Collection of Remembrance Day archive stories 4

Published on November 1, 2012

News, Sunday, November 11, 2001, p. A1 / FRONT

Haunted by memories: Two war veterans recall the hell they endured as prisoners of war

Glen Whiffen

The Telegram

The passage of time since the guns of the Second World War fell silent in 1945 has done nothing to comfort Matthew Brown when he tries to sleep.

A 78-year-old war veteran from Gambo, he usually rests comfortably for the first two hours, then his mind erases the years as if rewinding the story of his life back to a time he can never put behind him.

For awhile, he again sees the ships in the convoy and the attacking planes overhead.

He hears the hiss of falling bombs and the crackle of gunfire, the boom of explosions and the cries of dying crewmates for whom he can do nothing.

He can feel the anti-aircraft gun vibrate in his hands.

He shifts about in bed and time jumps forward a little, and the deep, empty hopelessness he faced during three and a half years as a prisoner of war once again creeps over him. He feels the hunger pangs of days without food, the shivering cold nights, the cramped cattle cars of trains, the strain on his weakening body of endless hours of forced labour in a coal mine.

And in the darkest hour of his night, he sees the long line of scrawny prisoners struggling along a dirt road, forcing one foot in front of the other in what was called the Death March across Europe. He feels the agony of his sore feet, the torture of sleeping in cold ditches on the side of the road and the bites of the lice covering his body. He sees the terror of those who can't go any further as they are pulled to the side of the road and shot dead by German guards.

"If I can get two hours of sleep in the night time, it's a lifetime," said an emotional Brown. "(Memories) will never disappear."

War veteran William Tuff of Pouch Cove feels for Brown. He spent 18 months as a prisoner of war -- going days at a time without food, walking around for weeks in his bare, rotting feet -- and nearly died of disease. But he didn't have it as bad as Brown, he says.

Tuff, who is 80, said he might sleep a little better than Brown but his memories of war are always with him, as well, particularly when Remembrance Day comes around.

"There was one fellow, I have never gotten him out of my eyes," said Tuff. His gaze seems to look beyond you and into the past.

"I don't know who he was or what happened to him but he was going around with us with his insides hanging out for about two weeks. He didn't have much clothes on and all he had was a blanket hauled over his shoulders. The flies were thick around all of us but I remember them really thick around him.

"We were eating what we had one day and we called out his name, and someone said, 'He's over there, dead.' "

The memories of the horror never leave them, but war veterans like Brown and Tuff still try to visit school students and other groups around Remembrance Day to explain why they had to fight for the freedom Canada and other countries have today.

"I go to schools to talk and try to help out the young people," said Brown.


Brown enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1941 at age 17 and eventually joined the destroyer HMS Bedouin as a gunner.

He recalls months of searching for enemy boats, going on anti-submarine patrols and skirmishing with enemy aircraft.

In June 1942, the Bedouin was escorting a convoy of 30 to 40 ships from Gibraltar to Malta. Just off the Algerian coast, the convoy met up with the Italian airforce and navy.

"All night we were under aircraft fire and they were dropping the odd bomb," recalls Brown, who was one of only three Newfoundlanders on the ship. "We brought down a good many planes.

"When it got daylight, to our surprise, there were eight Italian boats in our view -- four cruisers and four destroyers. Since the Bedouin was the fastest and heaviest destroyer escorting the convoy, we went towards them to take the brunt of it so the convoy could make Malta, and most of the boats did."

Four of the Italian vessels were either sunk or knocked out of the battle. The Bedouin received 16 direct hits, sustaining severe damage.

"Just about everything on deck was cleaned off," noted Brown. "I had a friend from Corner Brook, Joseph Lavis, and he got hit with a shell in the chest and he was cut right in the middle."

Following a lapse in the battle they buried at sea 104 of the Bedouin's 212 crew.

