During World War Two, my father's youngest brother Ivan was conscripted when the Russians invaded from the east. He disappeared and all contact with him was lost in 1942. My father searched but never learned what happened to him. Recently I discovered he died in a German Prisoner of War Camp in East Prussia, the victim of Hitler's inhuman starvation policies. I need to read Timothy Snyder's book, BLOODLANDS for the gruesome details. So far I don't have the stomach for it.
During World War Two my father was in Canada, married with a child, me. He never wanted to go to war after what he had witnessed in his childhood. Instead he chose to go to work on the Alaska Highway being built by the United States as a defense to any attack from the east. Perhaps he felt he was doing his patriotic best. His absence during my early life left its mark on me.
On my mother’s side her youngest brother Leon and a brother-in-law enlisted during World War Two. I was born in 1941 so my only memory is of the two uncles staying with us at different times as they passed through Toronto en route to training camp or returning from overseas. My only war time memories are of Yonge Street parades, rationing tickets for butter and meat and the fact that there weren’t many service aged men around the streets in my neighbourhood of downtown Toronto. That and the absence of my father when I was a toddler.
In my husband’s family many more men served their country. His father Ray Jackson was only 17 when he enlisted in World War One. A strong surge of patriotism and obligation swept the country and made young men feel the need to go to war to defeat ‘the Hun’. He served in France, was shot in the shoulder, and spent years recovering in a military hospital in England in the pre-penicillin age. His wounds never stopped bothering him and he never spoke of his experience.
My husband’s mother had two brothers who served at the same time during World War One. Her favourite, Bill Skilling, enlisted in the army and as a university graduate, was sent to Oxford for officer training. As a Second Lieutenant he was assigned to artillery (Canadian Expeditionary Force, Royal Field Artillery) as a Forward Observation Officer. In France after the Third Battle of Ypres, Bill collapsed on the field and was taken to hospital in England. He was sent home three years later depressed and with a badly damaged heart which eventually killed him prematurely. He never married because of his health.
When the war broke out, my mother-in-law’s other brother Harold enlisted in the 5th Field Ambulance Corps as a stretcher bearer. After being seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 he was sent to England. When he recovered he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps but never flew a mission because the war ended just as his training finished. I don’t know how the war affected Uncle Harold. He never spoke of it to us. But when he returned to Canada, he broke up with his high-school sweetheart who'd stayed faithful, and never explained his actions.