Then and There

March 5, 2015 by Legion Magazine


Then and There

By Wilfred Bovey

September, 1953

Memories are queer things; even philosophers and psychologists are not sure what they are. Yet we all know that in some filing cabinet of the brain lie sound pictures of long past events, ready for us to run off in a mental projector. For those of us who shared in the violence of world warfare the sharpest pictures of all are often those which have never got into history books, the clearest sounds are those which only a few ears heard. Yet those very sights and sounds, linking the strife of nations to our own lives, point up the story of conflict, just as its illuminations point up an ancient manuscript.


In 1910 the imminence of war with Germany was impressed on a group of officers, myself among the number, by General Sir John French when, as Inspector-General for what was still the British Empire, he came to cast an eagle eye over Canadian troops. There was a review on Fletcher’s Field in Montreal, with all services in the picturesque if expensive full dress of those days, and a ceremonial march-past which showed the Inspector-General some unexpectedly good drill and discipline – at least he so declared. My memory film plays back crisp orders, a brass band and the “British Grenadiers”, a pipe band and “Highland Laddie”, high bearskins and red coats, feather bonnets and swinging kilts. Forty-three years, nearly half a century ago!

Later in the day Sir John (who later became Field-Marshal the Earl of Ypres) came to the Officers’ Mess of the 5th Royal Highlanders of Canada (now the Black Watch) for a little refreshment. He said that The Day was bound to come very soon. He told us too of the six-division British Expeditionary Force and said that it was destined to go into action with the French against the Germans, that even the order of battle had been settled. Most of those who heard him that day in Montreal were killed or have died; the memory is all the clearer for those who are left. No one to whom Sir John French spoke had any doubt that war was in the offing or that we should have a part to play.

Newspapers and histories were destined to inform us years later that the British Government of 1914 did not know it was committed and we were naturally enough to be surprised that the Government had so little information, that it was ignorant of the understandings between its senior officers and the French Army.



1911, 1912, 1913 passed, war-clouds continually darkening. I remember re-reading a book which I had bought in France years before, dealing with Germany’s plan (agreed to by Austria) to extend her empire into the East and to build a Berlin-Bagdad railway. I still have the book, now signed by the author who came to Montreal during World War II. Another book by General Friedrich Von Bernhardi emphasized the enormous influence in this scheme of the German Great General Staff. Right across the path of the German expansionists stretched another track, the broad trail of Pan-Slavism which Russian dreamers hoped would unite Slavs everywhere and so carry Russia’s borders to the Adriatic. These two paths of national ambition crossed in the Balkans, always Europe’s danger area.

At this time I met in Montreal a most attractive young German who did everything from selling champagne and breaking hearts, about which we knew, to looking over our sketchy defences and vulnerable transportation system, about which activities we did not know. He was one of that army of secret agents of which Lord Tweedsmuir, himself another, and better, secret agent, has so well written. In the summer of 1914 this German came to stay at a hotel in North Hatley, Que., where my wife, my small daughter, her nurse and myself were taking a holiday. We had an invitation to a yachting cruise on Long Island Sound and the young German asked me to lend him my canoe. I said, “Yes, if you will take my little girl out on the lake every day.” He kept the bargain.

Early one morning, a week later, our yacht called at New London, Conn., and I rowed the dinghy ashore to get the newspapers. The train came in; I bought a New York paper and saw on the front page an account of the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria and his lady by Serbian revolutionaries at Sarajevo in Bosnia, then controlled by Austria. (Years later at Montreal, in a movie named The Ramparts We Watch, I saw that little scene at New London station, including my look at the newspaper, re-enacted; it gave me a queer feeling.)



The fire lighted at Sarajevo was to grow into the conflagration of World War I. We cut our trip short at New London and took a train back to Canada. My young German had gone, naturally enough. Even the best efforts of Colonel Burns, father of the present Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs, then in charge of contre-espionage, were never enough to catch him. And that was the last I saw of the man who was to play an important part into the days of Hitler – Herr Joachim von Ribbentrop.

The war was on for a certainty, and my fellow adjutants, Major Edward C. Norsworthy, later killed, and Captain D. R. McCuaig, who has since died, with myself began plans to get our own Regiment ready to take part in what was to come.






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