Grandpa’s Silence

November 1, 2006 by Sandra M. Walton

ILLUSTRATION: STEWART SHERWOOD

ILLUSTRATION: STEWART SHERWOOD

My grandfather, Alan Hanchard, was a quiet, reticent man who seldom mentioned World War I. So I was pleased and somewhat surprised when he agreed to provide me with information on the war for an essay I had to prepare for a modern history class. Up to that point all I knew was that he had been wounded at the Somme and subsequently decorated and that his medals lay in a bureau drawer and came out proudly every Remembrance Day for the parade.

I arrived at his Vancouver apartment, pen and pad in hand during my lunch hour on a dreary Monday in 1968. Grandpa seemed a bit agitated and so I glanced at my wristwatch. No, I wasn’t late. Polite small talk was exchanged as the minutes of my lunch hour ticked away. It was all very strained when my grandmother suddenly motioned me into the kitchen. She too seemed rather upset. “He can’t do this,” she said. “He thought about it and he just can’t do it.”

I was disappointed but knew there was no point asking her for an explanation. I would have to complete my history project at the library. None of my questions were to be answered–personal questions like why did he go, what was his part in the battle and what happened after? The meeting was never mentioned again and Grandpa died only a few months later.

Among his effects was a folder containing several carefully typed sheets of paper recording important dates and describing his military career as it unfolded in WW I. This was an incredible find and its discovery surprised even my grandmother. Though the information came too late for that essay it provided details about Grandpa’s career and that infamous battle that took thousands upon thousands of young lives.

When war was declared in 1914, Grandpa was just 17. He had joined the 105th Regiment of the Saskatoon Fusiliers and had the rank of lance corporal. On Dec. 21, still three weeks short of his 18th birthday, he entered a Saskatoon recruiting centre to enlist.

As a young man born in England he felt that it was his patriotic duty to stand by his homeland and help preserve the Empire. A great sense of duty was part of his upbringing and besides, being a bank messenger didn’t offer many opportunities for glory or heroism, nor did it pay particularly well. His father had died some years before so the money would help the family and he probably wouldn’t be away all that long. In fact, if he didn’t hurry, he might miss it! So, there in that recruiting centre, he completed his attestation papers where he provided his personal information, took the oath of allegiance to King George V and agreed to serve for the duration of the war or until legally discharged. After being declared medically fit for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force he became a member of the 53rd Battalion of the CEF.

With enthusiasm, self-confidence and a very uncomfortable uniform, he proceeded with the Saskatoon detachment of the battalion for training at Camp Sewell, later renamed Camp Hughes near Carberry, Man., west of Winnipeg. He was promoted to sergeant on March 15, 1915, and sailed for England on Sept. 4 as part of the second reinforcing draft.

He hadn’t expected to be returning to England so soon. Only seven years before he had made this voyage in reverse when he headed with his mother and sister to an uncertain, but exciting future in the colonies. Now here he was returning, feeling much older, but nonetheless excited about what awaited him.

On Sept. 14, 10 days after sailing from Canada, he disembarked at Plymouth and proceeded to the historic military Camp Shorncliffe, near Folkestone, for training.

With the rank of sergeant he was posted to the 32nd Reserve Bn. and then to the 13th Reserve Brigade headquarters before being transferred back to the 53rd Bn. and moving to the new camp at Bramshott in June 1916.

At Bramshott, Grandpa would continue his training and become a member of the new Canadian 4th Division. Fighting alongside other men from Saskatchewan was not to be, however. In July he became a member of a British Columbia battalion–the 54th from the Kootenays–with the position of sergeant of the Lewis gun section of B Company.

Grandpa had spent nearly a year in England before leaving for France with 4th Div. on Aug. 13, 1916. The division arrived at Le Havre on the 14th and moved to the Ypres Salient for their introduction to the trenches. They spent the next few weeks here alternating between tours in the front and tours in support.

In September they returned to France to commence training for their ultimate destination, the Somme.

No amount of enthusiasm, confidence or training could possibly have prepared Grandpa for what he would encounter upon reaching the Somme in the fall of 1916. Fighting had been going on there since July 1. The once pastoral Somme River Valley was now a muddy wasteland of shell holes and craters and the ground was covered with corpses–some quite fresh, others already badly decomposed. Thoughts of glory faded fast.

It had been a summer of attacks and counter-attacks before the first Canadian divisions arrived in September to begin relieving the Allies around Pozières. The Germans had built a system of major, deep interconnecting trenches and redoubts across the valley near Pozières and Courcelette. After fierce fighting the Canadians had successfully taken the village of Courcelette in mid-September and now sought to improve their position by pushing north and east to take these major trenches and thus gain a much-needed observation point over the valley.

There were some successes, but Regina Trench–one of the longest German trenches built on the Western Front–had defied capture. All three Canadian divisions had attempted to take it and though they had gotten closer, all had failed, met with heavy artillery, guns and wire, and pushed back by counter-attacks. Losses were extremely heavy and reinforcements were badly needed. By early October the three divisions had withdrawn to their own trenches.

