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Not A Grand Adventure

“For death is not an adventure for those who come face to face with it.”

All Quiet On The Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

here was a photo in an old textbook that I used to have that has never failed to truly leave me. A couple of soldiers are crossing a muddy battlefield on a wooden bridge, trees destroyed by gunfire and shelling in the backdrop. They look to be Americans. They’ve just come face to face with death. It wasn’t pleasant. The photo was from World War I, four years of hell. When the Battle of Passchendaele was mercifully over, those whose jobs it was to enter it into the history books did so, all the while weighing the terrible cost it had inflicted upon those who participated. Passchendaele was no doubt a key battle, but it was a horrid one as well. The conditions over that five-month period were awful and, as if to add insult to injury, the territory that those men had fought so valiantly for was abandoned because of an oncoming German assault only a year later. All that effort proved to be worthless. For most young men today, the sheer horror and dismay of Passchendaele would be enough to make them tremble and rethink their decision to join the fight. Close to 400,000 men on each side of the battlefield lost their lives. Nearly 20 million people were killed in the four years of the war, between both the Triple Entente of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, France and Russia and the Triple Alliance of the Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Italians on the other. Twenty million others were said to have been injured. Was any young man reading about that in the local newspaper really prepared to sacrifice himself for the cause? Probably not in our day. But in 1917, that was not the case. The overall desire for adventure and pride in being patriotic still ruled the day.

The grand adventure that was World War I really began on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. There, a group of six Bosnian assassins lined the streets in different locations hoping to get a chance at Austrian leader Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. They hoped that by killing them both they would free Bosnia from Austrian rule. It seems they did not take into account the possibly vitriolic reaction that would radiate from the Austrian people towards Bosnia if they succeeded. They would soon feel that reaction, the death of the Austrian couple coming from the gun of Gavrilo Princip. It was later revealed that although the Bosnians had their own motivations, the Serbians had actually provided the assassins with their weapons. Austria was predictably furious and soon declared war on Serbia. And what happened in the aftermath of the declaration of war occurred with speed and precision. Germany quickly backed Austria. Great Britain backed Serbia. Soon it became clear that Germany had their own intentions, hoping to invade France and then turn to Russia. As a result, Great Britain, France and Russia allied with each other. And by early August of 1914, most of Europe was at war with each other. It was into this world, a mess that had already been going on for three years and had now added the United States into the mix, that my great-grandfather boldly stepped. 

Born in 1900 to Robert and Mary-Jane Mainwaring, James William Mainwaring— Jimmy as he would come to be known in the years that followed— was just the right age to get caught up in the wonder of The Great War.  As it turns out, my great-grandfather’s time in World War I wasn’t exactly the high spirited adventure that he hoped it would be, but the basic facts of his enlistment may sound familiar. As the oldest of three siblings myself, I don’t exactly know what it feels like to do something in order to live up to my older brother’s standards. But in 1915, when Jimmy followed his older brother Joe to enlist in the Canadian military at the age of just 15, part of his reasoning was because of a desire to be seen in the same light as Joe. Unlike today, where military service in many countries is considered important but not something that necessarily proves one’s manhood, that was often the case during World War I. And if manhood wasn’t the issue, World War I provided a pathway into something young men found in the novels of Tolstoy and Mark Twain, transporting them to another place and setting them in the middle of their very own grand adventure. 

In his old age, Jimmy was particularly lucid and candid, but he shared little about the war. I cannot imagine what it would have felt like to live through the horrors that he experienced head on. Trench warfare, although amazing in its own right with its elaborate system of dugouts, was difficult. And although any given soldier would maybe only spend a portion of their time in the trench, it was often this experience that they dreaded the most. Typically, trenches were close to 16 feet deep and had barbed wire on the top so opposing soldiers, daring to cross the unoccupied space known as “no-man’s land,” wouldn’t get easy access.

No food was safe in the trenches. Rats often dwelled rent free, feasting on the skin of the dead who were all too often right next to those still alive. Jimmy developed a particularly strong dislike of tomatoes while fighting in Belgium in the trenches during the Battle of Amiens and the Second Battle of Cambrai – a very successful campaign for the Canadians – because that was all that they seemed to be fed.

