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Will Bird The Chronicler

Will Bird The Chronicler

By Pat Sullivan

April, 1984


If ever an army deserves to be remembered, this is it. In WW I, 619,636 Canadians enlisted from a country of only 7.5 million; nearly 10 per cent died. If American forces had taken comparable casualties in Vietnam they would have had 1.7 million dead, not 57,000.

Even victories were earned at staggering cost in WW I. More than 3,500 Canadians died at Vimy Ridge, 15 per cent of the Canadian Army’s total for all of WW II and 10 times the number lost on D-Day.

But statistics can’t begin to tell how these men died, of the day-to-day horror in the trenches, of what happened to the bodies and minds of men under unending stress.

Will Bird could.

This native of East Mapleton, N.S., first tried to enlist in 1914, but was rejected because of poor teeth. By 1916 recruiters weren’t as picky and he joined the 42nd Bn., a forerunner of the Black Watch.

Two years later a fine soldier and excellent writer emerged from the trenches and became Canada’s nearest equivalent of Erich Maria Remarque, the German author of All Quiet On The Western Front.

You won’t find the picture Will Bird painted in official histories, because he told the other ranks’ story: what it was like to be cold, scared, hungry and wet for days, with lice and stinking corpses your closest companions.

Bird, who died in a Sackvalline, N.B., nursing home Jan. 28 at age 92, had a prodigious output. He wrote 27 books, from those dealing with WW I like Ghosts Have Warm Hand, And We Go On, Private Timothy Fergus Clancy and Thirteen Years After, to two WW II regimental histories – No Retreating Footsteps, which tells the North Novas’ story, and the History of the North Shore Regt. There are also numerous travel books and novels on peacetime topics.

He is also well known for his short stories, which have been published from here to Australia. Twenty-nine have appeared in O’Brien’s Best Short Stories, an annual American anthology.

Bird was favorite of early readers of The Legionary, first appearing in November, 1927, and making regular contributions until August, 1936. That writing ranged from poems and short stories to a 12-part series called Marked Men that ran in 1930-31 and drew sacks of mail.

An early instalment described his arrival at the front in January, 1917: “As they served the rum they talked to us and the officer seemed a very fine man. Then he put his foot on the firestep and said he wanted to look over, as he had been told that our post was the nearest of any to the German trench. I told him it was not safe, that snipers had shot away my periscope not five minutes before. He said he would move quickly, and rose up. I was so close that I seized him without reaching and tried to hold him back. It was too late. Clang! His helmet flew back over the rear wall and lodged in the wire, and brains and blood spilled all over the front of my overcoat and on my arms as the officer sank down at my feet. He had been shot between the eyes with an explosive bullet that had torn his helmet away, breaking the strap under his chin.”

In 1931 he toured the old battlefields for Maclean’s, then printed twice monthly, and his reports appeared in every issue from January to October, 1932.

His stories drew 5,000 letters and the demand for more was so great Bird visited 106 Legion branches telling yarns like this one: “We were in Vis-en-Artois again, and had lunch at a café in which there was an ASC (Army Service Corps) man on leave. He knew his lot were not looked on with a particular favor by frontliners, but he was a pleasant chap. He told us of being in a hut back of the lines, crowded around the stove with his chums, discussing dreams. A mud-weary frontliner stumbled in from the wet and cold, bound for Blighty on leave. He had come to thaw out, but no one made a move to let him near the stove. When there was a lull, he spoke up.

“I had a dream last night,’ he said. ‘I dreamt I got mine and went to hell.’

“He paused and several voices asked, ‘What was it like, Mac?”

“‘Just like here,’ he replied. ‘I couldn’t get near the fire because of the ASC.’”

The war was a mystical event for Bird. He swears he was saved twice by his younger brother Steve, which would be no mystery except that Steve had been killed in action with the 25th Bn. Almost two years before Bird arrived in France.

He said his brother took his hand while he was sleeping and led him from a dugout shortly before a shell destroyed it, killing two men, and later took him from a room before some grenades accidently exploded.

These incidents provided the title for his 1968 memoir, Ghosts Have Warm Hands, but weren’t limited to Bird: English author Robert Graves recounts a similar one in Goodbye To All That.

