News from the war: I spent Thursday November 11 Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the US) in the trenches with the men (and the women) of our nation. Just like those terrible times of World War I I was told, “You’ll have to spend time in the trenches, maybe even storm the barbed wire before you can go to the home front. The home front will be cold and after that you can go to the French bistro” (which one person interpreted as brothel).
As a war correspondent I actually didn’t have gumboots or true mudsy rain gear. To prepare for this run of Vimy Ridge, where the Canadian Corps defeats the German Sixth Army, I dressed warmly and interviewed the soldiers. The roles of women do include being in the trenches but more as nurses, entertainers, drivers and war correspondents. Some women wore pants but I was wearing a respectful nearly ankle length linen dress and a wool, double-breasted trench coat. For food, I brought a baguette, a cheese round with a slice out of it, two apples and a bottle of wine. After all, during the war, one would have to scrounge and take what was available. It’s fall so the apples would be greatly appreciated. I also brought little squares of chocolate (2 to a package) wrapped in foil and handed them out as rations. (I don’t know what was rationed in WWI but chocolate, bread, rubber were just a few in WWII.)
As can be seen by the above pictures there was indeed a trench with barbwire. It wasn’t very deep, nor very wide and sandbags were too expensive to bring in. On the wall (a canvas sheet) of the home front there played images of the war and sound effects abounded. You would think those muddy trenches would be empty but in fact there were many people in them throughout the night. When I asked Captain Gilchrist, a doctor on the front lines what the most prevalent injuries were, he told me, “Scurvy, trenchfoot and the French disease.” Trenchfoot is a terrible rotting that happens from perpetually wet and enclosed feet. The French disease, this correspondent cannot speak of here.
Spirits were generally high in the trenches with a good pot of coffee and tea, as well as some other spirits cheering the soldiers. One young lad who might have snuck into the army told me, “It’s very muddy in the trenches and I had to dig.” Another said, “We had to bail a lot and sleep in them.” Not all sentiments were as hardy with another saying, “Don’t do it!” and “Fodder, that’s what they feel they are.” An unnamed commander was more jovial. “The men are doing a cracking job…a victory for democracy. By George!”
Probably the most popular feeling was expressed by one soldier. “We’re going to give ’em high hell, were giving 110% and we’ll be home by Christmas. God is on our side.” I had brought some poems by famous poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox and read a few to the troops in the trenches. They clamor for her poems as it makes them think of home and better times.
On the home front people were eating squirrel pie, corned beef stew, with bread, hot tea and some Screech to keep them warm. It was dry but chilly though the old stove worked valiantly against the cold November night. Gas masks lay at the ready, along with copies of the newspapers whose headlines are all about the war. The sentiments on the home front varied as people are thinking more about the future and not just surviving the elements and the enemy. Several troops home from the war reported “War is horrid,” as well as the feverish lad who told me “I miss my mommy almost as much as I miss my left leg.” Other returning soldiers shared their revulsion with “The trenches are like graves,” “They’re fetid,” or such epithets as “The Italians suck seagulls,” and the rest is not printable.
Another doctor sadly reported that, “It’s a tragedy but it’s the mental scars that will ruin this generation. Shell shock is everywhere.” The home front also holds militant thinkers who would like to see the war ended any way they can. “When the waking masses organize against this blood bath we’ll overthrow the imperialist war mongers and put an end to war forever!” The man refused to give his name.
For those who get leave, officers and others stationed near the towns, a night in the French bistro can bring good cheer. Food was abundant in the ways that the French appreciate it. A variety of breads and cheeses, even some pate’ was available. As well, someone must have found a hidden store of wine because we drank heartily that night. A rumor was on the wind of the war coming to an end. One soldier badly affected by the French disease kept mumbling that no one understood his jokes. With a bit of wine everyone laughed wholeheartedly with him. Another war-assaulted victim told me that the rats were good with salt and a bit like gopher. We were lucky to be fed so well and have enough lanterns to light the place.
WWI lasted from 1914-1918. It was a defining war for the role of Canadians, and my friend Sam, who organized the party, said it was more important in the aspects of Remembrance Day than WWII was. He’s right of course since Remembrance Day came in to commemorate the end of the war on November 11, 1918. Unfortunately, we’ve had many wars since and the wars continue. Sometimes they are wars of the masses but most often they are wars of ideals caused by a very few but with a deadly fallout. I find it eternally sad that people can’t just let each other live in peace and that so many have died needlessly. This is what I remembered.