"Then we got hit with an aerial torpedo," recalled Brown. "A low-flying aircraft had gotten inside of our gunfire and its torpedo went right into the engine room and there was a big explosion."

The crew abandoned ship and after eight or nine hours in the water were picked up by the Italians and taken prisoner.

"The only bit of food we got after three days was a bowl of olives," said Brown.

The prisoners were eventually taken to a prisoner of war camp in northern Italy where Brown had his first chance to write home. Prior to that his parents had received a letter from the Royal Navy saying he was missing in action and presumed dead. The town lowered its flag to half mast to mourn him.

Life in the prison camp was tough, Brown said. Prisoners were infested with lice and many were sick with dysentery.

"Hope was gone. We were in a position we almost wished we were dead."

Sometimes prisoners were transported by train, packed into cattle cars with one small window and no food for the journey, whether it was 12 hours or three days.

"When you had to use the toilet, there was no toilet and you had to do it where you were," he said. "We were more like animals."

Brown spent time in a prison camp in Germany, then spent 17 months working in a Polish coal mine.

"My mind was going in circles and there was no end in sight," he said, shaking his head. "We tried to escape a couple of times, once trying to dig a tunnel under the barbed wire, but that failed."

On Dec. 26, 1944, Brown and the other prisoners were forced to join what would become known as the Death March.

"We walked every day regardless of the weather," he said. "We'd sleep by the side of the road during the night. We never got any food anywhere on that march until you got to a town.

"A lot of men lost their lives there. If you froze your feet or couldn't make it any further, you were taken aside and put down."

They marched through Poland, across part of Germany, across Czechoslovakia and into Austria -- a distance of about 2,580 kilometres.

Then, on May 1, 1945, things changed.

"Everything became disorganized and all of our guards quickly disappeared," said Brown. "We soon saw American soldiers approaching. ... It was General Patten's army and they liberated us."

Tuff joined the Royal Navy in October 1940 at age 19.

In August 1941, while waiting to join a ship, he volunteered to go to Tobruk in North Africa to help keep supplies going to a British garrison there.

"I didn't like to be waiting around so I volunteered and went," he said. "That was the only fighting going on at the time and I wanted to get there to see what was going on."

The British had been holding Tobruk for months but German General Erwin Rommel was making a push to take it.

Tuff and other volunteers helped bring supplies ashore under the cover of darkness. He also became a member of a demolition team responsible for blowing up fuel and ammunition to keep it from the Germans in the event the British evacuated Tobruk.

"On June 20, 1942, Rommel captured the town," Tuff recalled. "Five or six of us went in there to blow up a million gallons of diesel fuel. After we blew it up we couldn't get back to the water so our officer decided we would move out over land to see if we could get to the British lines.

"After walking for about nine hours in the desert with no food or water, an armoured vehicle pulled up beside us. It was the Germans and we were taken prisoner."

Tuff was taken to a camp where there were 23,000 prisoners from different countries. Five days later he got his first food.

Back in Pouch Cove, his parents had received a message similar to that of Brown's, that their son was missing in action and presumed dead.

"They were going to have a church service for me, a memorial, but my mother said, 'No, he's still alive,' " said Tuff. "How she knew, I don't know, but then a mother sometimes can tell these things."

During his last three or four weeks as a prisoner, Tuff found himself with no boots. "I walked with my naked feet for about three or four weeks," he said.

Tuff was taken to Tripoli and put on a ship, locked down with other prisoners in the ship's dark hold for nearly three days with nothing to eat.

"Three parts of the crowd were dying with dysentery," said Tuff. "They took us to Sicily and put us on a train for about 24 hours. We were packed into cattle cars. In Italy they carried us up to Naples.

"I was pretty bad then. I was just about gone. I didn't expect to make it. My feet were bad and I was about 100 pounds and they were going to march us to another camp."

En route, the Germans decided to stop near a convent to allow the prisoners to have some water. A nun came up to Tuff and when she saw his feet she went immediately and got a man to clean and bandage them. Tuff was sent to a hospital.

