11 November 2018

Remembrance Day

On November 11th at eleven in the morning the bells of London rang out their joyous peals, for the armistice had been signed and the war was over. There was wild rejoicing in the city and the crowds went crazy with delight. But it seemed to me that behind the ringing of those peals of joy there was the tolling of spectral bells for those who would return no more. The monstrous futility of war as a test of national greatness, the wound in the world's heart, the empty homes, those were the thoughts which in me over mastered all feelings of rejoicing.
— Canon Frederick George Scott, The Great War As I Saw It
The Great War was the war of my grandfathers. Edward Maurice Busby, my father's father, was a medical student at McGill when the fighting began. He left his studies, enlisted, was shipped overseas, and performed surgery before he'd earned his medical degree. My grandfather survived the war, returned to McGill, and lived what was by all accounts a happy life for a further forty-four years. He died within days of what would have been his seventy-first birthday. I'd been born over a month earlier, but we never met.

Edward Maurice Busby
I remember William Horace Humphreys, my mother's father, very well. He took me to Mary Poppins, my first experience as a movie-goer. After my father died, leaving my mother a widow at forty, he stepped in to care for me and my sister so that she could return to McGill, the university from which she'd graduated a quarter-century earlier.

William Horace Humphreys
Bill Humphreys was a wonderful man who had witnessed wondrous things. He'd been seen the early days of flight, and would six decades later jet across the Atlantic on BOAC. He owned the first colour television I'd ever seen. We sat together watching news coverage of the first steps on the moon.

My clearest memory of my grandfather has nothing to do with Julie Andrews or Neil Armstrong, but a die-cast Wild Wings Sopwith Camel model I'd received as a Christmas gift.

Mine was painted purple.

At six, I somehow knew the Sopwith Camel had flown in the war my grandfather had fought, and so was keen that he should see it.

"Tell me about the bad guys!"

"There were no bad guys," he replied.

My grandfather's response shook me then, as it does still. This gentle, smiling man, looked suddenly sad and troubled... and then he walked out of the room.

That response – of a man who had experienced real war, not the ones sold by toy makers and politicians – has stayed with me this last half-century. Years after his death, I learned that William Horace Humphreys had received a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He never told his wife and children how he'd earned the honour, and kept it hidden away – with the other medals – in his desk drawer.

Today, on the one hundredth anniversary of the end of The War to End All Wars, I think of my grandfathers. I think of my fellow Quebecer, Frederick George Scott, who dug through the bloodied mud of Courcellette until he'd found the body of his son, Henry Hutton Scott.

I think of my fellow Canadian George Lawrence Price, killed by a sniper two minutes before the Armistice.

Monstrous futility indeed.

Would that their families had been so fortunate as mine.

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