Peter, The Great War, and Pop Goes to Camp

At 11:00 A.M. (Paris time) on the 11th of November, 1918, “The Great War”, “The War To End All Wars” a.k.a. World War I, came to an end. The face of Europe was forever changed. However, in this war’s wake, it fostered yet another global conflict, as less than 21 years later the “dogs of war” were let loose once again.

I observe “Remembrance Day” every year. I buy a poppy and wear it with pride, I stand for the two minutes silence at 11:00 A.M. no matter where I am, (much to the apparent chagrin of a Tim Hortons full of people one year. I still can’t believe that people were asking aloud “Why is he standing?”)

I don’t do this to glorify war, I do this to remember most of those who have fallen, both civilian and military. Truth be told however, unrepentant Nazis and other dead fascists are just as well gone, as far as I am concerned. The same goes for a few on the Allied side, who seized this “licence to kill” to visit evil upon the rest of Humanity.

Today’s column will concentrate on my father’s service in the military. He and I didn’t talk about it very often, and he rarely spoke of it when I was living at home before leaving to start my own life. While I was always interested in military aviation, I didn’t have the same interest in land or naval warfare, so my curiosity wasn’t piqued to press him on the matter, much to my later regret.

As stated in a previous column, Dad joined the Canadian Army in July 1940, when England was on the ropes. The British Army had been able to save 338,000 troops, including French and Canadian soldiers, due to “the miracle of Dunkirk” in May-June 1940. The force had left its vehicles and heavy weapons in France, so time was needed to enable this army to re equip. These 338,000 troops would provide the nucleus for the land forces which would lead the Allies to victory in Europe, North Africa and the Far East, but no one could foresee these victories in late July, 1940.

I know little of Dad’s Basic Training, except for a few things he told me. One of his  drill instructors asked the assembled squad if anyone had taken music lessons. Dad was one of about five who put their hands up. They were promptly dispatched to proceed to the Officer’s Mess and move the piano! He also once lay on his back to demonstrate to my brother Paul and I how to cock a P.I.A.T. gun. a)

His regiment was the Essex Scottish, a unit which recruited in the Essex County/Windsor area. In those days, that was standard procedure, each regiment had a specific “catchment area” in which to recruit.

This regiment had two battalions, and Dad’s was stationed at Camp Borden. The other was sent to England. It took serious losses during the raid on Dieppe, which took place in August, 1942. Of the 32 officers and 521 Other Ranks b) who embarked on the raid, 6 officers and 115 O.R. were killed, and only 52 in total returned to England unwounded, while 24 officers and 385 O.R. were captured, including a former assistant manager of mine at work c).

While speaking of Dieppe, Dad did tell me about his unit being herded into trucks, driven down to Toronto, boarding a train at Union Station and sitting on a car for some hours before an officer came and told the men to get back into the trucks, they were returning to camp. This was happened in January 1942, and I often wonder if they had intended to ship Dad’s battalion over to England to join the other battalion, which could have had a major effect on my life. As noted earlier, he had met my Mum while at Camp Borden, and they were married in April 1942. That would have been hard to do if Dad had been sent to England!

Dad was made a sergeant, and became the bandmaster for the battalion band. Family lore has it that he can be glimpsed in an episode of the excellent NFB series “Canada At War”, which dealt in part with Bob Hope’s visit to Camp Borden. Of course, while the band members were musicians, they also had to be soldiers, so they took infantry training. I do remember Dad telling me once about a young soldier who froze with a hand grenade in his hand. The instructor grabbed it and threw it far enough away that when it did explode, no one was hurt. In our family photo album, there were also a few pictures of an army truck on its side, I never did hear the background to THAT story.

Bob Hope’s Visit to Camp Borden

One of many facets of military life involves officers asking the troops about their conditions, ostensibly with an eye to addressing any grievances before they get out of hand.

During their evening meal one night, an officer came in to the mess hall and asked how the meal was. A young soldier stood up and complained about the food. The officer put him “on a charge”, which meant that the young soldier would be punished. Everyone in the mess hall looked at each other, and one soldier got up and scraped his plate into a garbage can beside the officer, then another did so, then a few more and on and on until all of the troops had dumped their meals into the now overflowing garbage can. Dad said that they were all hungry, but it was important to make a stand. Lesson learned, by me. I could show you the exact spot where he told me that story, such was its impact on me.

A few months ago, during a phone conversation with my aunt, she mentioned that Dad’s unit had been told to get ready to ship out for overseas service. I mentioned the January 1942 abortive trip to Union Station, but she said that it was not that occasion, the one she was talking about had occurred in late May 1945.

My blood ran cold as I considered that. They had no need of additional troops in Europe.

They must have been preparing to ship my dad’s unit out to participate in “Operation Olympic”, the invasion of the Japanese home islands, scheduled for November 1945.

My Dad didn’t have to leave Canada during the war. He never saw combat, and in the fullness of time was discharged honourably, to go on with his life.

I will always be very proud of him, for he had volunteered for service and was prepared to go wherever he was sent. He was one of the lucky ones, but even so, had his life interrupted for over 5 years. He felt that it was necessary, as Evil had to be defeated.

So that is why I proudly wear my poppy, and while I remember all who have served every day, I make a special point to do so on November 11th.

As parts of this column have been a bit sombre, let me finish with a little anecdote starring my Mum and Dad. Orillians will be familiar with the distances involved, (for others, Google Maps might be your friend.)

The Atherley Arms

Dad got a pass one fine summer Saturday morning, made his way from Camp Borden to Barrie, caught the  train to go see my mother, and got off in Orillia. Mum was working at Fern Resort, IIRC. Dad walked from the train station, over the Narrows and stopped at “The Atherley Arms” (a.k.a “The First”). Dad had one weak wartime beer, then continued on to see his beloved. He got to Fern Resort, met Mum and gave her a kiss. She pulled back and told him that she didn’t want to see him if he had been drinking 😉!

Fern Resort

My father, in his hot battledress, (of course), turned around and made his way from whence he came, back to Camp Borden. I’m not sure if he stopped at the Atherley Arms again, but I wouldn’t have blamed him! They were married almost 46 years, so he couldn’t have been that sore.

See you soon

  1. a) Projector Infantry Anti Tank
  2. b) Any personnel belong the rank of Commissioned Officers.
  3. c) Statistics from the book “From D-Day to VE-Day- The Canadian Soldier” by Jean Bouchery, Histoire & Collections- Paris 2003. This book proved invaluable in preparing this column.

=PJM=

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