"I was there 11 days and saw 52 other prisoners die," he recalls.

He was then sent to a hospital for prisoners of war, and it was there things changed. A "repatriation" was organized in which 825 Allied prisoners were exchanged for 825 Italian prisoners.

"I was lucky that I was one of them," Tuff says simply.


News, Sunday, November 11, 2001, p. A1 / FRONT

Close-knit friendship: A pair of wool socks sent to a soldier sparked a friendship that survives to this day

Deana Stokes Sullivan

The Telegram

For many people, Nov. 11 is a sombre time to remember those who died in the service of their country.

But for Ray Bradley, 78, a native of Eastport, Bona-vista Bay, the dark sadness of Remembrance Day has a silver lining -- the memory of kindness extended to him by a woman from Milton, Trinity Bay and the friendship between them that has blossomed over the years.

And it all began with a simple pair of knitted socks, made from home-spun wool.

Bradley served overseas during the Second World War as a wireless operator with the Royal Artillery, 166th Regiment.

Elizabeth Bailey was a member of the Women's Patriotic Association (WPA) of Newfoundland during the war. The women knit socks, sweat- ers, gloves and scarves for members of the army, navy and airforce serving overseas. The knitted goods were sent to the Newfoundland Trade Commissioner on Victoria Street in London, England for distribution. The Kinsmen Club of St. John's regularly sent cigarettes to the troops.

While on leave in London in September 1944, Bradley was staying at the Newfoundland Caribou Club at St. Martin's in the Field, Trafalgar Square, when Margo Davies, daughter of the Newfoundland commissioner, suggested the men go to Victoria Street to pick up some "goodies."

"Off we went. We were given a pair of woolen socks and two packs of Wings cigarettes each," Bradley said.

Bradley found a note in the toe of the navy blue socks bearing the name of the woman who had knit them: "Mrs. George Bailey, Milton, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland."

"I got a card and sent it to her to thank her for the socks," Bradley said. "I really appreciated the socks. They were better than what the British Navy supplied. They were all navy blue and long, coming up close to the knees. The socks we had were short and your legs would get cold."

Bradley also gave Bailey the address of his mother, Irene Bradley, in Sandringham, a Bonavista Bay settlement near Eastport.

When Bailey answered his letter, she sent along a picture of herself and her daughter, Geneva, 2.

She also wrote to Bradley's mother, a correspondence that continued until Mrs. Bradley's death in 1980.

Correspondence and occasional visits between the Bradley and Bailey families have gone on for more than half a century.


"The first time I met Elizabeth was around 1956," Bradley recalled. "As soon as the road went through from Eastport to Clarenville, my mother Irene, my wife, Joan, and I went to visit her in George's Brook. She was very cordial and prepared a nice meal for us."

Some years later, Bradley and his wife were attending a party in Norman's Cove when he met Bailey's daughter, Geneva.

Almost every year since, the Bradley and Bailey families have gotten together.

In November 1985, Joan and Ray Bradley attended George and Elizabeth Bailey's 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Clarenville.

When George Bailey died five years ago, the Bradleys attended his funeral and were there to offer support.

Last year, when Ray and Joan Bradley celebrated their own 50th anniversary, Elizabeth Bailey and her children Uriah (Hughie) and Geneva attended the celebration.


Today, Bradley lives in St. John's. He has a collection of photos from the family get-togethers and, particularly special keepsakes, Bailey's WPA pin and the four needles she used to knit his socks 57 years ago.

"She gave them to me a couple of years ago, so they'll stay within my family now," Bradley said. "My son Allan will have them when I'm gone.

"I certainly appreciated the socks, but there's a big price on friendship. There's nothing in the world that can match it," he added. "You can have all the gold in the Klondike, but it's nothing compared to a good friendship."

