Let­ters from the front Woman pre­served her fa­ther’s let­ters from the First World War

The Prince George Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - Frank PEE­BLES Cit­i­zen staff fpee­bles@pgc­i­t­i­zen.ca

April of 1917 was a piv­otal month for Canada, in the na­tion’s com­ing of age. That was when Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Vimy Ridge fi­nally fell for good to an al­lied army and that army was Canada’s.

Those sol­diers had in their midst one Gor­don Stu­art Struan Robert­son of Fort Wil­liam, Ont. (now a neigh­bour­hood of Thun­der Bay). April, 1917 was also a piv­otal time for him.

He had been en­listed for ex­actly one year when the his­toric push on the West­ern Front took place. One of the crit­i­cal lo­ca­tions to win was the all-im­por­tant Vimy hill be­cause of how it looked down over the sur­round­ing land­scape. It was an es­sen­tial fir­ing point for whomever wanted to dom­i­nate the re­gion.

Robert­son’s fin­ger­prints are on that crit­i­cal Al­lied vic­tory, a vic­tory that made an in­deli­ble mark on Canada’s own psy­che.

We don’t know pre­cisely what Robert­son did on the field of bat­tle. What hap­pened when he had a gun in his hand stayed for­ever locked in his un­spo­ken mem­o­ries, de­spite the ques­tions he re­ceived later in life from his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. But we do know some of the things he was think­ing about when he had a pen in his hand, for he wrote let­ters home to his mother and fa­ther. Thank­fully, now 100 years later, the dates he wrote at the top of those let­ters give us all a sense of what was go­ing on in the fi­nal bru­tal months of the First World War.

The let­ters are held by his daugh­ter, Joan McKay of Prince Ge­orge.

What his let­ters home in­di­cate was a young man mak­ing the best of a hor­rific sit­u­a­tion. De­spite the un­prece­dented ter­ror and spec­tac­u­lar vi­o­lence of the trench war­fare go­ing on there, he chat­ted on the page about get­ting to have a bath, the plea­sure of let­ters and parcels from home and how nice a spot of good weather felt. He ex­pressed sen­ti­men­tal grat­i­tude for the sprig of pussy­wil­low sent by his par­ents in a pre­vi­ous let­ter and he was re­turn­ing that with a clip­ping of wil­low from France.

It was usu­ally as mun­dane as two cross­coun­try neigh­bours swap­ping pleas­antries.

Al­most all of th­ese let­ters were writ­ten in a pos­i­tive tone, but some­times some deeper re­al­i­ties slipped through the cen­sor­ship of­fices, like an April 6 “Dear Dad” let­ter that said “When we were out on our rest, the old lady where we lived said the war would be over on April 2nd. April 2nd is here but the war still goes on.”

Not only that, but Robert­son was about to be­come a cog in the wheel that would roll up the Vimy hill, in a hail­storm of bul­lets, bombs and bodies. That would oc­cur three days after post­ing that let­ter, and it would last an­other three days above that.

On April 13, he wrote home again. The Cana­dian forces had won the prize. Vimy was no longer in Ger­man Em­pire hands, and the Al­lies now had the up­per hand. He wrote noth­ing of the mil­i­tary tac­tics used (they were in­no­va­tions and they were al­most all Cana­dian in plan and ex­e­cu­tion) but Robert­son did muse about it in his dis­patch.

“I sup­pose by now you will know with what suc­cess the drive has started and the Cana­di­ans helped start it,” he wrote.

“The whole af­fair was a walkover and why old Fritz (a term for the Ger­man foe) doesn’t quit is more than I can make out.”

He talked about the snowy con­di­tions the day be­fore – “about three inches on the ground” – that turned into mud.

“The pa­per says this spring is the cold­est over here since 1879.”

The mud even com­pro­mised the ground un­der their tents so they scooped saw­dust from a nearby sawmill and sprin­kled it down to ab­sorb the mess.

He said he had been hun­gry when he got back from his du­ties so he went for a meal.

He got sausage, tinned salmon, bis­cuits and a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs. When com­bined with the food­stuffs he got in the care pack­ages from home – honey, peanut but­ter, cake, etc. – “we had some feed...It was great.”

Noth­ing ended when Vimy Ridge was de­ci­sively se­cured. The Ger­mans were now los­ing but they hadn’t yet lost. The fight car­ried on deeper into France and with it went Robert­son.

Ac­cord­ing to fam­ily notes pro­vided by McKay, Robert­son joined up as a pri­vate (with some mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence fac­tored into his en­list­ment due to a few years of be­ing a cadet), he was made a scout and would be dis­charged of­fi­cially in Port Arthur (also within mod­ern Thun­der Bay) on June 12, 1919 as a cor­po­ral.