Bird’s only daughter, Betty Murray of Amherst, N.S., said the effect WW I had on veterans probably is not understood today.

“In a TV society where we become so familiar with foreign countries and so inured to violence without leaving our armchair, it is hard to imagine what an incredible experience crossing that ocean must have been. It must have seemed a miracle to ever return.”

Mrs. Murray said her father emerged relatively unscathed from the war, unlike many veterans who developed sever psychological problems. “Writing about it undoubtedly provided a therapy, just as reading those same stories must have helped so many,” she said.

Writing the North Novas’ history was also therapeutic, because his only son, Capt. Stephen Bird, was killed in action with that regiment at Authie, France, during the ferocious fighting around Caen. “His greatest pain came from WW II, not WW I,” said Mrs. Murray. “None of the family fully recovered from my brother’s death.”

His reconstruction of the Authie fighting of July 8, 1944, is calm and dispassionate, belying personal loss. “Bird had just got his men nicely in hand when another hail of mortars descended. Cpl. J.F. Shields was badly wounded in the leg and three other men were hit, but the Minnies ceased and Bird shouted orders for another rush. Sgt. Cheverie assisted him in getting everyone on the run and Lieut. Ev Sutherland had his platoon going as well. Then came another storm of Moaning Minnies. Capt. S.S. Bird was killed by a direct hit, and four other men beside him were wounded.”

This cool detachment is often apparent in his WW I works. “It was like a death sentence to me, but I knew any argument would only make it worse, “he wrote of an order he, an officer and two other men received. “One look at the officer’s face told me he had probably pleaded for another type of attack.

“He turned and shook the major’s hand, said ‘Goodbye, Sir.’ The major started slightly but made no remark. The officer did not wait. He pulled at his helmet and stepped around the bend, with us three close behind. The gun let go full blast at the sitting-duck target. The lieutenant took most of the bullets and was instantly killed.”

Bird dived down on his belly and was unhurt. The gun was wiped out later in a more sensible attack.

Bird provided rare details of brutal guards, thieving soldiers, cowardice and courage. One of his hated enemies was the rum ration. He always refused it, maintaining it caused carelessness and needless deaths.

When he later visited France for Maclean’s he found Canadians still in hiding, deserters who had escaped the clutches of the provost corps. Punishment for desertion and other military crimes was harsh – 25 Canadians were executed in WW I, compared with one in WW II.

Despite the nightmarish battlefield, Bird was glad he enlisted. “The war was a wonderful experience, in the sense that life in the trenches forced men to know each other in a manner that is impossible in civilian life,” he wrote in 1968. “One came to realize that courage is a quality which comes to the fore unexpectedly and is often greatest when least expected.”

Mrs. Murray said her father spoke little of trench life. “Many of his stories were humorous, having to do with comradeship. However, after WW II and our personal tragedy he would speak of the folly of war.”

One of his finest descriptions of the trenches was in The Legionary, recounting flashbacks from the boat home in 1919.

“Darkness. The rush of the ship. I felt my way again into a stifling dugout, into an atmosphere rancid with stale sweat and breathing, earth mould, and the hot grease of candles. I saw faces, cheeks resting on tunics, mud-streaked, unshaven, dirty faces, some with teeth clenched in sudden hate, some livid with pulse-stopping fear. I saw men turning on their wire bunks, quivering as if on some red-hot grill. I heard the gasp and sob and cry out in agony, and the mutter as they tossed again. Then, a machine-gun’s note, louder, higher, sharper, crack-crack-crack, as it sweeps over you in a shell-hole where you hug earth. The growl of guttural voices, heavy steps, in an unseen trench just the other side of the black mass of a tangled, barbed barricade beside which you cower. The long-drawn whine of a shell. Its heart-gripping explosion. The terrible oppressive silence that follows, then the first low wail of the man who is down with a gaping, blood-spurting wound.”

He ended his series for Maclean’s on a happier note, capturing both folly and humor: “A party of old crocks used as pioneers was sent to an isolated post during the last days of the war and had no knowledge of Armistice Day. The young officer in charge received the message and read it in grave and impressive tones. After he finished there was a heavy silence, then an old cockney sergeant stepped forward and saluted. ‘Beg pardon, sir,’ he said, ‘but ‘oos won?’”



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