Bailey, now 83, agrees. All those years ago, when she pinned the note

to the last socks she knit, she never dreamed she'd come to know the person who received them.

The Bradleys have become an extension of her own family, she said.

"I know when his mother read my first letter about how he received my socks, she shed some tears," Bailey said.

And it was Joan Bradley who helped her pick out a dress and prepare for her 50th wedding anniversary. "They're really good friends," Bailey said.

From 1939-1945, 15 to 20 women from the Milton and George's Brook area knit items for the WPA. Bailey is the only living member of that community group.

She and her husband had a farm, raised cattle and took in boarders.

"We worked hard all our lives," she said.

Ray Bradley says Bailey always had fresh cream and preserves when he and his wife visited, and she'd never let them leave empty-handed.

After the war, Bradley worked in Gander as an operator in a diesel power station for a year, and spent 1946 to 1963 in Terra Nova with the Anglo Newfoundland Development Co., working on telephone and electrical lines. He wired the town himself.

Subsequently, he worked with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro in Baie d'Espoir for close to 25 years.


Editorial, Saturday, November 11, 2000, p. 10

Over the top, into a hail of bullets: Newfoundland lost hundreds of sons at Beaumont Hamel, but persevered

Matthew Janes

Special to The Telegram

The British poet John Oxenham tells us of the Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park near Albert, France: "Tread softly here. Go reverently and slow. Yea, let your soul bow down upon its knees, and with bowed head and heart abased, strive hard to grasp the future gain in this sore loss."

Visit it today and you will understand why.

July 1, 1916 is a dark day in Newfoundland's history. This was the first day of the Great Push, a British and French initiative designed to end the Great War of 1914. As the Germans had begun a major offensive at Verdun in February 1916, the French army had been all but annihilated. The July drive was designed to distract the Germans by launching a French and British attack in the Somme region of northern France.

Approximately 100,000 British troops were brought in to launch this offensive, supported by the French 6th Army. Among those men were 930 Newfoundlanders. Many of them had left their home country of Newfoundland two years before, and had participated and won battle honors in Gallipoli, trained in Egypt, and been visited by Lord Kitchener, who told them that they were "just the men he needed" for his 29th Division army.


Kitchener recognized the ruggedness and strength of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment -- after all, they were accustomed to long seasons of fishing, braving the elements and the odds.

On the morning of July 1, 1916, 798 of the 930 Newfoundlanders found themselves involved in the battle for Beaumont Hamel, a small part of the Battle of the Somme. Making up the third wave of the attack, they made their advance at 9:15 a.m. Within half an hour, 310 were killed and 374 were wounded, resulting in an 86 per cent casualty rate.

On the morning of April 1, 2000, I began my first day of work as an interpretive guide at this battle site. Ignorant of military tactics and strategy, I found myself overwhelmed not with details, but with the number of names written on the memorial found at the park -- and the number of names who have descendants whom I know.

I was never taught the story of Beaumont Hamel while attending junior high or high school, yet I was taught the history of the First World War on three different occasions there. I was aware of the causes of this war, as well as its implications on the 20th century, but was never taught the reasons why Newfoundland lost 310 of its most promising young men that day.

There are mixed figures on the number of losses and the circumstances under which those losses occurred. On this Remembrance Day, I believe one of the best ways we can remember our forefathers who died for our freedom 2,500 miles away from home is to set the record straight, once and for all, about their story and their losses.

The 1st Newfoundland Regiment on the morning of July 1 had a Batallion strength of about 930, all ranks. Of those, 798 were deployed in the trenches, and 310 of them died and 374 were wounded. This totals 684 wounded or killed, translating into an 86 per cent casualty rate.

An 86 per cent casualty rate is the result of a hurried effort and rushed training. The Battle of the Somme was well-rehearsed, but the fact of the matter is that Allied forces did not have a good idea of the strength of the German army. They also underestimated their preparatory measures. The Germans had dug themselves in along the length of the 40-kilometre Valley of the Somme during the two preceding years.

