A four generation, one hundred year retrospective on blood ties and the First World War
Next November marks the centennial anniversary of the end of The Great War. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around that; in my heart, I'm not sure if it will ever feel that far away. Through an eerie type of kismet, this year was also the year I inherited a valuable relic from my mother's estate. The artifact, now in my possession, is a portion of my maternal great-grandfather Fred W. Tobey's war letters. The First World War always stands as a unique keystone in my personal sense of history. In my mind, it's the frontier of relatable modernity. That last point on the horizon of time where things become too difficult to discern, too hazy, too foreign. A global community of nations, women's suffrage, mass communication, the automobile, electricity, flight, the West fully in the throes of industrialization, the United States beginning its ascendancy. All these things are recognizable, and they make up a world that we -with a bit of imagination- understand.
We're told that it was the World War that needn't have been fought. Jefferson's prediction of a grand folly of entangling alliances come true. But this view is made possible with hindsight, the people who lived through it, in those moments, I'm not sure they saw it that way. Increasing the contemporary vision of this time is one of being the last extension of an overt European Imperialism. The propaganda of the time paints a different story, a story of young men fighting for King and Country, and of a hereditary link to feudal covenants. They paint a picture of the beaver standing tall abreast the lion, each holding the line against invading Huns. Historians will speak of a dominion forged into a nation through the crucible of French battlefields.
I want to know the personal truth of those days that my great-grandfather can offer me. I could always read published works reflecting those years, but these letters are tied to me. Tied through lineage, and blood, and culture. I want his words to cast clairvoyance over the preconceptions on this period. I want to discover what lies in those pages of those letters, and to learn a bit more about who the young Fred W. Tobey was.
Before finding the letters, I had only one memory of my great-grandfather. It was of my grampa pulling me aside on a childhood visit and showing me a picture of the man. He stood there in the Saskatchewan wilderness, a family portrait with six of his brood. Being upwards of sixth-foot-four, my first thought was, "why don't they make us in that size anymore?" The pride my grandpa bestowed in the man, his namesake, was palpable in the space between us. Man, was he tall though, to stand against those northern prairies pines and not be dwarfed, only some can manage that feat.
His grand size would make him an ideal machine gunner, and one of the weapons used by the British Empire was the Lewis gun. A twenty-nine-pound personal behemoth. For those of you who aren't familiar with historical armaments, the Lewis was one of the earlier modern portable machine guns. It's fat barrelled and has a magazine that feeds into it that looks like someone welded a zoescope on top of a gun. It was most effective at bringing down enemy aircraft, but it still did the job of "cutting up" enemy forces.
After reading the letters, what I found most remarkable was how cavalier Fred was in the face of all the violence and death in the war. My grampa mentions this fact in a forward to some of the transcriptions, "...I've got to know him better. He had a lot to go through, but (he) kept his sense of humour."
"A lot to go through," is quite the understatement. Violence came in no short order in those years and Fred witnessed his share of it. The First World War holds a unique place in history. All of the machinations of industrialization loosed on the battlefield, with none of the constraints. The Geneva Protocols would come too late for many of the dead in Europe.
Fred recounts several graphic scenes from his combat. One terrific dogfight that he describes as the "the fine(st) exhibition of stunt flying we ever saw," three allied fighters pursued a German bi-plane. The axis Pilot almost escapes with Fred recanting, "...but our planes would not be denied their prey." Fifty feet from touching down, allied incendiary bullets pierce the plane's gas tank, and the whole thing goes up in "a mass of seething flames." The next day he came across the conflagrated remains of the pilot and observer, their charred hands still clutching their faces in attempts to at protect them from the encircling flames. Once a man, who just survived through a gas attack, stumbled along their line's position. In his delirium, he's unable to follow Fred's advice to fall back even further. The second time an artillery round came for him, he did not survive it. Once, when his company is told to take a forward position, the men use the burning remains of a body as a landmark, the corpse had been given a battlefield "cremation" by the phosphorus artillery round that killed him. Even when combat abated there were long marches to be had, though "the darnedest array of barware entanglements, shell holes, shell fire, and machine gun fire." During one night a group supply horses were shelled into utter oblivion. Fred once saw a young many holding his wrist. "What a peach of a blighty. Ain't I well away," the man said in elation. Machine-gun fire tore through the wrist; he'd won his ticket back to England.