Life in the trenches was not easy. And although there appears to be only one man in this photo, a British soldier, there are actually several dead men around him. Such was the nature of trenches and war. No time to bury the dead. (Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/trench-warfare)

To Kill or Be Killed 

Thirty-four years ago, in 1988, Irish interviewer Gay Byrne had a then 93 year old Jack Campbell on his television program. Campbell was a former World War I soldier. I feel there is something fascinating about Gay Byrne’s interview with Jack. Was it that, at 93 years old, Campbell was still mentally as sharp as a tack? Was it that his story and my great- grandfather’s story were remarkably similar? Or was it that by listening to Jack, I experienced the stories that I wished I had heard directly from my great-grandfather? Indeed, it was a bit of all three. Campbell was from Dublin and, like Jimmy, he enlisted at the age of 16. I’m sure this was common with the many other young men who had strong attraction to adventure and a sense of patriotism for their nation. He had four older brothers and, like my great-grandfather, he had wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps. In the same way as Jimmy, who never grew past five foot four, Jack was short and scrawny when he first enlisted. Naturally, at the age of 16, he was turned down, just like Jimmy. And just like my great-grandfather, he lied about his age to get in, Campbell doing so in 1916 and Jimmy doing so in 1917. Campbell had already experienced months of war before Jimmy sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the Western Front.

Jack Campbell on The Gay Byrne Show in 1988. (Source: YouTube)

Death was always on the mind in those years. As Campbell put it, rather nicely, “it was kill or be killed. There were no hard feelings. That was just the way it was.” In any instance, a soldier could walk into an isolated moment, bullets whizzing by their head with a loud pop. And for a period of a couple of months, my great-grandfather was indeed declared dead by his military superiors. Perhaps one of the great ironies of war is that, once a man is dead, it often becomes difficult to distinguish between one and the other. Unfortunately for Jimmy and his family, those whose job it was to identify the body got confused and announced the wrong name. It was, considering the enormity of the war and the millions of young and old who died, an honest mistake. But it was a mistake that deeply impacted Jimmy’s family over those months. I’m sure they must have had a memorial for their beloved son and brother. And I am equally sure that they must have been surprised to discover, somewhere along the line, that Jimmy was actually alive and that his brother, in a sort of miracle, had seen him in Victoria Station in London.

Miracle At Victoria Station

Jimmy had stepped off the train with his unit in formation, with what little he had in his hands, and began walking, the sound of their boots reverberating through the station. During the war, Victoria Station had served as both an entry and exit point for the British and members of the Commonwealth. All along the way, there were little canteens selling tea and candies to the travellers and soldiers. Further down the platforms was the booking office, the season ticket office, the general waiting room, a restaurant and the W.H. Smith & Son newspaper stand. Believe it or not, this newspaper stand still occupies a space in Victoria Station, only it is now a sleek and modern bookstore.

This photo of Victoria Station is actually from the 1950s, but from the time my great-grandfather and his brother were in here to then, not a whole lot had change. Of course now, the station is sleek and modern. (Source: Mediadrumimages/TopFoto)

There was a great sense of unease for Joe as he walked with his unit towards the train. Word had reached him a few months prior, as it had with his family, that Jimmy was dead. It is never easy to lose anyone dear to the heart, but Joe must have been feeling a great deal of pain that afternoon in Victoria Station. How could he have known that his last goodbye to his brother would indeed turn out to be one that carried so much finality. Was he to have the same unfortunate fate as Jimmy?

These thoughts must have been turning in Joe’s mind as the two brothers neared each other unknowingly, which is ironic, because Jimmy didn’t even know he was thought to be dead. Obviously still alive, no death certificate was given and in the days before cellphones, he was unable to call home to confirm that he was actually living. With the anticipation building, it was all the more meaningful, therefore, when the two brothers locked eyes. It was Joe whose eyes went wide with surprise, and it was Joe who broke rank first to embrace his younger brother and express with astonishment that he was still alive. The two spoke briefly, obviously on separate paths, and the conversation ended just as quickly as it had begun.

My great-grandfather would live to be 81 years old and only twice after the war would he ever visit a doctor. He would live through another world war, the Cold War, the 1960s and its desire for change. He would marry and have two daughters, one of them my grandmother. And all along, he would stay classy, dignified, positive and content, forever impacted by the war he fought in but never overcome by it.

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