The Germans knew an attack was imminent, and they used their topographical position to their advantage. Each Allied soldier was perfectly silhouetted against the sky as he moved from the front-line trenches out into no man's land, and his silver bayonet reflected the morning's sunshine as he marched forward.

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment has the dubious distinction of having suffered the single highest casualty rate among Allied forces in the First World War. However, they also fought with the most perseverance and unmeasurable bravery.


We can also take immense pride in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment because they did not lay low after this battle and fade away. They rebuilt quickly, and in November were instrumental in the Battle of Gueudecourt, for which they won more distinctions.

This is our history. In an age where Newfoundland culture is slowly disappearing from our classrooms and our veterans affairs minister can be changed on the whim of our former premier, we all lose. We do not hear the stories that have made Newfoundlanders strong throughout the years.

By that, I do not mean just the tragedy that took place in the fields of Flanders throughout the First World War, but the fact that the Royal Newfoundland Regiment rebuilt itself, and Newfoundland -- only 250,000 strong -- cried for her lost sons, but recovered and became a stronger nation.

Matthew Janes is second-year student at Memorial University. He worked at

Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge from March 26 to June 16, 2000. He lives in St. John's.

© 2000 The Telegram (St. John's). All rights reserved.


News, Friday, November 10, 2000, p. 1 / FRONT

Remembrance: Soldier to be laid to rest: City woman cherishes memory of husband killed in 1945

Deana Stokes Sullivan

The Telegram

As Pte. Victor Howey of Belmont, Ont., was finally laid to rest today, his St. John's widow cherishes the memory of the man she met and married in 1943, and lost in battle two years later.

Phyllis (Chapman) Howey, now 77, remembers the night she met her husband as if it were yesterday.

"It was at the Red Triangle club on Water Street West, near where the old train station used to be," she said. "It was Feb. 8, 1943. We were engaged on May 29 and married Oct. 19."

She was 21; he was a 23-year-old Canadian soldier.

Fourteen months later, on Jan. 26, 1945, during the five-day battle for a small Dutch island called Kapelsche Veer in the Maas River, Victor was wounded. Three days later, he was reported missing in action -- one of 50 soldiers lost by his regiment, the Lincoln and Welland.

On Jan. 29, 1945, Phyllis received the sad news that her husband was missing and presumed dead. In November that year, she received a memorial cross given to the widows of those who gave their lives for their country.

But her husband's body was not recovered until January this year, on the island where he died, by the Netherlands Army Identification section. Dental records confirmed his identity in August, and Phyllis was notified in a letter hand-delivered by the regional director for Veterans Affairs, on Aug. 15.


She was shocked. She says she still can't describe how she felt. "I don't know. It has been so many years ..."

The last letter Phyllis received from her husband was dated Jan. 25, 1945, the day before his final battle. Written on a single sheet of pale blue paper, the letter is neatly filed, along with every other letter he wrote, in a small wooden box .

"He wrote to me every day," said Phyllis, whose home is filled with mementos reflecting the passion of newlyweds.

A framed honeymoon photo of Victor and his young wife sits on the fireplace mantle. Below, to the right of the hearth, is a small pair of wooden clogs he sent her from Holland in 1944. One has "Vic" written on the toe, the other is marked "Phyllis."

Every event from the day they met is recorded in a little notebook that Phyllis still looks through to make certain her dates are correct.

Scattered throughout his letters are loving words like "sweetheart," and "darling." In each, he writes repeatedly of how much he misses his wife and how lonely he is without her.

"He was very kind and loving," said Phyllis. "He was close to his parents, too, and saw to it that his mother always got letters."

On Jan. 22, 1944, he left his young wife behind to train in Canada.

The two had plans to settle in Belmont when he came back from the war, but unfortunately that dream wasn't possible. Phyllis never remarried.

Her husband's military funeral was to be held at 11 a.m. today in the Netherlands, with burial in the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery.

