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The attestation of Bruce Allan Peterson

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BerichtGeplaatst: 12 Nov 2006 15:28    Onderwerp: The attestation of Bruce Allan Peterson Reageer met quote

The attestation of Bruce Allan Peterson


From Friday's Globe and Mail

On Aug. 29, 1914, putting his finest signature to the declaration near the bottom of the attestation paper, my uncle agreed to "serve in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force for the term of one year" or for as long as it took to win "the war between Great Britain and Germany." He must have felt like a young hero fresh from the pages of Boy's Own Paper, a popular weekly magazine that since 1879 had defined manly virtues for English-speaking youth across the British Empire.

The next day, a medical officer would confirm "he can see at the required distance with either eye, his heart and lungs are healthy, he has the free use of his joints and limbs, and he declares that he is not subject to fits of any description." When he stepped back out on to St. Catherine St. in Montreal, it was with a newly acquired air of maturity, grander than anything imagined in the 18 years and 10 months to which he had just attested.

At first, his letters told of adventure, companionship, and the great mission. But by April 1915, as he moved toward the front and the thump of the distant guns, the boy in him returned. The tone of his letters changed. The bravura of the uniform, the proud memory of his attestation, the discipline of endless field training and drills all melted in the hellish reality that streamed past him under smoke-grey skies.

Carts hauling the wounded, mud-soaked khaki, blood-stained bandages, the anguish of their groans, the stench of vomit of the living and, in trenches vacated by the French, the exhalations of the dead. All this returned him to the 17-year-old lad who had lied to Captain Hawkins about his age back in August. Fear and panic rose in him but this passed and he would only write ". . . there are things here that I cannot talk about." His destination was St. Julien, north of Ypres. His destiny would be the Menin Gate.

On April 22, 1915, the German army began the Second Battle of Ypres. The battle marked the first use of poison: chlorine gas, a common ingredient in the then-famous German dye industry. At 5 p.m. the Germans opened the valves on about 6,000 gas cylinders for six to eight minutes and released about 160 tons of chlorine. Aided by the prevailing wind, the gas and accompanying artillery barrage washed over St. Julien and all standing in its way.

Bruce, "height 5 feet 6 inches, chest 34 inches with a range of two and three quarters inches, complexion medium, eyes grey and hair light brown", simply disappeared, most likely the victim of an artillery shell. Four years later my grandparents, Bruce's mom and dad, toured hospitals in search of their firstborn. They asked weary hospital administrators whether any one of the shattered bodies and minds they still cared for might be their son Bruce.

Eventually, after weeks of a fruitless, sad search they understood they would never know what happened. The last threads of hope gave way to a grief that had been temporarily deferred by their quest, a grief that my grandmother never shed; she wore it always like a cloak.

Ypres' Menin Gate leads east, towards Hooge and Sanctuary Wood, all parts of the northern salient that flexed, but never yielded, to the Germans. In 1927, the refashioned gate became a monument to 54,896 Commonwealth volunteers who died in Belgium and whose bodies were never found. Behind a bronze door, in a two-foot-square niche cut into one of the pillars, sit several binders with the names of the fallen. The pages guide the curious or the family to the wall panel on which is inscribed the name of their loved one.

This past May, I biked north from Armentieres toward Ypres along the same roads taken by hundreds of thousands of young men almost a century earlier. In the early morning sun, steam rose off the freshly plowed fields, looking like ghosts. So tidy, so serene, so enduringly of the Earth. Past a score of signs to war cemeteries, I saw fields of clean white headstones, 100 here, 200 over there, monuments raised afterward by those left behind. It's hard to imagine these quiet farms were once places of terrible danger and death.

In the old fortress town, I watched local school teachers shepherd grade-school kids into the shadows of the monument, where, in solemn respectful silence, children learned about sacrifice and loss.

Bruce had been like them, listening to the lessons of his teachers, although probably hearing only tales of glory and of adventure. The enduring attestation to Bruce's short story is inscribed here, on the walls of the Menin Gate.

Erik Peterson lives in Vancouver.
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