In mid-October the 4th Div. took up a position in front of the town of Courcelette. It would attack the well protected, heavily defended Regina Trench. This would be their first major battle and they would be fighting not only the more experienced Germans but also the horrible weather. It was cold and raining heavily, trenches were full of water and collapsing, and the chalky soil had turned to mud–a mud so thick and heavy that it could choke a Lewis gun or hold a man captive.

Under these awful conditions the men of Grandpa’s battalion worked repairing trenches damaged by weather and recent fighting. They also worked extremely hard to construct connecting support trenches in preparation for the pending attack. The work was observed by the enemy, who bombarded furiously. However, the Canadian artillery answered and the men kept on working in the trenches. While this very difficult work was going on, the extremely dangerous work of cutting enemy wire and bombarding the Regina Trench continued. The wire would have to be extensively damaged to be passable by the infantry. The attack was postponed several times due to weather, but these delays served to give the artillery more time to demolish the wire. Patrols sent out to determine the wire’s condition returned with satisfactory reports.

On Oct. 21, the Canadians attacked and secured a footing in Regina Trench. Grandpa’s battalion relieved another battalion in the front lines on the 23rd. Now preparations for the capture of the remainder of Regina Trench were finalized. The enemy lines were to be kept under continual shrapnel and machine-gun fire in order to neutralize counter-attacks. It was here, while carrying out this order, that Grandpa suffered gunshot wounds that resulted in shrapnel penetrating his back–right of the spine–and his right arm.

Through the bravery of the stretcher-bearers Grandpa was evacuated to a casualty clearing station and then by train on Oct. 26 to a military hospital south of Calais. Upon admission to the hospital his wounds were noted as “severe.” The position of the shrapnel in his back was dangerously close to his spinal cord, making surgery to remove it too risky, but the shrapnel in his arm was successfully removed in an operation on Oct. 27. He remained in that hospital for eight days. On Nov. 3–with his temperature and vital signs now normal–he was evacuated by ship back to England, where he was admitted to the Fullham military hospital at Hammersmith.

Grandpa was just one of thousands of Canadian casualties of the long Somme offensive. His time at the front was over but despite deteriorating weather conditions and continued heavy shelling the 4th Div. would endure to finally capture Regina Trench on Nov. 11, 1916, exactly two years before the Armistice. “This time every aspect of the operation went exactly as planned, and the 4th Div. consolidated its positions in the whole of the Regina Trench in just over two hours,” wrote historian John Marteinson in his book We Stand On Guard: An Illustrated History Of The Canadian Army.

By the time of its capture, this once significant trench–for which men had fought and died so fiercely–had been almost destroyed. Indeed, it could barely provide cover for the soldiers who had just cleared it.

On Nov.18, several 4th Div. battalions, including Grandpa’s, would move on to capture Desire Trench, north of the Regina Trench. This would be their last action before leaving the Somme and heading north to join the other Canadian divisions, as part of the Canadian Corps, in front of Vimy Ridge.

History has not looked kindly on the Somme. Indeed, gains such as Regina Trench were few and the losses were staggering. But in northern France, the Allies who fought on the Somme are held in high regard. The French countryside is dotted with well-tended cemeteries, memorials and monuments. Due to the continuous fighting in this region, there were thousands of men killed on the Somme who have no known grave, but their names are engraved on the memorials to the missing. Their sacrifices are all important. They are all heroes.

Overall, Allied casualties during the Somme fighting from early July to late November numbered roughly 620,000, of which approximately 24,000 were Canadian. These were young men who had been killed, wounded or captured in the fighting. For a young nation–for any nation–it is a toll that is hard to comprehend.

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to visit some of the battlefields and memorials. Each of these memorials–whether they are a scene of success or failure–evokes a sense of both tremendous heroics and incomprehensible loss. There’s an air of reverence around these former battlegrounds today. They are places of peace and calm and of honour and remembrance, rather than places of victory or defeat. You can feel the presence of those who fought there.

It was a cool sunny morning when I visited the Courcelette Memorial, which stands on the west side of the old Albert-Bapaume road, roughly 10 kilometres northeast of Albert. The white granite of the simple, carved monument gleamed in the fall sunlight. The inscription reads: “The Canadian Corps bore a valiant part in forcing back the Germans on these slopes during the Battles of the Somme.” The inscription also appears in French.

It was early and only a couple of maintenance workers were there quietly tending the orderly and understated gardens. A beautiful park surrounds the memorial, which is hidden from the nearby road by trees. It is indeed a place for quiet reflection.

As I sat on a bench gazing out across the plain, once scarred by snaking, water-filled trenches, I felt a certain closeness to Grandpa that I had never known during his lifetime. I thought how thankful I was that he wasn’t resting in that chalky ground of France–that he had survived the war and lived to become my grandfather. I wish we could have spoken before his death, but now I understand his silence.

I realize now that he could never have put into words what he had experienced on that plain so long ago and that I could never really comprehend it. Fortunately, I can “never know the hell where youth and laughter go.” I inhabit a different world because of what he did.

So on this Nov. 11th, the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and in particular of Regina Trench, I will wear my poppy with pride and gratitude in his honour, and in honour of all the silent heroes of the Somme.

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