Homer News – Veterans Day

Roy Armstrong

Veterans Day brings thoughts of past, future
Michael Armstrong
Point of view

For the past few years, when I think of Veterans Day, I think of my grandfather, Pvt. Roy Armstrong, 15th Battalion, 48th Highlanders, First Contingent, Canadian Expeditionary Force, World War I.

I had not always had this association with Veterans Day. For, until I dug into Grandpa’s military history, I had not realized how involved he had been with the Great War, and how his service spanned the entire war, from Canada’s first battle to his repatriation from a German prisoner of war camp.

I don’t know much about Grandpa. Truth to tell, he was a bit of a scoundrel. He and my grandmother, Lillian Harvey, met before the war, corresponded during his imprisonment, and married after the war ended. Grandpa was born March 29, 1894, in Minesing, Ontario, the only child of a Scottish-Irish immigrant and his teen-age bride. My great-grandfather died in a logging accident when Grandpa was an infant, and Grandpa’s uncles and aunts raised him in Toronto.

My grandparents eventually wound up in Miami, where my father, Allan Armstrong, and Uncle Warren were born. When the boys were in their teens, Grandpa abandoned his family and disappeared into the jobless hordes of the Great Depression. Understandably, my grandmother spoke bitterly of Grandpa, if she spoke of him at all. I grew up thinking of him as dead, except that around 1963, when I was 7, Grandpa reappeared.

My family lived in Tampa at the time, and Grandpa had settled in Zephyrhills, with a new wife and more children, some about my age. Grandpa had a heart attack and decided to look up my father. It turned out to be an awkward reunion and an association that did not last.

But it raised some questions about my grandfather: Who was he? What was his involvement in the Great War?

Years later, researching my family’s history, I found a Web listing of all Canadian Expeditionary Force soldiers, and among it, cross-referenced with his service number, Grandpa’s name. I wrote off to the Canada archives for his war records, and a few months later, received back a huge packet of photocopies. Comparing his service record with that of the CEF, I discovered how brutal his service turned out to be.

Grandpa enlisted in the CEF on Sept. 18, 1914, at the age of 20, and was assigned to the 15th Battalion and Toronto’s 48th Highlanders. On Feb. 15, 1915, the 15th Battalion went to France, eventually winding up March 3 at the front near Ypres. Grandpa might have seen some action there, but his real battle started April 22.

The Canadians held part of the line northwest of Ypres, among the British, French and French Colonials. On April 22, the Germans attacked with chlorine gas, “a mysterious greenish cloud,” as Desmond Morris describes it in “Silent Battle” — not as nasty as the mustard gas used later in the war, but fatal if a soldier couldn’t escape out of the trenches and breathed in too much.

The first attack opened a 4-mile gap in the line, one that the Allieds sought to close with attacks on April 23.

At 4 a.m. on April 24, Grandpa’s combat career ended. The Germans again fired gas, a wind pushing it up toward the 15th Battalion and the 48th Highlanders at the top of the Gravenstafel Ridge. The battalion dissolved.

Morris says that four officers and 216 other soldiers died, and 10 officers and 247 soldiers surrendered. My grandfather was among those 247.

Grandpa’s service records show him reported a prisoner of war on April 25, 1915. He was officially reported to be a POW Feb. 2, 1917, at Gottingen in Germany, and was transferred to Cassel on Feb. 19, 1917. He was repatriated to England Jan. 9, 1919, and sailed back to Canada Feb. 12 on the Lapland, returning home on March 3. He was officially discharged April 19, 1919, shortly after his 25th birthday.

Of Grandpa’s four years in a POW camp, I know little. He’s said to have learned to speak French and German. The mystery of a German document among his papers suggests he might have been allowed passage outside of the camps. “Silent Battle” describes the Canadian’s ordeal as something similar to that of a Soviet Gulag prisoner: meager rations, forced labor and periodic beatings. The Gottingen prisoners worked in the salt mines, although if Grandpa was lucky, he might have been allowed to work on a local farm.

His return home most probably was chaotic, and it’s probable after war’s end he had to make his way back to Allied lines on his own. I do not doubt he endured great hardship during his captivity. That he became a POW and did not die in his first and only battle or, worse yet, survive to die in a further battle, in retrospect was a blessing.

So when I think of Veterans Day, I think back on a young man about my age when I was in college. I had the blessing of peace and freedom at age 20, in 1976. I never came to know the hardship of war; the last born of my family, I was too young for Vietnam, too old for the Gulf War.

On this Veterans Day in 2002, we think again of war, and how Americans could once more have to go into battle. Veterans Day should be a day to consider war and its necessity as well as futility. Above all, though, it should be a day to honor the veterans, the men and women who by choice or compulsion found themselves in combat and in the military.

This week the American Legion Auxiliary sells poppies. I’ll buy a poppy, the memoriam that came about from the Great War, and think of my grandfather and his service, sacrifice and pain.

Longtime Homer resident Michael Armstrong is an editorial assistant at the Homer News.