Un­spo­ken sto­ries from WW1

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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