Daugh­ter re­flects on her Win­nipeg fa­ther ’s heroism dur­ing and af­ter Great War bat­tle in France


‘WHY did France give you a medal?” No mat­ter how of­ten we three kids put that ques­tion to our fa­ther, he al­ways an­swered by offhand­edly say­ing some­thing like, “Be­cause I could speak French,” or “I had a nice ac­cent.” Other than rous­ing ren­di­tions of It’s a Long Way to Tip­per­ary or Made­moi­selle from Ar­men­tières (“Hinky Dinky Par­ley Voo”) and a cou­ple of brief anec­dotes, he never talked about the Great War. He died in 1955, at age 64, hav­ing never an­swered our ques­tion. Why had he re­ceived the Croix du Guerre? How had he earned one of France’s high­est mil­i­tary hon­ours?

In July, I was read­ing the lo­cal pa­per when an ar­ti­cle caught my eye. It was re­port­ing on cel­e­bra­tions to take place in Que­bec City and France com­mem­o­rat­ing the Bat­tle of Amiens on its cen­ten­nial, Aug. 8. The of­fen­sive at Amiens was a sur­prise as­sault, and on that day the Cana­di­ans and their al­lies ad­vanced 13 kilo­me­tres through the Ger­man de­fences, their most suc­cess­ful day in all com­bat on the West­ern Front. Gen. Erich Lu­den­dorff de­scribed it as “the black day of the Ger­man army.” Un­til that bat­tle, Al­lied com­man­ders had ex­pected that the war would last into 1919 or even 1920. Be­cause of the over­whelm­ing suc­cess of the Bat­tle of Amiens, the Ger­man army was bro­ken and de­mor­al­ized. It marked the be­gin­ning of the Hun­dred Days Of­fen­sive that led to the end of the war in No­vem­ber.

Aug. 8, 1918 was also the day that my fa­ther had earned the Croix du Guerre. On the spur of the mo­ment I de­cided I would travel to Que­bec City to at­tend the com­mem­o­ra­tive ser­vice at the Ci­tadelle. I con­tacted the or­ga­nizer at Veter­ans Af­fairs, ex­plain­ing my con­nec­tion to the great bat­tle. They ar­ranged for VIP seats for one of my chil­dren and me to watch the pro­gram. I am not sure why I was so de­ter­mined to go. Per­haps I thought I could find an an­swer to our ques­tion.

My fa­ther was born and grew up in Win­nipeg in a large fam­ily dom­i­nated by his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, An­drew Broatch. A lo­co­mo­tive engi­neer, he had to leave Scot­land as a re­sult of his ac­tiv­i­ties at­tempt­ing to union­ize rail­way work­ers. Per­haps he’s why my fa­ther loved all things Scot­tish: hag­gis, Robert Burns’ poetry and “first foot­ing it” on New Year’s Eve. He was less en­thu­si­as­tic about his strict Pres­by­te­rian up­bring­ing. He loved ca­noe­ing in the wilder­ness and be­ing with fam­ily at the cot­tage on Lake Win­nipeg.

In­tel­li­gent and hard-work­ing, he went on to qual­ify as a bar­ris­ter.

When he joined up on March 1, 1916, it was with the 179th Bat­tal­ion, Cameron High­landers of Canada. He was keen to fight for “King and Coun­try,” a pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment at the time, while of­fer­ing him a chance to don a kilt and revel in the sound of bag­pipes. He and his best friend, Jack Verner, com­mis­sioned as lieu­tenants, sailed to Eng­land on board the RMS Sax­o­nia. They ar­rived in Eng­land on Oct. 13,

1916, and were promptly trans­ferred to France with the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force. We know he spent the next two years in the trenches and, at some point, he was pro­moted to cap­tain. We know from records that he was wounded in the shoul­der in June 1917 and af­ter 10 days he re­turned to the front.

We don’t know much more, though there is a photo-postcard of him look­ing dash­ing, arm-in-arm with a cou­ple of long-for­got­ten men and women on the streets of Paris. Also there was one war story he did tell: a British ace took him up in his bi­plane and per­formed all kinds of rolls and dives. My fa­ther loved it so much he put in a re­quest to be sec­onded to the RAF as an ob­server, and he was ap­proved. But be­fore he could trans­fer, the Bat­tle of Amiens in­ter­vened. He was se­verely wounded in the back and thigh on Aug. 18 and sent to Bri­tain to re­cu­per­ate. Given the av­er­age life­span of RAF air­men, that prob­a­bly saved his life. The war ended soon af­ter and he came home to Win­nipeg. His best friend, Jack, did not come home.

