Artillery guns wheel for 3 days”
- Jan. 22, 1917: “for undisclosed reasons” was punished by “tying the rifle behind your head to your arms and pace the trenches for 3 days”
- April 10, 1917: Walter Gray was killed by a gun shot to his right shoulder at Vimy Ridge — one of about 3600 Canadians to die in that battle.
I know nothing about the man beyond the skeletal information I found on that page, but in my imagining his situation, I see a man in his 20’s, newly married with a young son (did he ever get to see his child?), thrown into the horror of war, including one of the bloodiest battles in history.
What happened? I imagine him just wanting to “get the hell out of there”. Call it PTSD, fear, trauma, whatever you want. I picture a desperate urge for survival, one no doubt held by thousands of other scared young men who should still have been travelling salesmen, husbands and fathers.
He is buried at Lapurgoy Military Cemetary, near Bethune, France.
Poppy field photo from Wallpaperish.com