Thinking back across thirty years to this older gentleman, this first Great War veteran I ever met, I remember that he truly was a gentle man. I remember a deferring humility, a gentleness, a patience for children's incessant (and no doubt impertinent) questions. I remember a quick smile when he would walk past us with our toy soldiers spread out on my friend's living room carpet; God only knows what thoughts went through his mind as he watched us 7-year old generals manipulate our plastic troops across the "battlefield", occasionally singing out in theatrical cries of pain as we would mimic an artillery shell's effects on a column of marching infantry.
But most of all, even after all this time, I remember my friend's delight in his grandfather's very existence, so that today I wonder about the man he grew up to become as a result of his being blessed with his grandfather's presence in his life, as an example of tenderness and strength, to look up to.
I was reminded of all this as I read a letter published this weekend in the National Post, an old letter from a Canadian soldier, to the wife back home he was missing so dearly.
The following letter was written by John Walter Ellis to his wife in Tillsonburg, Ontario, on Saturday April 14, 1917, shortly after his participation in the battle of Vimy Ridge, 90 years ago this week:
My Own Darling Kitty,A month later, on May 14, 1917, another letter was sent to John Walter Ellis' wife, this time not from the soldier, but from a colleague:
Hear I am sitting in my dug out back of the line and have found a minute to write you a wee line, as I know how you'll be worrying & wondering how I'm keeping.
Well darling no doubt the papers will be full of the great Canadian advance & I must say I'm truly thankful & the Almighty has spared me this far & I only trust He will bring me safely through & back to my loved ones.
Our Company were lucky & we were a "carrying party", we had to bring up ammunition & supplies for the attacking party. We were sent up to hold the front line for a while after the advance was over, although since Fritz has retired further back. We had a few boys killed & wounded Poor George Mowforth was killed & a couple more Tillsonburg boys, Stuart & Bolgarters & Hearsy was wounded. I had several narrow escapes but thank God
I'm yet safe & well. I do hope & pray it will soon be all over as I don't want to see anything like it again. Things certainly look better every day & I hope they'll continue.
Now darling I should not be telling you all this as you'll only worry all the more, but as long as I'm well there's no need to. …
… Hows my little darling babe getting along. How her Daddy is longing for the day when he can take both her & her dear mother in his arms again. I live in that hope & pray it may be soon. Well love I haven't much more to say now. I'll write again soon. Give my best love to Mother, Dad & Maggie and little Sonny. Give my darling a big hug & a kiss & accept tons of love & kisses to your dear, dear self!
Ever your own darling devoted hubby
5928 Pt. Ellis
It is with much sorrow I am writing to you to tell you of the death of your husband he was admitted her & 30 @ C/[?] very severely wounded in his chest - on 3 5-17 he died
6 45 pm 13 5-17 he at first did very well & we had great hopes of his recovery, he got suddenly very much worse, became unconscious & died shortly after. He was always talking about your & his little one & hoping to get home to you.
We all feel so sorry for you hour husband was a great favourite with the interns & orderlies He will be buried at Aubigny & will lie with many other brave men who like him have give all for others.
His grave will be marked by a cross with his name. Please accept my very deep sympathy in
you great trouble
With much sympathy yours truly
Lt. [?]/C JR Harwill
John Walter Ellis was one Canadian name out of many who too often remain nameless, their sacrifices taken too much for granted, unappreciated by current generations reclining in the shallow belief that all our national glory has been eternal, as abiding as the earth under our feet, and as equally beyond cause-and-effect... for what did we do, what could we do, to build the snow-capped mountains in whose shadows we live?
Echoing a sentiment expressed in one of Truepeers' posts from last week: so much of our learning is, in effect, remembering, piercing the shadows to discover the debt which we should live to repay, choosing acts that validate the investment that has been made in us. The day we forget the enormous accumulation of sacrifices made in our name, the long list of lives lost for the sake of lives yet unborn, on that day such a disconnect to our past would bring an amnesia that will surely fill us with despair rather than any relief such "freedom" may be presumed to offer.
Our past fills our lives with purpose, with duty; and it is this burden that compels us to rise up to become worthy of its weight. The young daughter in this letter, whose father did not return from France, grew up without his counsel; her life became one of learning through her mother's memories, what kind of gracious and loving man her father was capable of being. Were she to turn her back on that past, however painful it may be, she would lose much of herself and the reason she was brought upon the Earth: to spread life, and hope, and love.
In the shadow of the anniversary of the battle for the heights of Vimy Ridge, we remember the shadow cast upon us by this loving father's sacrifice. We humble ourselves to remember the towering sacrifices of all the fathers and grandfathers whose actions granted us, through an undeniable cause-and-effect, the blessing to possess memories in the first place. We strain our memories to recall those who returned and lived to bring love and new life into the world. Through such memories we may more clearly imagine the debt we owe to those who, like John Walter Ellis, brought glory to our nation through the example of their unfinished lives.
It is by affirming that memory, and acting upon it, that we can begin to prove ourselves worthy of their glory.
May God Bless them all, and may we continue to keep Canada Glorious and Free.