Fred avoids using the words death, or dead as much as possible in his correspondence. Instead men "get theirs coming and going," they "doze off into a quiet, peaceful sleep and wake up in the great beyond," they "cross the river to make peace with their makers," maybe they are part of a group and "it's R.I.P for the bunch." I don't know whether this is a coping mechanism, dealing with the wanton destruction of life, or whether Fred wanted to endow some poetic meaning to the passing of these men. I like to think it's the later. In one of the few occasions that he uses the "d" word, he applies extra amounts of reverence. After taking a road near Cambria and reflecting on the casualties he remarks, "many a hero died (in the attack) to lift one hero into fame."
He frequently references luck as a force to be reckoned with. If true, then I think Lady Fortuna is one of the most indiscriminate capricious cosmic forces in this universe. I feel like you'd have to believe it a little. You'd need it to power the resolve and determination to go over the top of trench lines. When on an attack to take a nearby road, Fred merely decides as he goes over the top that "a few of us would reach the road and I would be one of the few."
As is typical with most enlisted men Fred had his share of ups and downs with N.C.O.s and officers. He recounts a "cool as a cucumber" Sargent spotting a group of enemy machine gunners. An exchange of gunfire followed both sides "cutting the grass" of no-mans-land. The Sargent held steady, directing the men's fire, "give it to them (men), you got three (guns), and they are scattering in every direction…!" In another incident, a startled officer comes down the line warning that the Fritz are making a charge, my great-grandfather recognizing his manner as being spooked. The German charge the man thought was coming was no more than old telephone poles in the distance obscured by a hillside. Fred not wishing to give away their position takes great lengths to pretend his Lewis was jammed. The officer blew the whole incident off when his head finally cooled. He would, however, take a vindictive stance to Fred's inspection checks from then on, making sure his gun had the correct maintenance. After the war was over, but before the men returned home, he bartered away his war trophies to a "bomb proof" Sergeant Major. A pair of German glasses and a belted dagger taken from the battlefield were exchanged for simple food money.
When mortality is in question, more often than not, it's expected that individuals will take a special delight in simple things provided, and an equally special agony in essentials denied. When things went good there was respite. When things went bad, they went really bad. There were times when a few draughts of rum could be paradise. In Fred's opinion, if there was anything worse than facing death, it was facing death unrested with an empty stomach. He mentions times when no officers we around, and two men were left keeping watch, they'd take turns getting a few hours of rest, a necessary break in the protocol to give them the energy to charge in the morning. The distance between being dry and wet is great enough to build a railroad across. Fred often took strides to keep sheets of corrugated iron on hand to provide cover from rainfall On "lovely mild" nights a "spare parts bag (felt like) a feather pillow" Multiple times he writes of using his trenching tool to shovel makeshift holes out from artillery fire, ancient mammalian instinct to desperately dig for survival. Occasionally, when fighting died low enough, the Y.M.C.A. would build forward outposts and supply provisions to the men. Fred makes biscuits and tea sound like a decadent fest, "they had gallons and gallons of lovely tea...before long there was a line a kilometre long of hungry soldiers from all branches of the service, all waiting...to get some extras."
Sometimes I can't believe how similar in spirits those young men are to my own friends. During a long march, Fred gets the idea that he'll lift morale with a little song. No sooner than when the first notes go out that he's met groans, dog howls and intimidating demands for cessation, "put a sock in it," or "can it," or my personal favourite, "somebody bomb Tobey." To this he offers his own retort, "cheer up, we'll be dead soon. We're fooling the Fritz anyway. This is army tactics, so Fritz can't get (the) correct range." I'm a bit older than the age of most of the enlisted at the time of these letters. John Babcock -Canada's last Great War veteran passed away in twenty-ten. For me though, when I think about those veterans and the fallen, I'll always be the little boy passing reverent daydreams of those young men half a world away.
In the end, I don't think it's ever about causes or country for men who fight and die in war. If you wanted a reason why someone would go through such agony, I think Fred summed it up best. "Greater love has no man than when he lays down his life for his friend...it generally happens when the chance comes the best in each of us comes out, and self is forgotten in the knowledge of the suffering of others being greater than your own." No, they don't make them as tall as they did, and they don't make them as brave either.
Tristan is a level six wizard imbued with an enchanted Staff of Intelligence. The charming hybrid of punk, geek, and hippie culture. An avid writer, and even more avid reader. His focus covers topics like pop culture, history, politics, gaming, and science fiction.