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My Brother Bill

My Brother Bill

By  A.V. Bentum

April 1985

Of my two brothers who, like me, went to France in WW I, Bill was my favorite. Like most old soldiers I am now fading away so Bill is in my thoughts as I dream of days gone by.

Bill was born on March 17 and an Irish neighbour wanted mother to call him Patrick. She would not have any of that. He was to be Thomas William like his dad, Willie to her.

The oldest brother, Jack, joined the King’s Own Royal Lancasters. He never came back. Bill thought he must have got a direct hit going over the top. Jack was a real warrior compared to Bill, who was not a fighter. As things turned out Bill did not have much choice.

When we were little Bill and I shared a bed in a red sandstone cottage that looked out on Peel Island and Peel Castle. Bill loved to have his back tickled and he paid me to do it at so much a tickle. So I had to count until he went to sleep. It may have been a ha’penny but he always paid up.

When the quarry where father worked was closed, the quarry owner evicted us. That was a heart-breaker. Dad had to look for work elsewhere and after several moves money became very scarce.

Jack and Bill got jobs on small locomotives on the docks. Bill also joined the Territorial Army with some of his mates and really enjoyed the summer camps. He was on mobilization for camp when war was declared in 1914. I went down to his barracks to see his unit move out.

By then he was in the Royal Engineers. They had horses and a sarcastic riding master who told one recruit he ought to turn around and use the horse’s tail as a rudder.

They were soon on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal facing Turkish soldiers who had assembled pontoons. The Saturday Afternoon Soldiers, as many in England had dubbed them, sent Jonny Turk back home and Bill and his mates found themselves in barracks in Cairo.

When the British decided to invade the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, Bill’s unit was landed as infantry from a collier. The vessel’s side had been cut away and she was beached. The German-backed Turks were ready. The beach where Bill landed was barbed with wire and once ashore there was no cover.

The only meritorious thing of the whole Dardenelles campaign was the evacuation early in 1916. Bill had suffered a bayonet wound in the head but could not get much medical attention.

Discharged in England a year later, he went back to his civilian job – only to be conscripted within months. I will not forget seeing Bill cry when told to report. He was not a warrior and had had enough of war.

This time they put him in the Royal Field Artillery and sent him to France as being already trained. Placed on a pack train feeding shells to the guns, he was soon transferred to the gun crew. The gunners were ordered to cover the retreat of the infantry and drop back through the lines when the infantry had taken up new positions. But the Germans surrounded them.

Bill’s crew had been firing with sights open at a range of 50 yards – endangering themselves from shells bursting back – before their capture. As Bill climbed out of that gun-pit he saw his officer shot and his personal possessions taken. The gun was turned around and the crew passed back.

Bill had not gone far when a German soldier demanded his leather gun-boots. He did not understand the language but was persuaded by the point of the bayonet. At the collection point a German officer, who spoke English, asked where his boots were and when told expressed anger that a German would do such a thing.

The prisoners were eventually sent to Chemnitz in Saxony and put to work making bricks. Young German women from the village talked with them through the camp’s barbed wire. One took a fancy to Bill and asked him to take her to a dance. He did not see how he could, but she said she would arrange it – and she did!

This was the first of several such occasions. The villagers did not seem to mind, but the other prisoners became jealous. Then the young lady told Bill she would like him to meet her family. Again he reminded her that he was their enemy. She insisted he wasn’t her enemy and on the way to her home said there was something she wanted to tell him if he would promise not to tell anyone else. Her father was in the British navy – but this was not known to the German authorities.

I came to Canada before the war ended so I was not in England when Bill got home. Much later I heard that the prisoners had just walked out of the camps and returned to England as best they could.

There was great rejoicing at war’s end in Britain and soon Bill married and had children. But things must have been very different as a result of the war because Bill decided to come to Canada.

I was still studying and having a hard time keeping solvent but I took Bill into our college residence and got fellow students to take meals to him from the dining room. He was a different Bill from the one I used to tickle years before. I took him to London, Ont., where we had relatives and Bill got a job in the CNR car shops. He built a house and soon brought his family to Canada.

I did not see much of him after that as I was appointed to a mission field for the summer. When I returned I went into residence at the college and had to attend lectures. My financial resources were still small and I could not travel to see Bill and he had a family.

Years later when I saw Bill he was ill with spinal arthritis and unable to work in the car shops. He got a job as a church caretaker and made it a real ministry.

The last time I saw him he was in the veterans’ hospital in London. I was about to return home to British Columbia after the visit when the phone rang and I received the message that a blood clot had reached his heart.

Bill had heard the bugle for the last time.



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