Spectre of war

The ghost of war rarely reaches out and lays a cold hand on my shoulder; however I often see him peeking from the shadows of memory or leering from the pages of the newspaper.

I began writing this a couple of weeks back, as we celebrated the 1917 Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. That battle became a turning point, changing the world’s attitude toward Canada; indeed many Canadians also developed a new appreciation of their country. Canadian troops succeeded where others had failed. Wikipedia says it this way: “Historians attribute the success of the Canadian Corps in capturing the ridge to a mixture of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training. . .”

Canadians suffered 10,602 casualties, of which 3,598 died.

Soon after reading about the celebrations of the Vimy Ridge victory, the newspapers carried the story of another Canadian soldier dying in Afghanistan. At least in this modern war, our Canadian troops suffer fewer casualties. Regardless, past or present, we seem unable to escape the sadness of war.

As a child growing up on the prairies, our battery radio brought the sounds of the Second World War right into our home. Almost 70 years later, I still remember the voice of CBC announcer Lorne Greene bringing us war news. His rich voice and  onerous delivery earned him the nickname, The Voice of Doom. The war ended in my 12th year, spoiling my dreams of flying a Spitfire into battle.

However, the icy fingers of ghosts of the earlier war managed to reach into our lives. Mother had joined the British Army Auxiliary Corp during the first world War. In 1917, she served as a cook in France, feeding British troops as they went to the front. In a location not far from the action, enemy aircraft would slip through the covering fire from anti-aircraft guns and drop bombs into the camp. In that more chivalrous time, they would not likely have done so had they realized they were attacking a camp full of women.

The bombs got to mother. They called it shell shock, and sent her home. She moved to Canada and for a few years when it thundered or a car backfired, she would shake in terror and hide under a table. It happened even in church. The preacher would say, “Don’t worry about sister Florence; she was in the war.”

In 1947, two decades since her last attack, we sat around the table in our farm home. Mother had just stood up to get something when a thunder clap shook the house. She began to tremble from head to foot, grabbed onto the table, but didn’t dive under it. For what seemed minutes she stood trembling while three children gaped and stared. Then just as suddenly, the trembling stopped. She said, “I’m okay,” and went about her task.

The war from three decades earlier had reached through time and touched three children seated around the dinner table. How fortunate we were that the effects of war rarely reached us.

The children of Iran and Afghanistan will experience the aftermath of war for many decades. Many won’t feel the simple discomfort of a scare around the dinner table, but the life-long pain of broken bodies and psyches. General Sherman got it right: “War is Hell.”


Ray Wiseman