When he first en­listed, he was 19 years old, it was 1916 and he joined the 94th Bat­tal­ion of the Great War Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force (CEF). He was de­ployed by ship from Hal­i­fax in June and ar­rived in Liver­pool in July. He crossed the English Chan­nel in early Au­gust, ar­riv­ing first in Ripon, France be­fore the ad­vance to­wards Vimy and vic­tory.

On Aug. 31 of his first year over­seas he trans­ferred to the 28th Bat­tal­ion (North­west), still within the CEF. On Sept. 17, he was wounded by a piece of shrap­nel that lodged in his head just be­hind his ear. It re­mained there through­out the rest of his life. He re­cov­ered in the hos­pi­tal at Wimereux, France for ap­prox­i­mately two months, then re­joined his unit.

The 28th Bat­tal­ion was busy from Vimy Ridge on­ward. On April 14, ac­cord­ing to the unit’s records, they moved into the Vimy trenches for­merly oc­cu­pied by the Ger­mans. They and other bat­tal­ions traded off hold­ing the line, sup­port­ing or ob­serv­ing in turn. On April 21, they get a few days of rest at Aux Reitz.

They were back in the fray on April 26 in the Neuville St. Vaast area. It was there that Robert­son got the time to write an­other let­ter home. It was dated April 30, 1917. He was once again buoy­ant about the cam­paign’s progress, and some of the na­tional pride that would even­tu­ally ig­nite in Canada was al­ready present in his words on th­ese pages.

“We are now in sup­port of a de­tach­ment of Cana­di­ans who went over the top a few days ago. Need­less to say, it was a suc­cess – as it gen­er­ally is when the Canucks at­tempt it,” he wrote.

He re­lated a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween some of their com­pany and a lo­cal French res­i­dent, who mar- veled at how the Ger­mans kept hold­ing the Vimy po­si­tion un­til the Cana­di­ans took their turn. The French­man ex­pressed his cer­tainty that the Cana­di­ans would be the first to hold the po­si­tion for good.

“And I think he is right,” Robert­son wrote.

He also talked of a friend named Ma­son with whom he was sta­tioned and pre­sum­ably was known to the fam­ily back home as well. Robert­son de­scribed how, by ex­cit­ing fluke, Ma­son’s dad walked in on them. The two find­ing each other like that was a nee­dle in a haystack kind of en­counter.

The bat­tle at Vimy has got­ten im­mense at­ten­tion for its har­row­ing cir­cum­stances and strate­gic im­por­tance, but it was not the tough­est or blood­i­est fight in which the 28th Bat­tal­ion would find them­selves. Fa­mous names are linked to the North­west­ers – for the wrong rea­sons.

First came Lens. Then came Pass­chen­daele. The bat­tal­ion’s records quote com­mand­ing of­fi­cer Alex Ross, the famed Cana­dian sol­dier who coined the phrase “birth of a na­tion” via the bloody war, as say­ing of Pass­chen­daele: “It was the one job we went into with no real heart. I had never seen my men so de­pressed as we moved into the Salient (al­ter­nate name for the area). They knew what the Salient was like, al­ways had been like. It was the grave­yard of ev­ery­body.”

Through that grave­yard, they ad­vanced. It was one of the pin­na­cle mo­ments of 20th cen­tury mil­i­tary his­tory. No let­ters came home from Robert­son dur­ing this pe­riod. How he sur­vived at all was a marvel that lasts within the fam­ily to this day.

The Pass­chen­daele cam­paign was un­der­way for more than 150 days, but the thrust in­volv­ing Robert­son’s bat­tal­ion was a week of hell un­leashed on that small crust of earth. The Cana­di­ans alone lost 4,000 to death or dis­ap­pear­ance and 12,000 more were wounded.

One of the sol­diers in­volved, Cpl. H.C. Baker said, “my im­pres­sion was that we had won the ridge and lost the bat­tal­ion.”

Robert­son, though, car­ried on. First came bat­tles at Amiens and Neuville-Vi­tasse in Au­gust of 1918, then the tak­ing of the im­por­tant town of Cam­brai that Oc­to­ber, fol­lowed by the heav­ily guarded vil­lage of Iswuy (or Iwuy to some), then the un­con­tested march to Bonn after the Ger­man sur­ren­der.

The 28th Bat­tal­ion was the one that felt the fi­nal shot of re­sis­tance by Cana­dian troops. Records in­di­cate it might have been the fi­nal shot of the en­tire war.

Gov­ern­ment of Canada records said “On Novem­ber 11, 1918, Pri­vate Ge­orge Price of the 28th Bat­tal­ion was shot by sniper fire at 10:58 a.m., two min­utes be­fore the armistice was to stop all fight­ing and end the war. He is con­sid­ered the last ca­su­alty of all Al­lied armies of the First World War.”

