(Christian Courier column, November 12, 2012)
My husband Mark and I are war children, although not in the traditional sense.
My mom was a teenager during WWII in Ten Post, Groningen. It was a tense adolescence. Familiar faces went missing. Her dad was forced to work for the Germans in Delfzijl, biking the 14 km distance twice daily. Details are sketchy, but he helped the Dutch Underground while he was there to get false documents stamped.
It was a time of deprivation. School was cancelled. There was no wood for the stove. There were no teachers. Mom did not go hungry as so many others did, but a boiled egg was a mouth-watering treat reserved for Christmas. She has vivid recollections of rationing. She would be sent by her mother to stand in line on behalf of elderly neighbours with coupons for a bit of pork or a packet of sugar.
Mom experienced fear. At night she heard the drone of Allied planes heading to Germany, an incessant apprehension. Once a damaged plane did, in fact, drop its load about a kilometre away. Everything fell off the shelves, the children flying downstairs. In the morning they went out to survey five giant holes in the ground. Decades later at a fireworks display on Canada Day, Mom was still unnerved by the whistling rockets and popping blasts, the colourful explosions inevitably triggering her past.
Mom also knew real terror. A number of German soldiers were staying in a house just a few doors down. Near the end of the war, as the Canadians approached, Mom’s family was warned (it’s never been clear to her by whom) to run away into the fields. They heard gunfire behind them as they fled. German soldiers ran with them, seeking to shield themselves, a melee of confusion and panic. Mark and I have walked those fields with her, where she ran for her life, her emotion palpable as she recounted the event. Her gratitude toward the liberating Canadians can’t be conveyed in ordinary terms. It needs big words … undying, fervent, seminal.
Mark’s dad, Bill Smith, now deceased, was among the Canadian Armed Forces who liberated Holland. He came from a Nova Scotia family with a long record of military service. His uncle Thomas was a stretcher bearer at Passchendaele. He died heroically, assisting an injured soldier in a trench, one of three Canadians struck by the same whiz-bang. Mark and I visited his grave at La Targette Cemetery in France, the first to do so in the Smith family. The three soldiers lie buried beside one another, a trinity of ultimate sacrifice, each headstone dated October 15, 1917. Bill’s father served in England with the Canadian Forestry Corps in WWI and as a guard at a POW camp in Quebec during WWII. Bill’s older brother Arthur enlisted, and, soon after, so did 17 year old Bill, lying about his age. He never said goodbye to his family so they couldn’t prevent him from going. His mother was livid.
Bill was assigned to the Algonquin Regiment. Because of his youth, the older guys tried to watch out for him, especially the scout, who treated him like a son. Later in life, like so many other veterans, Bill didn’t talk much about the war, but two stories stand out, a funny one and a sad one.
Soldiers were not allowed to fraternize with civilians, but Bill and a buddy met two girls and couldn’t resist chatting them up over coffee. Their sergeant angrily meted out a harsh punishment. The boys were ordered to go out that night and put together a cut telephone line. This was a dangerous task. The Germans cut the lines specifically to pick off whoever was sent to fix them. Bill and his friend weren’t given tools or instructions. Upon reaching their objective, flummoxed, they simply tied the two ends in a knot. It wasn’t fixed, but it was put together!
The sad story is that one night the scout disappeared. When the regiment pulled out the next day, they found him lying dead in a ditch. They never discovered what had happened. When Bill told us that story, he shook his head silently, sorrow ghosting over his face.
We will remember them
I’ve stood proudly next to Bill at the cenotaph on November 11, an old man with impeccable posture and medals pinned to his Legion jacket – the France and Germany Star, Volunteer Medal, NATO Medal and Canadian Decoration Medal. When he died, his Legion friends came and paid their respects with solemn dignity, filing past his casket, each placing a poppy inside.
Mark and I have visited Wierden and viewed the plaque at City Hall honouring the Algonquin Regiment for liberating the city. Even the big words aren’t enough to retrieve all the history trailing behind us and stretched between us, but the legacy is embodied in our very being. And so, we remember.