Nobody needs the Peace Movement to tell them that war can be a foul business. It is something most of us suspect and some people know full well. The departure point between reality and the peace movements is the recognition that the scourge of war will come sometimes, and when it does it must be fought. Those who go to hazard their own bodies to protect the rest of us against the desolation of war might not return, or else return changed.
In 1939, the author’s father had two older brothers. Chuck was already in the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying on maritime reconnaissance aircraft out of Halifax. He spent the next six years alternating between active operational tours looking for U-Boats over the Atlantic and helping to train wireless air-gunners in Canada. Pat joined the Canadian Army in 1942 and was an infantryman in the 3rd Canadian Division. (My father also volunteered, but was too young to be sent overseas until May of 1945).
Pat beat the harsh actuarial tables for Canadian infantrymen who fought in Italy and Northwest Europe. While we tend to remember the slaughter of the First World War, the long-term survival rates for Second World War infantry were worse. My uncle beat the odds by living through the 11 months from D-Day to VE-Day. He should have been killed or badly wounded but somehow came through it all without even a scratch from months in combat.
However, the war did change him and only his brothers learned the details of some of his experiences. Some things couldn’t be hidden. A summer storm could catapult Pat out of bed in a screaming fit – the thunder and lightning having brought him back to some place that his mind probably wouldn’t return to on a voluntary basis. Raised in a teetotal family, he was known to sometimes hit the bottle hard for much of the rest of his life.
There was only one detailed story that he told his brothers about his experiences.
After living through some weeks after D-Day as a rifleman in Normandy, he had been brought back to slightly safer existence as a Jeep driver with his Battalion Headquarters. It was in this role that he went through the rest of the war.
During the Rhineland Campaign of February and March 1945, the Third Division became known as the “Water Rats” for slogging through the flooded fields on the banks of the Rhine itself during the offensive against Hitler’s last intact defensive belt in the West. There was deep cold mud everywhere and most of the buildings and trees had been shattered by the incredible amount of shells pumped out during the battle. The few roads and tracks among the farms and villages had been mined or heavily cratered, so many improvised routes were being used.
The Germans were fighting as hard as they usually did; and their morale had yet to crack. Moreover, their holdings in the Rhineland had to be defended to keep the Allies from crossing the Rhine and flowing across Germany itself; so they only gave ground with considerable reluctance and their defences were constructed with all the deadly cunning they could muster. As a result, Allied casualty rates were soaring.
Pat was coming back from a rifle company, making a run for the Battalion Aid Station. He had three wounded Canadians in the back of his jeep and the passenger seat. During such runs, a stretcher might be strapped across the hood of the vehicle; there was this time. The occupant was a young badly wounded German Fallschirmjaeger (a Paratrooper – usually used as elite assault troops at this stage of the war and frequently inserted in whatever sector the Canadians were on).
The German had been shot in the pelvis. This is an excruciating place to be wounded and the one shot of morphine given to most wounded men is not enough to still the pain in such cases. (Giving more than one dose of morphine before treatment is dangerous, regardless of the nature of the wound). As the jeep swayed, bumped and lurched its way to the rear, every violent movement of the vehicle caused him to scream aloud in agony. It was a rough route but there was no other way back.
The jeep came to a halt, and the wounded German could hear Pat releasing the American carbine he kept clipped above the dash; then he heard the sound of a round being chambered.
As the memoirs of so many soldiers from almost all armies indicate, the survival of prisoners can be an iffy proposition in the immediate aftermath of their capture – assuming the surrender offer had been accepted in the first place. Generally, the further removed he is from the moment of captivity the safer a prisoner is, but a host of minor considerations may see a prisoner get shot out of hand until he is well to the rear.
All soldiers know that this happens, and the wounded German guessed that his screaming and moaning had made him an ‘inconvenience’, and that he would be shot and dumped out of the stretcher. He closed his eyes and bit his lip in concentration and fear, trying to avoid making any further noise.
The shots must have come as a surprise, and the German looked over to see that Pat had come across a trio of cattle that had been wandering loose across the battlefield, but had been mutilated by an artillery shell beside the jeep track. They were dying anyway, but it would probably take a hellish long time. My uncle put them out of their misery.
Anybody who has ever had to do such a thing will come back with a look that matches the complex of different emotions that accompany such an act – self-disgust, fury at the world for being so cruel and pity all in one. The German had opened his eyes when the shots fired, had looked over and saw it all.
As my uncle climbed back into his jeep, the badly wounded German paratrooper caught his eyes and gave him a look of clear sympathy. He then said “Das is gut, das war gut, Kanadier” [Roughly: That is good, that was good, Canadian.] Then the nightmare journey to the Aid Station resumed.
My uncle Pat is dead now, after a long episode of Alzheimer’s. I don’t know if he talked much about the war with his own children, but they could probably piece together the effects of his wartime experiences on their own. One of them served in the military in his time too, and might have been told more details by his father. My father also told me the story after I had elected to enroll in the Canadian Forces.
As for the German, he made it back to the Battalion Aid Station alive, and once inserted into the casualty stream it is extremely likely that he survived and eventually returned home. If still alive, he would be in his mid-70s, probably with nightmares that he still has to suppress and an ache in his hips on cold damp days.
The German might have also told the same story about a shared moment of sympathy and understanding in the middle of an ugly arena of pain and misery. Herein lies the very essence of war, and those who have been there don’t need to be told that it is terrible. Would that it was not sometimes necessary.