In Remembrance

In remembrance, this day, November 11, 2016, of all those men and women who have fought and died in service to their country, securing peace and freedom for friends and family, where ever they may be.
This day always reminds me of those people in my family who have served in the military. My maternal grandfather, Percy (Tobe) McFarquhar, 1893-1967, drove ambulance in World War I. He join the Canadian forces in 1915 and served until 1918. I have also had other family members serving variously in other conflicts around the world.
If I’m trying to find meaning in a day or an event, I often turn to my favourite authors. Here’s a passage from C S. Lewis’ spiritual autobiography. Lewis, as did many other young men of his generation, went to war at the age of nineteen, the same age as many of the first-year students I teach every year.

The war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall here say little about it. Until the great German attack came in the Spring we had a pretty quiet time. Even then they attacked not us but the Canadians on our right, merely “keeping us quiet” by pouring shells into our line about three a minute all day. I think it was that day I noticed how a greater terror overcomes a less: a mouse that I met (and a poor shivering mouse it was, as I was a poor shivering man) made no attempt to run from me. Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother. I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. …
But for the rest, the war–the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet–all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard–so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peace-time poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
(XII. Guns and Good Company)

In Remembrance, L. M. Montgomery and War


My trip to Charlottetown, PEI, last June to attend L. M. Montgomery and War brought me a greater appreciation for Montgomery as a writer, but also for the events of the Great War. Whenever I attend such conferences, I walk a line between my scholarly and personal interests, which means I’m not always terribly objective.
At the conference, I presented on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it figures into both Montgomery’s journals and rilla of Ingleside, the one book exclusively about WWI. I’ve taught a course on Montgomery, and I keep coming back to her as a writer, but my personal interest in this topic comes from learning to manage PTSD in my own life, and knowing a number of young men who served in Afghanistan.
In honour of this Remembrance Day, 2014, I thought to let Montgomery speak to you about war. I’ve collected here some brief passages from Lucy Maud’s journals that show her processing the events of the war, while she continued to work as a writer, a mother, and a minister’s wife. I’m also including Walter’s final letter to rilla on the eve of his death. The letter is a poignant farewell, but it stands as a tribute to the young men who fought and died in WWI, and serves as a reminder of the horrors of war, both real and imagined.
The journal entries come from The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, volume 2, 1910–1921, edited by Elizabeth Waterston and Mary Rubio, and Walter’s letter is taken from a Project Gutenberg e-text of Rilla of Ingleside.
June 10, 1916
“This war is slowly killing me. I am bleeding to death as France is being bled in the shambles of Verdun.”
August 19, 1916
“I do my writing in the parlour now, as said parlour possesses the only door in the house which young Chester cannot open … Wednesday and Thursday I was miserable with an attack of bowel trouble. Naturally, visitors took that day for appearing. The Russians have captured Tarnapol heights and the British and French have renewed their offensive.”
May 29, 1918
“We went to Uxbridg today to see a military funeral. Colonel Sam Sharp … was buried. He came home from the front quite recently, insane from shellshock and jumped from a window in the royal Victoria at Montreal.”
Walter’s Final Letter, Rilla of Ingleside (chapter 23) 
”We’re going over the top tomorrow, Rilla-my-Rilla,” wrote Walter. “I wrote mother and Di yesterday, but somehow I feel as if I must write you tonight. I hadn’t intended to do any writing tonight—but I’ve got to. Do you remember old Mrs. Tom Crawford over-harbour, who was always saying that it was ‘laid on her’ to do such and such a thing? Well, that is just how I feel. It’s ‘laid on me’ to write you tonight—you, sister and chum of mine. There are some things I want to say before—well, before tomorrow.”

“You and Ingleside seem strangely near me tonight. It’s the first time I’ve felt this since I came. Always home has seemed so far away—so hopelessly far away from this hideous welter of filth and blood. But tonight it is quite close to me—it seems to me I can almost see you—hear you speak. And I can see the moonlight shining white and still on the old hills of home. It has seemed to me ever since I came here that it was impossible that there could be calm gentle nights and unshattered moonlight anywhere in the world. But tonight somehow, all the beautiful things I have always loved seem to have become possible again—and this is good, and makes me feel a deep, certain, exquisite happiness. It must be autumn at home now—the harbour is a-dream and the old Glen hills blue with haze, and Rainbow Valley a haunt of delight with wild asters blowing all over it—our old “farewell-summers.” I always liked that name better than ‘aster’—it was a poem in itself.”

“Rilla, you know I’ve always had premonitions. You remember the Pied Piper—but no, of course you wouldn’t—you were too young. One evening long ago when Nan and Di and Jem and the Merediths and I were together in Rainbow Valley I had a queer vision or presentiment—whatever you like to call it. Rilla, I saw the Piper coming down the Valley with a shadowy host behind him. The others thought I was only pretending—but I saw him for just one moment. And Rilla, last night I saw him again. I was doing sentry-go and I saw him marching across No-man’s-land from our trenches to the German trenches—the same tall shadowy form, piping weirdly—and behind him followed boys in khaki. Rilla, I tell you I saw him—it was no fancy—no illusion. I heard his music, and then—he was gone. But I had seen him—and I knew what it meant—I knew that I was among those who followed him.”

“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again—not of death—nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face—for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember—things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil—the future, not of Canada only but of the world—when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest—not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win—never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.”
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach—this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you—and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for—teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you—all you girls back in the homeland—do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.”
“I meant to write to Una tonight, too, but I won’t have time now. Read this letter to her and tell her it’s really meant for you both—you two dear, fine loyal girls. Tomorrow, when we go over the top—I’ll think of you both—of your laughter, Rilla-my-Rilla, and the steadfastness in Una’s blue eyes—somehow I see those eyes very plainly tonight, too. Yes, you’ll both keep faith—I’m sure of that—you and Una. And so—goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.”
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