Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Uncle Wilfred

July 1, Canada Day, 2008

James Wilfred Elliott
Regimental Number 908082
195th Battalion
Canadian Expeditionary Force

Dear Uncle Wilfred,

I remember you as an uncle who lived far away from your home farm in Manitoba, and in fact you lived in California, a distant and romantic land for a child in the stone cold prairies of Canada in the fifties. But your occasional voice on the long-distance telephone, such phone calls being magical, was full of warmth and affection. Only much later did I understand that you lived in California because the metal plate in your head, which saved your life after your wound in World War I, gave you such pain in the winter that you had to live in milder climes. I’m glad you found some peace.

As I write to you, I have before me a collection of your decorations, given me by your sister, Esther, framed. On the back of the frame there is a map, given you apparently by one of your officers showing where you were wounded during the fight for Hill 70 at Lens, France, August 1917 (over 90 years ago now), and I reproduce it here with some awe, being a connection to the reality of "The War to End All Wars".

Human beings seem pretty good at inventing catch phrases, like: "The War to End All Wars", (World War I); "Never Again", (World War II); and now, the "War on Terror". As things turned out of course, The War to End All Wars didn’t, Never Again wasn't, and - now - the War on Terror isn't. Again in fact, young Canadians are being killed and wounded in ways you have experienced but I can only imagine.

The Military Medal, an image of which I show here, is sitting on my desk amongst your other decorations. My experience of real soldiers is that they aren’t particularly interested in decorations, only reality. Although I'm still trying to find the original citation, my understanding that you were awarded this medal for continuing to defend your position while wounded. I have a map of the region of Hill 70, together with some laconic description.

(And now, Christmas Eve, I have found the citation.)

In my short conversations with you when I was a child, I have no memory of you speaking of the war, or any war. I recall only the warmth of your voice, and your interest in my everyday doings.

I had no idea of what you had been through. Even now, after years of medical education and practice, I can only dimly imagine what you must have suffered, and survived.

With those thoughts in mind, I am challenging the government of the day to tell the truth about our current war, a government that seems not to have learned any lesson from history. My efforts are a shadow of yours, but are heartfelt nonetheless.

I want you to know that I remember, your family remembers, and many of us remember.