Farm outside of Oak River, Manitoba
Marjory is twenty-five years old.
Names are listed in the newspaper in long columns—Jacks and Johns, Alfreds and Andrews, Herberts and Henrys. Sons of folks we know. Some are listed in active service, others as missing in action, still others as killed. Father mourns for the parents who have lost sons. They’ll never see their boys again, not even their bodies, buried as they are in far-away France. Gas, bullets, shrapnel or some other hideous means have taken those blue-eyed boys, lads who ran through pastures, swatting mosquitoes, chasing cattle beneath the vast Manitoba sky. It could happen to any of us—a telegram delivered, then the mourning without a body, just a piece of paper announcing that a death has occurred. A life has ended.
As schoolteacher, I sympathize with each family who has someone overseas. I worry when siblings miss school for several days in a row, only to nonchalantly return—“Apologies Miss, but we had to help butcher the hogs.” Each family has someone. Any of us could get news. Suddenly, the fight we thought we were fighting—farming, educating, civilizing—has turned out to be irrelevant. Apparently, the focus of all efforts is a conflict in Europe. Our Manitoba farms are not that important. Our educational plans are roughly cast aside. It’s as if everything we’ve worked towards as a community, even as a family, is of secondary importance. All that matters is winning a war that has no personal effect on us. Not really. We can still plant wheat and feed pigs regardless of the size of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the unification of Prussia, or the division of the Balkans. But the fight has been thrust upon us and we must rise to the call, for England’s sake, we say.
“Is that Mr. Glasgow?” Alec asks, shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun.
“I think so.”
“Why would he have been at our farm?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we’re hurrying.” I tug his hand.
“A couple of chaps at school said Harry might get killed in the war. Is that true?”
“I wouldn’t listen to the chaps at school about anything,” I reply sharply. “I correct their history papers and, trust me, their understanding of world events is tentative at best.”
“But isn’t that what Mr. Glasgow does? Deliver bad news?” Alec presses.
“We shouldn’t speculate,” I say, my left arm growing tired from carrying my books and lunch pail. I let Alec’s hand go and spread my load over both arms. I have much correcting to do tonight. My grade ten class lacks algebra and geometry books so I must create lessons for them. I try to distract myself by thinking up a word problem as we walk. If a farmer built a hog pen with four unequal sides— “Why would he do that?” I can hear one of them ask—ten feet by twelve feet by six feet, what would be the length of the fourth side? The pen’s square footage? The angle of the widest corner?
“Marjory!” Alec shouts, breaking through my plans for my geometry class. “Look! There’s Father by the woodpile.”
Beside the barn, Father leans his axe against a stump and stares south across the open farmland. He seems lost to us, perfectly still, like a statue titled “Man with Ax Considering Fate.”
We run to him, calling out, “Father! What’s the news? What’s happened?”
Father turns slowly. His brow is furrowed with many lines and his mouth is pulled tightly. His hair is a dull grey. Suddenly, he looks old, like a man who has seen many things and would like to rest. But he can’t. He has to keep working.
“Harry’s been gassed,” he says simply. “While driving a team with supplies to the front, he was gassed.”
“Is he dead?” I blurt.
Father shakes his head. “He’s the lucky one.”
“What do you mean?”
Father hands me a telegram. At the top, an image of the globe lies beside the Canadian Pacific logo, “Cable Connections to All Parts of the World.” In Mr. Glasgow’s shaky script, I read, “James wounded in action. Stop. Died in hospital in Boulogne. Stop. John Beaumont, Huddersfield. Stop.”
“Oh, Father!” I cry. “Cousin James is dead?”
Father nods, tears flooding his eyes. He doesn’t speak, he just stares over the flat farmland, now green and fresh with the new crop.
“He was so young,” I whisper. “Oh, poor James. What a horrible war this is!”
Alec tugs my arm. “Who is James?”
I ignore him. “How was he wounded, do you think?”
Father shrugs his shoulders. “It’s impossible to tell. The telegram doesn’t say and perhaps his parents may never know.”
“Was he shot?” Alec asks, unmoved by the death of a cousin he’s never met.
“Wounded in action can mean many things,” Father says. “Run inside, Alec, and change out of your school clothes. I’ll need wood stacked in a minute.”
Alec takes my books and lunch pail along with his and hobbles under his load towards the log cabin, sinking into the soft earth as he goes.
“He only thinks of Harry,” I say. “He doesn’t know James or the old country.”
Father nods. “Maybe that’s better. No memories. Nothing to mourn.” He continues to lean on his axe handle, looking forlorn. “The papers tell a terrible tale. The losses. Every day so many men are dying and not just English men. Canadians, by the thousand. It makes me want to go myself. Sort out the high command, if nothing else.” Father kicks at a splinter of wood, left behind from chopping. “And today I read that the Internment Camp in Brandon is not filled with suspected war criminals or enemy aliens, as we were led to believe, but poor Ukrainians who can’t speak English, have lost their farms and have no possible means to return to fight with the Huns, even if they should wish to. Tell me, what is the sense in interning them when we’re so desperate for farm help?”
I steer Father away from this topic. The unfairness of the internment camp is a favourite frustration and I’m more worried about Harry than interned Ukrainians at the moment.
“How do you know Harry was gassed? Did he write?”
“Aye. Mr. Glasgow brought our mail out with him. Harry says all is well, but that he was gassed. Here—read for yourself.”
Father pulls a letter from his shirt pocket. I recognize Harry’s scrawl instantly. I should. I certainly struggled to decipher it as I helped him study for his grade 10 exams, years ago. I take the letter and wander towards the cabin, but I don’t go inside. I duck into the lean-to beside the cabin and climb up on the back of the wagon to read Harry’s letter.
Dear family, he writes.
I have just a moment to write. I’m also short of ink which is ironic since my supply wagon likely has a few ink wells tucked somewhere. Snagging one of those ink wells would be a crime against his Majesty, as they are earmarked for delivery to some beleaguered battalion up the line. Finding lads who need the ink will present problems. Troops get spread out, decimated, and absorbed into other battalions.
We travel in a caravan from headquarters miles back from the front to the trenches. I drive a team that pulls two wagons linked together like railway cars. Despite their big wheels, the wagons are scarcely larger than Red River carts from home. Sometimes I ride one of the horses. Sometimes I’m behind, shoving with all my might to liberate the wagons from the sea of mud which seems to have overtaken France this spring. I hear the mud can get so bad that shells have to be tied to the backs of mules and walked in on foot.
Once we get within a short distance of the trenches, we pack the supplies on our backs and go in at night. The concept is that jerries can’t see us, but they light up the night and blow our cover. Boy, do we hit the dirt when the firing starts.
We often can’t find the battalion we’re supposed to supply, at least not on our first attempt. Some helpful sarge will notify us of our error— “We’re fine for Bully Beef but could use some ammo pretty quick. And no, the 17th is further up the line. God knows where. Any mail for the 22nd, by the way?”
It was on one of these close encounters with the front line that I experienced my first taste of Jerry’s medicine—gas. I had only heard of it before and I wasn’t wearing my mask. Not sure what kind of gas it was. Jerry likes combinations. I’m all right though. Didn’t get it as bad as some of the lads.
Must close. Darkness is falling. We’re moving out.
Your loving son and brother,