100 years ago ...
... two of my great-uncles had a chance meeting and shared a meal. Doesn't sound like the most interesting story, right? Here's the thing ... they were in different battalions, serving in France during WWI. Little did they know that they were just weeks away from fighting the Battle of Amiens and then breaching the Western Front.
Basil (Tub) and his brother George (Bob) wrote home to their parents regularly and I found some of their letters when I was cleaning out my parents' house.
Here's what they wrote about their surprise get-together in France on July 7th, 1918. (I've transcribed each letter below its image to make it easier to read.)
Great-uncle Basil was with the 2nd Battalion Canadian Engineers and had the most to say.
France - July 7th/18 - Sunday
To-day after dinner, before I wrote a letter to Bill, I was going to take a walk with another fellow to a village some two kilometers away from here where some cyclists were camped in hopes there might be a chance Bob was among them but I had no sooner started out than who should I bump into but Bob himself. He looks fine and as fit as a pig, if this is a good way of describing a fit person. Garsh, but it surprised me to see him for I never imagined I would see him. He is as Brown as a berry wearing these short pants like Kilties wear. This was not half past one so we came back to my billet which was only four or five yards away and talked over old times and smoked for about three hours. Then I walked back with him to his place and had supper and saw an old I/B of C [Imperial Bank of Canada] fellow – went to the YMCA got some chocolate and cigarettes and came on back. On Tuesday night I am going over to see him again. He had just put through a cheque for twenty dollars a couple of days before and insisted on my taking twenty francs although I had fifteen in my pocket and pay day not more than eight days off. He said I should need it so I will keep it to one side for an emergency, should one occur.
Say Ma I was to one of the most unique masses, if there be such a thing, since I came from Canada. It was a little village church and they had high mass. The priest got as far as the end of the Gloria and then came down and played an organ just at the side of the altar. He sang one verse or part and the congregation the other. After chanting, for chanting it was, the Kyrie and Gloria he went back to the altar and finished the Nicene creed and then came to the organ and played that.
The church had no pews or kneeling rails but big chairs which you knelt on and then turned them around and sat on them as the case might be so you can imagine the shuffle when you change from kneeling to sitting. There was one thing in this little church which caught my eye. It was the pulpit. Solid oak and magnificently carved. Some church would give a good deal for this if they could get it I imagine, although it was not very big.
Do you know who sleeps in the same billet as me. Tom Longboat the runner. Maybe you wouldn’t know him but Peter would.
Well Till [Matilda] old girl we were issued with a new equipment which I must whip into shape so good bye for a little while. Hope you are well and in Muskoka by the time this reaches you and having a good time with all the girls.
Your loving son,
I was stunned when I read that Basil had shared a billet with Tom Longboat - the famous Onondaga runner who won the Boston Marathon in 1907 and who has his own day in Ontario, June 4th. Google honoured him with a Doodle just this past June on the 131st anniversary of his birth.
I tried to find some information on what Basil and Tom Longboat were actually doing in France and, because of Tom's fame, I was able to find this descriptive passage on a World Wars Aboriginal Veterans page (http://av.canadiana.ca/en/veteran/8428):
Great-uncle George was with the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion; doing intelligence work, being sent ahead of the infantry to find out what the enemy was doing, and also taking part in direct combat. They were also known as the Suicide Battalion because their casualty rate was so high.
France 7/7/18 Sunday P.M.
My dear Father,
As per there has been no Canadian mail and so nothing much to write about except that I have had the afternoon with Tub.
I got a letter from him last night to say he was in the 2nd Engineer Bn. I got busy and found they were only about 5 miles from me so stuck in a pass for today. I went right after dinner so as to make sure he wouldn’t be away sightseeing. He is looking extremely well and says he feels the same. For my part it was almost like getting home again. He seems to me to have changed considerably since I saw him last – he seemed only a youngster then and now he sure has the ways of a man. He is coming over here our Tuesday next. Of course, neither of us know how soon we may be moved and get beyond visiting distance.
The weather has been fairly jake, warming up again. We have had a fairly easy week, but start off tomorrow with a twenty kilometre walk. The battalion OC has gone on leave and the adjutant is acting for him. The latter gent likes to see the boys have a good time so we don’t anticipate too hard a time.
I believe Tub will be writing tomorrow and give you all his news.
Best love to all,
Both Basil (Tub) and George (Bob) made it home from the war, safe and sound, and both became bankers. Basil managed a branch of the Imperial Bank of Canada and George was a senior executive with the Royal Trust Company. George moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. Basil stayed near Toronto and walked my mother down the aisle when she married my father. And it was in Toronto where he suffered his one and only gunshot wound when armed robbers came into the branch he was managing. The family story has always been that he got shot while fighting off the robbers (but the bullet wound was actually in his butt, which makes you wonder which direction he was really heading in).
I never met George, but I remember my father talking about his hilarious sense of humour. He died in 1964, aged 69. Basil died in 1981, aged 85, and I remember him well. He was definitely a character, with an infectious laugh.
(Interesting dirty little family secret ... one of the people named on this headstone isn't really buried here and Basil was complicit in the sham of adding that person's name to the headstone ... )
While George and Basil's war stories had happy endings, on a recent trip to Mathon Court in the UK (the home of their great-great-grandfather and my great-great-great-grandfather, William Vale), I discovered that one of their British cousins joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, and was killed during the Battle of Gallipoli.
Appropriately named Noble Vale was buried at Gallipoli, Canakkale, Turkey and his sacrifice has been honoured inside Mathon Court church.
And now, 100 years after they shared a meal, I'm honouring my great-uncles here by sharing their stories.