Remembrance Day Reflections 2

Friday, December 30, 2016 - By: Liam M, Whittall ‘18; Photo by Jim Ganley

I asked my Social Studies 11 class to read firsthand accounts of Canadian soldiers from World War I and to show a sense of historical empathy by creating their own letters. Here is an excerpt from the stories they penned which will serve, I hope, as a tribute to those who suffered through the horrors of war, leaving an enduring legacy that we commemorate. Hearing them, I trust that you will join us in vowing, never again.

Mr. Steve Cowie

To my love, Mary,        

My final battle in this war was worse than any I had witnessed before. The casualties, the weapons of havoc and destruction, the anarchy of it all. It’s as if man had met his ruin on that day. Our commanders said we had won the battle, but it was now clear to all of us on that battlefield, there were no victors in war. 

In the early hours of the morning, the sky above the forlorn trench line shone with the brilliance, and ignorance, of the dawn. By midday, the sky mirrored the battle below. It was veiled with ash and the fierce glow of fire and utter ruin. Artillery cannons could be heard far off by the enemy line of trenches, followed by the wretched scream of mortars hurtling through the air, and the inevitable eruption of a horrific hellfire, a storm of heat and fury burning through the battlefield. Machine gun fire tore through the fabrics of the cold wind, and the piercing sound of dying men’s last words, a scream or pitiful whimper to the shadow of some eternal night that seeped through their blood, wrapping them in a cold veil, draining the very life from their lips. And the gas, you can’t imagine what it did. We saw the sickly green and yellow fumes spreading across the battlefield and knew Death was upon us. We would reach for our masks or rags drenched in our own urine and hold them to our faces with a dying passion. But the others, they suffered so terribly. 

Why? I saw it, I was there when the gas hit. I heard screams, withering screams that broke the veil of sickly gas. I looked up and saw him, a man, slightly younger than I was, crawling through the mud on all fours like some wretched beast slowly dying from a hidden wound. His face was bare; no rag or mask shielded his lungs from Death. Then I saw it. The strength of his arms began to wane and he fell slowly into the mud of the battlefield, a horrible pus-like fluid dripping from his trembling lips. He was drowning, Mary, there was nothing I could do. As this man’s last moments came upon him, and crimson began to seep into the pus which strangled him of life, he looked at me. His eyes were fading to an opaque veil of grey mist and with one final effort, he screamed, but it was muffled by the sound of war and the sickly fluid. He dropped to the ground, lifeless. 

But the atrocities didn’t end there. We were steadily pushing upon the enemy line, and the Germans, in a final desperate attempt, ordered their men to charge. They were charging to their deaths, and they all knew it. As the wave of enemies grew into range, our line opened fire and bodies fell limply to the ground, soaking the battlefield with crimson. Not many, but some, made it to our trench alive, and with a dying man’s courage, flung themselves in.

I was standing in a rather empty part of the trench line when they came. I saw the German soldier at my left, staring at me along the trench line. He held a battered shovel in his right hand, a short one, clearly made for hand-to-hand combat. Neither of us moved, both staring into each other’s eyes. The battlefield around us became silent for a moment as we saw each other for who we truly were. His eyes were battle worn, and yet, they held a kind and caring look to them. His light fingers help the shovel with great dexterity, but for a moment, it seemed as though he had no intention of using it. He looked at once, as a man of great integrity, dignified in his stance, with humility glowing in his deep blue eyes. With a tremendous roar, the sound of artillery and gunfire shook the earth. 

We came back to reality. The friendly eyes I had been looking in too suddenly rejected my gaze, becoming an opaque veil, reflecting the torn sky above. The sound of war blinded him, and he charged mercilessly toward me, shovel raised dangerously in the air. And yet, when we approached each other, coming face to face, he hesitated before smashing the shovel down upon me. As the enormity of his planned course seeped to his mind, some power unknown by the wretched battlefield, held his arm back. But the moment passed as the sound of artillery cracked the air, and his eyes turned darker than before and the shovel fell with great force. Just in time, I stepped quickly to the right, dodging the blow. Instinctively, but not truly willingly, my hand reached for the hilt of my knife, twisting it swiftly from my belt, and watching, almost detached from the horrific scene, as the glint of silver swam through the air and found its way to my enemy, striking with a terrible force. His legs crippled under the force of Death and his eyes faded from ash to the grey veil of mist, devoid of any light or life. He fell to the ground, hitting the drenched dirt floor. Blood ran from his chest and was lost in the dark mud. As he lay there, I noticed his blond hair, turned almost brown by the mud and dirt that matted his head, and a long scar from some previous battle ran the length of his cheek and over one eye. And then I saw it. Upon his chest was a locket, smashed open by the force of his fall. In it, were two pictures of beautiful children, with innocent faces looking up at the ashen, dreadful sky.

All my love,

James written by Liam M, Whittall ‘18

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