Robert­son was there till the end and came home to a long and fruitful life on peace­ful soil.

But he was not fin­ished with war.

McKay re­calls that when she and her sib­lings were young, the Sec­ond World War broke out and their fa­ther was a sol­dier once again, but this time as a re­cruiter and he played a con­sid­er­able role in es­tab­lish­ing the of­fi­cial mil­i­tary con­tin­gent of women in the Cana­dian forces.

“He was very Cana­dian, very pa­tri­otic,” she re­called.

Per­haps he felt it was his duty, she said, but more likely it was a cop­ing mech­a­nism that he re­fused to dis­cuss what he saw over­seas dur­ing those cat­a­clysmic days.

“You know, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t. I think that’s a large part of what shaped how he be­came,” she said. “He was a great dad, but he was very closed and he would never go to any of the Re­mem­brance Day ser­vices.”

She called him “an amaz­ing per­son” be­cause of his dy­namic per­son­al­ity.

He had a dif­fi­cult time ad­just­ing back into home life once the war was over, and she ad­mit­ted they had a dif­fi­cult time ac­cept­ing him as well. They were like strangers after his long ab­sences.

They also moved of­ten, pin­balling around the Lower Main­land and else­where in B.C. (Ver­non, Nanaimo, Chilli­wack, etc.) as he pur­sued his ac­coun­tant’s pro­fes­sion. After the death of his fa­ther in On­tario, he and his mother moved to B.C. in 1923. He met and mar­ried Edith Ward with whom he es­tab­lished his fam­ily.

First he was with the Wartime Prices & Trades Board, and then the Un­em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance Com­mis­sion.

He was also con­stantly tin­ker­ing on in­ven­tions and home-based busi­nesses, McKay said. He would make root beer and fa­cial creams, pottery and wood­work­ing, var­i­ous farm­ing prod­ucts, all for fam­ily use and for sale. His mind never seemed to set­tle, but there was qual­ity and plan­ning to each en­deav­our, she said, it wasn’t point­less fancy. He was also con­stantly in­volved in fra­ter­nal clubs to do good for oth­ers.

He even pur­sued act­ing at the age of 70, land­ing small roles in Hol­ly­wood movies that would be shot in the area, get­ting to meet such stars as Lon Chaney, War­ren Beatty and Julie Christie.

“He was al­ways so in­ter­ested in cur­rent events,” McKay said. “He wanted to talk about the next elec­tion or the pol­i­tics and events of the day. He wouldn’t al­low a con­ver­sa­tion about the war. He kept him­self al­ways so very busy all the time, and maybe that was a re­sult of need­ing to keep his san­ity, I don’t know. Now that we have learned so much about the ef­fects of front-line bat­tles on the peo­ple who were fight­ing, Gor­don just had to have been af­fected in some ways. They didn’t call it PTSD, they called it shell-shock, and they also didn’t un­der­stand all the ways it could af­fect the mind. He must have had it in spades. How could he not, after all he’d seen?

In 1951, one of McKay’s broth­ers, Alan, moved to Prince Ge­orge and started P.G. Build­ing Sup­plies. (He now lives on Salt­spring Is­land while brother Don­ald lives in Hawaii and sis­ter Mar­garet lived in Lon­don un­til pass­ing away in 2012).

McKay came to visit Alan “for a five-day visit and I’ve stayed for more than 63 years now. Maybe all that mov­ing we did meant I wanted to stay put.”

McKay now wor­ries about to­day’s per­sonal sto­ries like that of her fa­ther’s be­ing lost to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. How might dig­i­tal and com­put­er­ized records sur­vive to reach the eyes of our great­grand­chil­dren and be­yond? She is grate­ful that her fa­ther wrote his let­ters from the West­ern Front and that they were kept for her to hold in mod­ern times.

“I firmly be­lieve there will al­ways be both the de­sire and the need to read words – even beau­ti­ful words just for their own sake,” she said, then clar­i­fied, “The printed word on pa­per.”

CIT­I­ZEN PHOTO BY BRENT BRAATEN

Joan McKay reads one of the let­ters writ­ten from the West­ern Front by her fa­ther Gor­don Robert­son dur­ing the First World War. She saved them all th­ese years and they now help de­pict the life of the sol­diers in the thick of bat­tles like Vimy Ridge.

CIT­I­ZEN PHOTO BY BRENT BRAATEN

A dis­play of let­ters writ­ten from the West­ern Front by Joan McKay’s fa­ther, Gor­don Robert­son, seen in the pho­to­graph.

CIT­I­ZEN PHOTO BY BRENT BRAATEN

Gor­don Robert­son wrote a let­ter to his mother from France on April 30, 1917.

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