Phyllis could not attend because of her ill health, but Veterans Affairs has assured her she'll receive mementos from the service, including the Canadian flag that was draped over her husband's casket.

Receiving these things won't be easy, but it might bring some closure.


Insight, Thursday, November 9, 2000, p. 15

Slice of Life

Spending Nov. 11 with Dad: A daughter expresses admiration and gratitude to war veterans, including her father

Denise Fitzpatrick

Special to The Telegram

Once again on Nov. 11, as in past years, my dad, William (Bill) Saunders, will lead his colour party to the War Memorial on Water Street. And once again, I will stand at the side of the road, watching him with pride and admiration.

Like his dad before him, who volunteered for both the First World War and the Second World War (Royal Newfoundland Regiment), my dad volunteered for the Second World War, on May 2, 1940.

He was shipped over in the seventh draft at the age of 18. He left his parents and four sisters to travel to lands unknown and a war that would change his life forever. While overseas, he served as a gunner in the Royal Navy aboard many ships, some of which were the Albelia, Maidstone and Goldenhind.

He watched many of his comrades die, and often helped put their remains in body bags.

When they sat down to eat aboard ship, they would sometimes have to pick the cockroaches out of their food before eating.

This, of course, was nothing compared to the horror these men faced during five years of wartime -- a horror they rarely speak about.

In 1943, Dad's ship, the Albelia, was in Newport, England for a refit. He was celebrating his birthday with some friends when he met a young girl from Maesteg, South Wales. Brenda Rowlands was working in a munitions factory that made bomb parts.

They were married in 1944. Mom said the Germans must have decided to work overtime that night. Bombs were dropping all around, and they spent the night running back and forth to the air raid shelter in the back garden. They were married only three days when dad sailed for Australia for 10 months.


On March 17, 1946, mom set sail on the SS Synthia for Newfoundland. Dad had returned two weeks earlier. They have been married 56 years, and have three children and three grandchildren.

In 1945, just after the war ended, my dad's ship, the Maidstone, went to China and liberated the prisoners of war. One man, from Holyrood, always recounted this to us, and would say, "Your dad rescued me." It always gave me a feeling of such pride.

Dad has been a lifelong member of the Royal Canadian Legion. He has served on the executive, the sick-visiting committee, the funeral committee and the "poppy" committee. He has been sergeant-at-arms for more than 20 years, and for the past number of years has visited most of the schools in the St. John's area during the week prior to Nov. 11. They have a special Remembrance Day assembly with students and teachers. The students make wreaths and poppies, have drama and singing, and write poetry.

They know nothing of war, but, through the dedication of men like my dad and others, they know why they can enjoy the freedom they have today.

It seems every week Dad attends a funeral for one of his comrades. I have had the privilege of attending some of these funerals, and am amazed at the respect and camaraderie these men have for each other.


This year there will be fewer veterans to parade down Duckworth Street. Some will come by bus to sit at the War Memorial in wheelchairs, including my aunt, Marion Rowlands, who served in the ATS during the Second World War.

They will remember fallen comrades. They never boast about war or even relate the events that took place, but we owe our lives and our freedom to these brave men and women who answered the call so many years ago.

Oh, that we might have the camaraderie of these men and women -- our world would be a much better place.

I am thankful to my dad for volunteering so many years ago. I am proud to be the daughter of a war veteran, and consider it a privilege to stand at the side of the road as those frail but proud men march by.

Denise Fitzpatrick lives in Long Pond.


Editorial, Thursday, November 11, 1999, p. 6

Telegram Forum

No time for indifference

Brian Parsons

The Telegram

Remembrance Day came into being at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.

In the 81 years since its inception, it has come to mark not only the indescribable horror of the First World War, but also the Second World War and the Korean War.

Today we remember the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces who lost their lives keeping the peace in many parts of the world. Today we reflect on the sacrifices made in the past and what it means in terms of freedoms and privileges we often take for granted.

