As stated in our national anthem, my father and his khaki-clad compatriots stood on guard for Canada in World War 1 and in World War 2. In WW1, the first major conflict for Canada, some 620,000 farm boys and girls and city kids answered the call to arms; and as happened again in WW2, many of them found a final resting place in foreign soil.
It is these soldiers, the men and women who answered the call, that we remember and salute on Remembrance Day. Many of these Canadians answered the call in both wars, and my father was one of them. In WW1 he suffered gunshot wounds early on while in the trenches. Later, as a volunteer with the Lord Strathcona Horse, he was wounded again when his mount was shot out from under him. However, he came home, apparently sound of limb and mind, and served his country again in WW2. As an overage soldier in WW2, he spent the wars in an Engineers Regiment at Camp Aldershot.
Since he came home after surviving trench warfare and the cavalry charges of WW1, my father can be considered one of the lucky ones. But was he? Gunshot wounds and bomb blast concussions kept him out of the field for short periods, but a mysterious malady finally put him down for the count and out of action. The Spanish flu, as it was eventually called, left him with a weak heart and he was on a blood thinner the remainder of his days.
Still, that Spanish Flu legacy didn’t stop him from soldiering on when WW2 started. After the war he was active in the Royal Canadian Legion; and when Remembrance Day came, he usually was at the cenotaph when the last post was sounded. I recall a particular day in 1972, one of those bitterly cold days that always seem to come on November 11. I was hunkered up in my kilt, hoping my bagpipes wouldn’t freeze before I did, when I looked over at my father. There he was, indifferent to the cold, standing ramrod straight, the look on his face saying he was remembering comrades who never made it home.
I have no idea how many times I did the lament on Remembrance Day over the 60 plus years I’ve been playing the bagpipes. But as I did in 1972, which was the last time I saw my father at a Remembrance Day cenotaph, I asked myself why anyone would volunteer to go to war. My father enlisted in Kentville when he was 22, leaving a secure farm in Port Williams to go off and risk his life in a foreign field. And all for what at the time was a paltry $20 a month, food and clothing included.
Why did he go? I asked myself many times. That question has been asked of other soldiers in other wars and has been answered many times. I heard the answer at every Remembrance Day banquet I piped at over the years; and I heard answers from two brothers, who during WW2 fought with the Canadian Army in Belgium and Holland. Both had lied about their age, adding a few years so they could join the Army and go overseas.
Why? I asked them. I never did get a satisfactory answer. But as I said, the question is answered, and an explanation offered at Legion Remembrance Day banquets. I expect that when I pipe at a Legion banquet this year, I’ll again have this question answered. That’s when I’ll recall my father’s countenance – I’ll remember the look on his face when the last post is sounded and a solemn “we will remember them” resounds through the hall.