by Beth Elhard
I know his story as it was told to me through the voice of my grandmother. My children and grandchildren will know his story through my voice. I just ask that they remember him and the many others who fought at Vimy Ridge. Many never came home. My grandfather did. A changed man forever…
He was a man I didn’t know well. Distance separated us in my growing up years and on our annual family visits when I was young, I only saw him for what he was – a funny grandfather with a quirky sense of humor. Physically he was small of stature, with a no nonsense jawline and a feisty demeanor.
Later, when I became a young adult, I would notice that he was given to moods of silence and that when you looked close you could see sadness deep in his eyes. He would be surly and often
when we grandchildren would get rowdy or noisy he would often put his hands to his ears and then he would yell at us to get out or be quiet.
One time I had got up in the night to get a drink of water and he was sitting in the dark in an armchair quietly weeping, a Kleenex in his hand. Some instinct in me made me go and curl up on his knee. I saw him in a different way after that night.
Of Scottish ancestry, he was orphaned at the age of ten. For a time he lived with an aunt and then by the age of twelve he was on his own, working at any job to get by. In time he became a “railroader”, working for the ONR (Ontario Northern Railway), first as a construction worker, laying the rails, then working his way up to brakeman. Times were tough in the rugged bush country of Northern Ontario in 1912.
But he met the love of his life, my grandmother. Grandmother had come over from England two years before, arriving with her mother, in the middle of a minus forty degree January morning, in a summer dress and felt slippers. They met, married and she gave him the love he had missed most of his life. In time their family would grow to eight children.
They struggled with poverty and forest fires and the loss of a baby. But their love for each other was strong and together they worked hard for a good life. In time they would raise eight children.
But the world would change on July 28, 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated. Britain entered the war when Germany attacked Belgium and Luxembourg and headed for France. When Britain declared war, it meant that Canada was bound to enter the war.
Canada entered the war on August 4, 1914.
Grandmother worried about her siblings left in “the old country” if Britain should be attacked and occupied. She knew that grandfather would soon enlist. He was eager to join, but to leave his wife and two little children would mean more hardship for his family. All around men were signing up to fight in a war far away and grandfather felt it was his duty to go.
Sir Wilfred Laurier told Canadians “It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country.”
On a cold April 19, 1916 Grandfather answered the call for his country. He joined the 228th Northern Fusiliers Battalion, CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force) out of North Bay, Ontario. In October he sailed for England with the Canadian Railway Troops. Later in England the 228th would be renamed the 6th Battalion. From England they went to France where they prepared for the war zone. Grandfather would not be fighting, he would be doing what he knew best and that was building railway lines to the front.
By the end of February 1917, five units of Canadian Railway Troops (CRT) were in France with more to arrive in April. Before the war would end there would be 16,000 men with the CRT that would provide construction of railway lines to transport the troops to the front lines. The men that fought alongside them could escape to the trenches, but the men building railway lines were not armed and out in the open. Many were shot and killed and hit with bombs. Over eleven hundred miles of broad-gauge and fourteen hundred miles of light track were laid with over eight thousand men building line under fire. So many never made it home and countless came home injured.
What the bombs and bullets didn’t get, the mustard gas eventually killed. Polluting the battlefields and trenches, the gas would blister the skin of those in contact with it and attack the mucus membranes of their bronchial tubes. If they survived, they would cough the rest of their lives. My grandfather always had a cough.
On Easter Sunday, April 9, 2017, as the snow and sleet came down, hundreds of men were building and maintaining the spur lines that brought the ammunition and bombs to the soldiers at Vimy Ridge. All around them there was shelling and bombing and rifle fire. The spur lines were also bringing back the wounded. So many of them were fellow Canadians. As they repaired the lines to keep the supplies coming forward, screams of pain and a terrible world of carnage swirled around the railroaders. The men of the 6th had the small satisfaction of knowing that their job was important to the battle.
Cold, muddy and exhausted they labored on beside the men in the trenches until Vimy Ridge was captured. Canada came into its own. 100,000 Canadian soldiers of four divisions had came together and stormed the Ridge on April 12, 1917. In four days, the Ridge was captured but at a terrible cost. Canada had lost 3589 men and over 7000 were injured.
Sixty miles of narrow gauge lines made it to the top of the Ridge a week after its capture. From Vimy Ridge to Ypres to Passchendaele they built train track. The Canadian Railway Troops lost over nineteen hundred men.
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 in a railway car in the forests of Compiegne France, north of Paris, “the war to end all wars” was over.
The physical part was over. The tracks had been laid, the war won. But for many, the battles would never end.
For Grandfather, laying track in the future would never be the same. In his mind he would always hear the guns and shouts of pain and the bombs falling around him, even when he returned to the peaceful forests of northern Ontario.
Grandmother said for months when he first came home he would wake up screaming and covered in sweat and she would sit with her arms around him, holding him and rocking him as though he were a baby. She said he was not the same man who left to fight for his country. Though he had no visible wounds he was injured.
They called them “shell shocked” and they didn’t know what to do with them.
It took him awhile before he could work and then he began to use the bottle to help get him through. He would miss work. They would fire him and rehire him. Some days Grandmother said she did not know where the food was going to come from.
His children learned not to ask about the war but in time three sons would serve their country in World War Two.
The Canadian Railway Troops who laid track in World War One disbanded shortly after they returned home, their job, though not military in nature, forgotten.
I will not forget what he sacrificed. On April 9th please take a moment out of your lives and remember them all. After all they are the reason you can live your freedom as a Canadian.
“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” Douglas MacArthur.