It is a lot to try and remember in the span of just 24 hours. An impossible task. In fact, Remembrance Day lasts an entire year. Why? Because every aspect of our lives is affected by the efforts and sacrifices of those who went before us.

The fact we are able to complain about whatever we want -- whether it was something government did or did not do, or something we did or didn't do ourselves -- is due in no small part to the battles won and lost so we have the freedom to make our own choices: good, bad or indifferent.

Unfortunately, indifference often makes what we are supposed to remember an act of futility. So many battles are not joined -- many people don't even take time to vote or to help make things in their communities the way they think they should be.

Rivers of blood did not flow so that those in power, elected or not, could continue to act as if their position was the result of some divine right.

There is no other battle which better exemplifies what was done for generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians than Beaumont Hamel. On July 1, 1916, the 801 men of the Newfoundland Regiment faced a particularly strong part of the German line. Their objective was 800 metres distant across bullet-swept territory.

Each man, many of whom were only 18 or 19 years old, had to carry a 60-pound pack, 120 rounds of ammunition, a rifle, a helmet, gas mask, rations, a canteen, field dressing and a ground sheet.

As they went forward without any cover fire to distract the German gunners, they struggled to find their way through the barbed wire. The German gunners, who had a clear field of fire, cut down these men by the hundreds.

Even when those still alive attempted to get back to their lines, the terror did not end. Their tin I.D. tags reflected the sunlight, making those who endured perfect targets. It was all over in just half an hour. Only 68 men out of those 801 escaped being wounded or killed.

Many things are not what they should be between government and the people, people and their communities, much of it because we have, in large measure, forgotten what we were asked to remember always.

Such situations are not apt to change soon. However, the least we can do, whether at work or enjoying the day off, is take at least a minute to consider that millions of people not unlike ourselves died so that we can have the freedom to make our own way in the world.

Then we should say, thank you. Thank you so very much.


Editorial, Thursday, November 11, 1999, p. 6

Telegram Forum

War and remembrance: As a child, I didn't think I should ask my grandfather about his experience in the First World War

Bruce Brenton

The Telegram

I remember when my grandfather died. I was a teenager then. I remember him best from years before, when I was only eight or 10 years old and in my most inquisitive stage. His house was full of relics and mysteries of the First World War.

He was one of them.

My grandfather never seemed to talk about the war, not to me anyway. He must have known I was interested. Whenever we went to visit him, I would spend what seemed like hours staring at the portrait of the young soldier displayed above my grandmother's piano in their always quiet front room. The soldier, of course, was my grandfather, 50 years younger than the man I knew.

I'm sure my grandfather was with me too, sitting quietly reading for many of those hours I spent as a boy chained by curiosity to his First World War picture books. But I don't remember him ever looking up from his newspaper to tell me about Suvla Bay, the Somme River, or Beaumont Hamel.

Intrigued by weapon

Of all his war memorabilia I think his service rifle fascinated me the most.

It was unceremoniously stowed under the hall stairs, behind the most inviting little door a nosy child could ever imagine.

I would slip in quickly, touch the gun, the bayonet, and quietly wonder. My mother would usually pull me out. She would never say, "Leave that alone," but it was always understood.

Didn't ask questions

Thinking back now, it seems even as a young boy I "understood" that I should control my curiosity concerning war and guns and killing, whenever I was in my grandfather's presence.

I understood it was OK for me to be engrossed by the pictures and the books, and even the gun to some extent. But I don't remember ever being told it was OK.

And, I understood that I should not ask my grandfather how many men he killed, or how he was wounded himself, or how any of it made him feel. I understood, but I don't remember ever having been told not to ask.

As I have said, my grandfather is dead. All I have are memories of his books and his picture. And I realize now I never really understood anything at all.

In his poem Grass, the American poet Carl Sandberg wrote:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel t