It was called the Great War because no one had experienced such a conflagration of death and destruction in living memory. If only they’d known what the future held. Of course history is littered with hundreds of wars that went before – the Fall of Troy, the Persian Wars, The Hundred Years War, the War of the Roses, the Peloponnese Wars – the list goes on and on. There were between 17 and 22.5 million young men killed, injured or missing in action when it was done. Appalling. What a savage waste of young lives. But there have been worse wars, evil wars and exponentially higher estimated death tolls before (Mongol Conquests – estimated 60 million ) and after (WWII – 60-80 million). The tsunami of grief is hard to comprehend.
So why is WWI of interest to me? Because my grandfather fought in the British Expeditionary Forces. I don’t know that much about him. Alphone Bernier. Born in 1896 in St. Christopher (St. Kitts) when it was part of the British West Indies. His father, my mother’s father, was a master stone mason. In fact, he was one of the builders of the Catholic basilica in St. Kitts. The grey block building still stands, sturdy and imposing, on a downtown street. Alphonse left home and landed in St. John, New Brunswick. I have no idea why or what he expected to do. Perhaps he enlisted at home and that’s where the transport ship docked on the way to port in England. But how did this lad from the tropics end up in frigid Montreal, another boat ride up the St. Lawrence?
Alphonse was a small man by today’s standards – only a bit taller than I am now – 5′ 5 1/2″. He bore a few scars – likely from childhood. His medical is dated November 1918, so I’m sure he didn’t see any serious action.But I haven’t discovered any records, although I’m still searching.
I know that on May 21, 1920 he married Vera May Murphy, my grandmother, in St. Ann’s Parish in Montreal, Quebec. They went on to have six children, four of whom grew to adulthood. When Vera died suddenly a few years later, my mother, aged 19, raised her three siblings, keeping them from the clutches or social workers and imprisonment in an orphanage. So yes, I too am a Quebecker, born and bred. My French is rustier than an old spoon, but that’s where I was born, by gar. He went on to work as a sleeping car porter for CN and died young, of pneumonia.
There is so much history we don’t know, primarily of the ordinary men and women who lived through the war, either as soldiers or survivors.Back then, people wrote letters home but who knows what’s happened to them. We didn’t find anything in my mother’s things when she passed away 16 years ago. Lost to time, I guess.
I find it hard to celebrate these dates – they are, for me, only an abstract. Without the ‘guts’ of the stories I’d need to fill in the personal blanks, 100 years ago is just another date in history.