I was born 11 years af­ter the end of the Great War, but it had a con­tin­u­ing pres­ence in his and our lives. As a lawyer, he worked as a pen­sions ad­vo­cate for Veter­ans Af­fairs; his of­fice was in Deer Lodge, which was the new veter­ans hos­pi­tal in Win­nipeg. It was his task to present a vet­eran’s case and to ar­gue for fair com­pen­sa­tion. He worked rep­re­sent­ing and sup­port­ing veter­ans of both wars for his en­tire 30year ca­reer.

As I sat in the re­view­ing stand at the Ci­tadelle that warm Au­gust evening, I won­dered why my dad had never talked about his medal. Was he be­ing mod­est? We were brought up to be­have well, to not draw at­ten­tion to our­selves. Or was he so trau­ma­tized by his wartime ex­pe­ri­ence he couldn’t talk about it? Or did he want to pro­tect us from the hor­rific de­tails of trench war­fare? What was it like to know some­one was try­ing to kill you? Or to have to kill some­one? How do you deal with watch­ing your best friend die? How do you leave that be­hind?

I won­der, too, what he would have thought of the event I was watch­ing. There was a very good turnout of lo­cals and tourists in flip-flops and Tshirts who had climbed to the Ci­tadelle pa­rade grounds to pay their re­spects. In ad­di­tion, be­cause there was a large gath­er­ing in town of NATO re­serve of­fi­cers, two dozen mil­i­tary types in a va­ri­ety of uni­forms at­tended, from gleam­ing Amer­i­can naval whites to rak­ish British khaki and im­prob­a­bly crisp Swedish greys. Also there were of­fi­cers from Ger­many and Aus­tria who had been the en­emy so long ago.

My son and I watched with some amuse­ment as the ar­riv­ing brass jock­eyed for front-row seats and quickly as­sessed the rank and sta­tus of their seat­mates. The cer­e­mony it­self in­cluded a bu­gler play­ing The Last Post, sev­eral bag­pipers, sol­diers on pa­rade rep­re­sent­ing ev­ery reg­i­ment in Canada, a mov­ing pre­sen­ta­tion from In­dige­nous sol­diers and, of course, a field gun pound­ing out the tra­di­tional boom­ing salute. The whole event took place un­der the watch­ful eye of a youngish fe­male gen­eral, who took the salute for the march past. I know my fa­ther would have found all that very in­ter­est­ing; much of it would have seemed pretty strange to him.

In prepa­ra­tion, I had read some of­fi­cial ac­counts of the day’s events back in 1918. De­spite the usual un­der­stated re­portage of mil­i­tary dis­patches,

I was struck by one par­tic­u­lar ac­count: a small Cana­dian con­tin­gent from my fa­ther’s com­pany had, un­der very dif­fi­cult con­di­tions, pro­tected the ex­posed Cana­dian south­ern flank un­til the French could ad­vance some hours later. Once united, a hand­ful of French and Cana­dian sol­diers to­gether man­aged, un­der with­er­ing fire, to over­take an en­emy po­si­tion, cap­tur­ing 30 pris­on­ers and si­lenc­ing a dozen ma­chine guns. Their heroism is noted in the re­ports, though no names are men­tioned. Still, the ac­com­pa­ny­ing maps and move­ment de­tails all point to my fa­ther be­ing in that ex­act lo­cale at that time. I am con­fi­dent but not cer­tain that this is why Capt. Lawrence Arthur Master­man of the CEF re­ceived the Croix du Guerre for Gal­lantry and Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice in the Field in the first hours of Canada’s Hun­dred Days.

I will never know the whole story. But as I sat at the Ci­tadelle that day, I re­flected on a man who took more pride in the un­sung, quiet ad­vo­cacy work he did on be­half of countless fel­low veter­ans than he ever did for be­ing dec­o­rated as a hero by a grate­ful for­eign na­tion. And in that way at least, I feel I do know more about the young man with the crummy French ac­cent who be­came my lov­ing and com­pli­cated fa­ther.


Pris­on­ers bring in the wounded at the Bat­tle of Amiens in France in Au­gust 1918. Capt. Lawrence Master­man (right, and right in top photo).


A Cana­dian Field Am­bu­lance in the for­ward area dur­ing the ad­vance in the Bat­tle of Amiens.

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