It’s at this time of the year, as we approach Remembrance Day, that I think most about my family, especially those who have died. I wish I had known when I was younger what I know today, so I could have asked them more about their lives, and about their service in the military, about their wars.
I have read a lot about those wars, about the military and political history of the last century; it’s a topic I never tire of reading about. I wish I could have learned more from my own family about what it was like, then. No amount of reading – and I do a lot – can really give me more than a glimpse of how it must have been for them.
I am of the generation whose grandparents served in the First World War, and whose parents served in the Second. Both grandfathers were veterans, both parents were veterans. None of them talked much about it, at least not to me. It wasn’t something they wanted to relive and I was too young to know about it. Over the years I pieced together a fragmentary view of them in those years, but it’s only a gloss. A century of shadows. Some faded photographs, brief conversations towards the ends of their lives.
I am the oldest son, so my thoughts go most to my father and grandfathers because like them I would have served in similar roles, had I been alive then. And that makes me wonder more, about being in their shoes. How would I have reacted in similar situations? Would I have volunteered? Waited to be called up? Would I have survived in the trenches, in the air raids, in the desert? Under fire? I’ll never know. I am thankful that they served to protect my peace, my prosperity and my democracy so I never had to find out.
But I wonder, too, about my grandmothers, both young , married women in 1914. How did they react when war was declared, knowing their husbands of only a few years would be going to war, possibly never to return? How did they feel knowing their plans for life and family were abruptly interrupted? My father was born in January, 1914. How did my English mother feel, knowing she’d struggle to raise a young child alone, while his father went to fight in foreign lands? How did they carry on during those dark years?
On Remembrance Day I cannot help but ask myself: what was it like for them in the years or the final months leading up to war, or when war was declared? Did they follow the news eagerly or anxiously? Were they fervent nationalists, hawks who cheered at the declaration of war? Were they reluctant patriots or eager to sign up? What did they think, how did they feel when they were in battle, when they were in service? Scared? Brave? How did they feel when their wars finally ended? Relief? Anger? Did they believe the years of suffering, of absence from friends and family, the maiming and death of colleagues and friends were worth it all?
I don’t know. They’re all dead, and I can only read my books and try to picture my own ancestors in those situations.
They survived, against all odds. They recovered, they carried on, and so I am here to ponder the past. My English grandfather returned home to Manchester from his service in Egypt and the Middle East, my Canadian grandfather was demobbed from his navy service in the North Atlantic and returned home to Halifax. My mother was a WREN in Halifax (her brothers were in the navy, one died at sea), and my father survived the Blitz as a bomb spotter and a Home Guard lieutenant. All of them saw their lives upended, saw their communities, societies and cultures radically changed in ways I can only imagine. They all had family and friends who never came back, or who spent years in much worse places.
After the war, my mother’s family moved from Halifax to Toronto, my father left England and moved to Canada, ending up in Toronto at my great-grandfather’s boarding house. My parents met there in 1947. They dated, married and a few years later I was born. I know the story, but it’s worlds away and grown brittle with age; I can’t ask them to fill in the details now.
Thanks to my family, thanks to all of them picking up and carrying after the wreckage, thanks to their strength and courage to go forward and rebuild, I was born. But thanks to their courage, there was a world for them to come back to and to rebuild. And I remember them for that, I thank them for that, most especially today.
I still read the books, I still read the views of the events, some contemporary, some written by historians and analysts many decades later. I still read about both wars, about a century of violence and unsettled politics, but I can never know what my own ancestors felt or believed or wished for when they were in the thick of it. I can only wonder. And I do, every Remembrance Day. Lest we forget.