Gen­er­a­tions hand down tales of war and sac­ri­fice

Times Colonist - - The Capital And Vancouver Island - JACK KNOX jknox@times­

Sgt. Bill Boldt’s let­ter, penned while con­va­lesc­ing in France, be­gan on a re­as­sur­ing note.

“Now Sis, don’t be alarmed,” he wrote, re­fer­ring to the Red Cross hos­pi­tal let­ter­head. “There is noth­ing se­ri­ous now. I only got a slight gassing and will soon be able to get back to duty.”

Imag­ine how his sis­ter, Ra­mona Wishart — An­nie, Boldt called her — felt while read­ing that, back on the farm in Rus­sell, Man. She had given birth to all four chil­dren on that farm. Once, when it was time to fetch the mid­wife, she alerted her hus­band by grab­bing a ri­fle and fir­ing a round off the thresh­ing ma­chine.

But then the hus­band died of ap­pen­dici­tis, leav­ing her alone with those four kids. Boldt, in an ear­lier mis­sive from France, had promised to help raise them when he got home from the war. And now here Wishart was, hold­ing a let­ter in which her brother was talk­ing about be­ing gassed.

She read on as Boldt de­scribed his wound­ing: “I look back on ev­ery­thing that hap­pened, it don’t seem real, the roar of the guns, the fly­ing steel and the air turn­ing poi­sonous. I wore my mask for 15 hours but had to take it off for a cou­ple of min­utes, then felt a slight pain in the eyes, fol­lowed by to­tal blind­ness.”

Boldt then turned to the fu­ture. “Now dear fa­ther and sis­ter, if I should make the last sac­ri­fice, do not grieve your lives away, for we are all go­ing to cash in some­time. I cer­tainly will be proud to check in while do­ing what we came over here to do.

“But re­mem­ber, I don’t ex­pect to stay over here for­ever, and that means I’m sure com­ing back.”

The let­ter was dated June 11, 1918. Boldt was killed Oct. 1, just six weeks be­fore the ar­mistice.

Vic­to­ria’s Joan Scroggs — Boldt’s great-niece, Wishart’s grand­daugh­ter — read the let­ter aloud this week at the Vet­er­ans Memo­rial Lodge at Broad­mead, where a cou­ple of hun­dred mostly old souls had gath­ered to mark the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War. Look­ing out at that sea of walk­ers and wheel­chairs, all those white-haired heads — one topped by a glen­garry bon­net, an­other by an old air force wedge cap — it struck her that Boldt’s ex­pe­ri­ence was much more real to many of them than to her.

For those 80- and 90-some­things, now so frail, are among the last of the chil­dren of Canada’s Great War sol­diers, the fi­nal ten­u­ous link to a con­flict that ended 100 years ago Sun­day. They are among the few who re­mem­ber Canada’s First World War vet­er­ans — the last of whom died in 2010 — as flesh-and-blood loved ones. They are also among the few for whom war ex­ists other than in the ab­stract; only 41,000 of the mil­lion Cana­di­ans who served in the Sec­ond World War are still alive.

In ad­dress­ing the Broad­mead cer­e­mony, Rear Ad­mi­ral Bob Auchter­lonie, the com­man­der of Mar­itime Forces Pa­cific, sin­gled out one of the vet­er­ans in the crowd: his fa­ther’s aunt, Pearl Thom­son. The daugh­ter of a Mil­i­tary Cross-win­ning First World War cap­tain, Thom­son served in the Sec­ond World War, as did her sis­ter, as did their lit­tle brother, Arthur Mor­timer. A wire­less op­er­a­tor and air gun­ner, Mor­timer died when his Lan­caster bomber was shot down over Hol­land in 1942.

When Auchter­lonie was a boy up-Is­land in Cum­ber­land, his fa­ther would point to Mor­timer’s name on a plaque at the lo­cal Le­gion on Re­mem­brance Day. It didn’t mean that much to Auchter­lonie then. It does now. The point he wanted to make is that many peo­ple have sto­ries like that in their fam­i­lies, but don’t know it. Some­one has to make the ef­fort of pass­ing the tales down, gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, so that they don’t get lost in the dis­tance of time.

Joan Scroggs re­mem­bers. She grew up in a fam­ily that was aware that while Bill Boldt never came home to re­join his sis­ter in Man­i­toba, he did help raise her four chil­dren. Money fun­nelled their way from France proved cru­cial to keep­ing the fam­ily go­ing.

Scroggs says her grand­mother never re­ally talked much about Boldt’s death. Then one day a lit­tle over half a cen­tury ago, while do­ing the laun­dry at an old wringer-washer ma­chine, Wishart turned and asked Scroggs if she would like the let­ters that Boldt had writ­ten from France. Wishart had saved 35 of them. She mustn’t have wanted his story to fade away.

When Scroggs read the let­ter at Broad­mead, among those lis­ten­ing were her 19-year-old grand­daugh­ter and sim­i­larly aged great-niece, en­sur­ing the story will live on.

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