Today we remember. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 the guns fell silent. The bloodiest war in human history to that date was over. But not for everyone.
Today, as Canada pauses for the traditional two minutes of silence, I will be remembering my mother’s father. He fought in that war, putting his university studies on hold to do his duty for king and country. His war record is in the National Archives in Ottawa. For years all I could read online was his enlistment form. I kept promising myself that I would go to the Archives some day and see the complete file.
I had no idea exactly what he did during the war. I assumed he fought at Vimy Ridge, because the entire Canadian army fought there.
What I did know for sure was this: they ate their horses. My mother told me that; my grandfather never talked to me about the war. He probably thought I was too young (I was 10 when he died). He was probably right.
That war killed him, though it took a while. Troops had a weekly ration of cigarettes and everyone in the trenches chain smoked. I never saw my grandfather smoke; he quit about the time I was born, as the medical effects of smoking became known. It was too late by then, he had emphysema. His was not a pretty death. He didn’t smoke before the war. Tobacco accomplished what the enemy could not.
They ate their horses. The significance of that sinks in when you realize he was in the field artillery. They needed those horses to pull the cannons from place to place. It was cold, there was no food, and the mission had gone horribly wrong.
It was a part of the war that is rarely mentioned. The Canadians were part of an Allied expeditionary force sent to overturn the Bolshevik government and return the Czar to the throne of Russia. I have to wonder what fool would launch an attack on Moscow or St. Petersburg in winter. Had they never heard of Napoleon?
I have met very few people who have heard of Canada’s involvement in that conflict. We tend to remember our victories, and the Russian campaign would not have been considered that. There are books on the subject (and scholarly articles of course) but I wouldn’t describe them as bestsellers.
Yesterday I went to the National Archives website to look again at his enlistment form, to download it to accompany this post. His entire service file was there, recently digitized. And I learned some new things about my grandfather.
He did not fight at Vimy Ridge, he arrived in France just after that battle. He was also never in Siberia. I had assumed that he was because all the information I read online about that campaign talked about Siberia, about troops leaving Canada from Vancouver heading for Vladivostok.
He fought on the northern front, taking a reduction in pay (from $25 to $20 monthly) and rank (from Sergeant to Corporal). I presume he volunteered. They landed at Archangel (Arkhangelsk), more than a thousand kilometres north of Moscow.
It was an ambitious initiative, and how the world would have been different if they had succeeded! No Soviet Union. No Cold War. Perhaps no Second World War. The allied efforts in Russia lasted until 1920. My grandfather spent nine months there, arriving back in Canada in July 1919. The mission failed, they ate their horses. They got out alive.
Today is Remembrance Day and I am remembering my grandfather, Frederick Bernard Booz, a gentle man who survived the war when so many didn’t.