OFF THE RECORD
Unspoken stories from WW1
Just over 100 years ago, in April 1915, my grandfather was wounded fighting in the Canadian Army on the borders of France and Belgium.
Until recently I didn’t even know he had been a casualty in the relatively little-known engagement at St Julien near Ypres, when 18,000 Canadian troops stood side by side with the British Expeditionary Force and two French divisions as they tried to withstand a massive German attack.
Some 2,000 men of the Canadian 1st Division were either killed and lie buried in local military cemeteries, or were never found amid the carnage.
The battle of St Julien, though hardly known except to military specialists, was historically of great importance. Here, on 22-24 April 1915, the Germans launched their new secret weapon: the first large-scale use of the terrible and appalling poison gas, the waves and clouds of sinister greenish chlorine that suffocated and choked the victims. It was truly hideous.
Here’s what Private W Hay of the Royal Scots recalled of the events of 22 April: “We knew that something was wrong. We started to march towards Ypres but couldn’t get past on the road with refugees coming towards us. We went along the railway line to Ypres and there were people, civilians and soldiers, lying along the roadside in a terrible state. We heard them say it was gas. We didn’t know what the hell the gas was. When we got to Ypres we found a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only 20 so it was quite traumatic and I’ve never forgotten nor ever will forget it.”
I only found out that my grandfather had been there when, during an online search of Canadian newspapers, I discovered a little paragraph in the Red Deer Advertiser for 30 April 1924. Red Deer was a small town (and is now a very sizeable city) halfway between Calgary and Edmonton. The newspaper item was about the laying of wreaths on the town’s war memorial on the ninth anniversary of the “great battle”, and it named Corporal GCS Crosby of the 10th Battalion as one of those present at the ceremony and who had fought there.
My grandfather was, I suppose, one of the more fortunate. He survived, recovered and convalesced, and went straight back to the war, only to be very badly wounded in the battle of Festubert a month later. There, he was almost killed. Long and careful nursing, a great deal of skilled surgery, and prolonged recuperation and convalescence in England, was followed by his return to Canada. I never knew him, but my uncle told me about his scarred body, where the evidence of his terrible injuries was all too apparent on his back, legs and buttocks more than 50 years later.
During the past year we have become accustomed to seeing century-old pictures of wounded men, men in wheelchairs, men with great bandages wrapped round their heads, men with crutches and missing limbs.
There have been so many books and other publications, new online resources, exhibitions, and compilations of photographs. It’s perhaps only when we home in on our own family that we really understand what lies behind those black-andwhite images. Just occasionally, as with Private Hay, there are war diaries, recollections and reminiscences, and perhaps oral history testimony.
But for the vast majority of those who fought and came home, the experience of the war was passed down inside the family or, as in the case of my other grandfather, was never talked about.
It was just too traumatic at the time, and too traumatic to be reminded of it. Here, as in so much else, I wish I’d asked questions, no matter how painful, before that generation departed. Now I will never know – but would that knowledge itself have been almost too much to bear?
I wish I’d asked questions, no matter how painful, before that generation departed. Now I will never know
Soldiers blinded by poison gas during the First World War – Alan’s grandfather
experienced a similar trauma
lives in Lancashire and is editor of The
Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancaster and Liverpool universities