Remembrance Day: Inscriptions of honour hint at First World War soldiers’ lives
This past summer, I had 155 Canadian war heroes staying at my place for a while. It was a pleasure to host so many brave men, who were welcome guests and did not take up all that much room or make any trouble. In fact, they were as quiet as a grave.
I did not get all of their names. There were 151 decorations for bravery etched into the brass of a First World War artillery shell two-thirds of a metre high that was in my custody for a couple of weeks, but usually only the officers were introduced to me by name. The enlisted men were mostly hidden behind terse entries like: “4 O.R.s [other ranks] awarded M.M. [Military Medal]”.
How many survived the war and how many were killed in earning their decorations? They didn’t tell me. But a hint might be found in the brief stories of four more who served as buglers and whose names were inscribed on the bugle that they had used to signal the charges of the Canadian 52nd Infantry Battalion. The toll included one wounded just after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, apparently never to return to action. The next two were dead within 16 months. The last bugler, Dick Mead, survived the war to see the word Returned incised beside his name on the bugle, which became the battalion’s trophy of its service.
A captured German shell casing commemorating the deeds of the 151 others was fashioned into a stand for displaying the “Vimy bugle” and its grim tale of sacrifice. It is a fair bet that the casualty rate among the medal winners was similar to that of the buglers. Probably fewer than half of them got to see the trophy of the bugle, and the shell-casing pedestal that recorded their accomplishments, when it was presented in 1919 to Col. W. W. “Billy” Foster, commander of the 52nd Battalion, which the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment of Port Arthur, Ontario, had raised in March 1915.
The importance of Vimy Ridge is sometimes overemphasized (in British military histories, it is the minor and anomalous bright spot in an otherwise failed offensive known as the Battle of Arras), but it obviously meant a lot to Foster’s men. The inscriptions on the shell casing begin with: “Mericourt and Vimy Section—March 20th to April 10th, 1917”. Among other feats during that time, the battalion won a unit citation for “Gallant Conduct in Vimy Section”.
“Gallant conduct” is often a First World War euphemism for “despite suffering horrendous casualties, continued toward the objective past and over top of friendly dead and wounded”. The 52nd was to earn another citation for gallant conduct before the war was over and no doubt had won awards in the more than 18 months of maiming and dying it had suffered before Vimy Ridge. But the account of decorations and battalion deployments begins with Vimy, and they are meticulously recorded from that point on, with all previous actions consigned only to any remaining individual memories.
One individual must have had vivid memories of those earlier years.
According to the inscriptions, when the French village of Damery was captured, J. W. Strong won the Military Cross (MC) as an acting captain, commissioned lieutenant, and it is noted that he already had a Distinguished Conduct Medal and an MM. Those were decorations bestowed only on enlisted men, so Lt. Strong was one of those First World War rarities, an “other rank” whose qualities were so apparent that he was given an officer’s commission on the battlefield, something that became more usual only in the later stages of the Second World War.
Lt. Strong more than lived up to his distinction. The artillery shell records that during demobilization, when many unit commanders were returning home, Col. Foster was promoted to command the 9th Brigade on his way to finishing his overseas duty as a major-general. He had to name his successor as commander of the 52nd, and he passed over all senior officers who had survived the war, giving the battalion to Capt. Strong (now de facto acting lieutenant-colonel), former enlisted man.
Strong must have been one hell of a soldier, so it was an honour to have him as my guest.
Col. Foster (Distinguished Service Order with two bars, French Croix de Guerre), whose troops admired him enough that they put together a trophy for him incorporating what they called the Vimy bugle, settled in Vancouver after the war. He became commander of the British Columbia Regiment (militia) during the 1920s. In the 1930s, Foster was the Vancouver chief of police, a position in which he further distinguished himself by using a firm, but obliquely fair, hand to quell Depression-era riots when desperate unemployed workers had no choice but to confront authority.
Police Chief Foster demanded that his men exercise unusual restraint for those days and not create the kind of clashes that led to appalling violence in Regina and Winnipeg. He knew that many of those involved in the protests were veterans, and he was adamant that none of his policemen mistreat, without severe repercussions, any protester who might have fought in the Great War. That, naturally, slowed things down a bit.
Foster is the grandfather of one John A. Macdonald, who distributed business cards with the legend “Not related, not dead yet, don’t drink quite as much [as the first prime minister of Canada]”, and whom I met at a Royal Canadian Legion branch, the Billy Bishop—named after Canada’s top First World War fighter ace—in Kitsilano Point.
It was Macdonald who told me about his ancestor’s role in the Depression riots, and he died in February of this year, naming me executor of his will. That is how I became custodian of Col. Foster’s First World War mementos and, through them, temporarily acted as host to the men whose deeds are etched on the Vimy bugle and shell. They now reside with Cary Macdonald, John Macdonald’s nephew and “Billy” Foster’s great-grandson.
I never thought much about First World War veterans when I was in the Canadian Forces Reserves, and Second World War veterans are fading away, as old soldiers do (my father having rejoined his comrades nearly 30 years ago). But through my involvement in the Royal Canadian Legion, I have had the chance to take part in the historical continuity that reaches back to when Canada defeated the U.S. in their Revolutionary War, and again in the War of 1812.
That tradition is, to this day, unbroken, as our Canadian volunteers in Afghanistan continue to prove that we really will, reasonably or not, go anywhere and do anything necessary to defend what we believe to be freedom.
I know, because I have seen a part of that story that was carved in captured German metal more than 90 years ago.
Retired journalist Verne McDonald serves as the custodian of the Billy Bishop (#176) branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.