Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Will Bird

When Will Bird was twenty three years old, in 1914, war broke out in Europe. His youngest brother, Stephen, enlisted immediately and shipped off to France. A year later he was dead. Will enlisted and took his brother's place in the front lines in Flanders, serving in one of the most famous Canadian units, the Black Watch.

Will Bird survived the war but most of his comrades did not. When he returned to Nova Scotia after the war young Will Bird became a writer and drew upon his experiences a number of times, his most famous work being “Ghosts Have Warm Hands”.

Bird’s recollections of his time in the trenches should be must reading for all students in this country.

His war was not one of heroism or glory, although there is plenty of the former present in his story. It is one of fear and sorrow and anger; despite the triumphs that Will Bird participates in at Vimy, Passchedaele and in the final hundred days of the war when the Canadian Corps spearheaded the Aliied victory he does not take any satisfaction from these triumphs, other than the fact that he has survived.

Poor Will Bird saw far more sadness than any man should ever see. And his burden would become far greater when his only son, also named Stephen, was killed in the next war, leading a company of North Nova Scotia Highlanders against the sons of the men whom his father had fought twenty five years before.

On Remembrance Day what should we think of Will Bird and what he and his family sacrificed?

We should remember that they did what they thought was right and that they fought and died for the freedom of others.

We should be aware that we are amongst the luckiest people to ever walk the earth, we Canadians. We have great wealth and freedom, unmatched by most people who have ever lived on this planet. We should be grateful for this. Some of this is luck and some of this is hardearned by the people who settled this land and by the people who protected and protect it. It’s a hard cruel world and the idea that we can stand idly by while others do the heavy lifting for democracy and security isn’t right, in my opinion.

We should be aware that we are more fortunate than most people and that does mean that we have responsibilities to make other people’s lives better.

And having read Will Bird, I can tell you that he would say that we must remember to question those in charge, that we must ask why we go to war, that we must always always question, because that is a freedom that we have and a freedom that he fought for and a freedom that his brother and his son died for. He himself used that freedom many times in his writing as he questioned and criticized what happened to he and his comrades in Flanders.

You may support the war or you may oppose it or you, like me, may be somewhere in between, supporting the troops and believing that their work is right, while also realizing that they participate in what is probably an unwinnable conflict, uneasily thinking that if my own boy were asked to go, I would beg of him not to. And if I am not willing to ask my own son to go then how can I ask others to go?

But wherever you sit you must, I think, respect those who are over there, just as we do those who went before. You must remember that our freedoms are many and earned and that they should never be taken for granted.

That is Remembrance Day for me.


Showerhead said...

You must remember that our freedoms are many and earned and that they should never be taken for granted.


Tough for me to put into words how much I respect and am moved by a post like this. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

A good reflection to start the day on. We are so, so lucky.

Coach pb9617 said...

against the sons of the men whom his father had fought twenty five years before.


Excellent post, sir.

Halfwise said...

It is a difficult tension to hold, between "always question authority" and willingness to serve, even unto death. Those of us who do plenty of the first seem not much interested in the second, and vice versa.

My father and grandfather served in combat in their days. Whatever I think of my own talents and struggles, I know that compared to what they went through I have nothing to talk about.

We are blessed beyond our understanding by the sacrifices of our armed forces.

Whatever your attitudes towards conflict, and whoever you imagine the enemy to be, the reality is that military men and women from our country have suffered and continue to suffer, and we benefit. This is a day to be grateful and humble for the acts of our military. (By the way so too are all days, not just Remembrance Day).

Me? I will be weeping through the ceremonies, as I do every year, and praying, and thankful beyond words.

Scott Reynolds said...

Thanks Pat. A wonderful post that, I think, gets to the heart of what this day commemorates: a mixture of remembering sacrifice and bravery, celebrating freedom and liberty and reflection on the whos, the whys and the hows of our fighting today.

I teach kids in my church every week and this Sunday was very, very interesting to say the least. Now, I know that the day commemorates the end of World War I but when you have three Japanese kids in your class whose parents grew up in Japan during World War II, guess which one you end up talking about a bit more. Believe me, it was quite a bit harder to bring out the sentiments of bravery, liberty, freedom and sacrifice on Sunday than most other times I've led some reflection in the past.

Anonymous said...

As a patriotic Canadian, it does me proud to know that my respect and thankfulness is shared by so many other Canadians. The post and the comments are what bring us together, and it makes my day to share this day with you all.

Boondock said...

Thanks Pat. One of my best friends is in Afghanistan right now and spending a day at the park with his wife and two little girls sure puts the sacrifices of so many in perspective for me.

We all tend to take for granted the things done for us by the best of our ancestors. But not today.

Swabbubba said...

Well written. I spent the morning watching some very well done documentaries on Shaw. As one who has served there were names mentioned that I have read the stories on the walls of former squadrons. Both WW and Korea really defined our nation.
The people who serve today deserve the same respect as the the ones before them. They just do what they are ask to do and do it the best of their ability and earn the respect of the people of nation they are trying to right.

mattwatt said...

Thanks Pat for your post. You do not give yourself enough credit as a writer. Evoking emotions is your forte, and today you just highlighted that skill again.

As I said over at LT, my peers and I have no idea as to the level of sacrifice some have had to made to grant us the freedoms we enjoy. I thank them for all they have done, but know my words will never come close to being enough.

Oiler_Kiwi said...

Long time lurker. Great poignant post. Sorry if I ramble and go off on tangents. My grandfather on my fathers side was a POW in WWI. I never had the chance to meet him (he was at the Queen's coronation in 1952)and my other Grandfather was a sonar operator in the Royal Navy during WWII. As a New Zealander this time of year has always struck a chord so to speak as many lives were lost in the Galipoli campaign in WWI alongside the Australians ANZACS. As members of the Commonwealth, Canada, Australia & New Zealand have made many many sacrifices over the years. I for one very year make a point of remembering their sacrifices at this time

nightslide said...

Wow. Always great writing, touching, funny, great, great writing. But this? This was something special. It's touching as I went to the Remembrance Day ceremony here today in Calgary (Go Oilers!), by the number of people that were there. I can't imagine what sacrifices were made for us, though I try. My grandmother served in the war. All the things that make this country of ours so amazing, so respected. We need to respect them, and the nation they've built, today, and every day. True North Strong and Free. From failing hands we throw to thee, as it were. Thanks for the words.

Bruce said...

Great post and comments. I have nothing to add except "thank you" to the writers and especially, to those who inspired you.

Black Dog said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words and for your own comments and reflections.

Alice said...

A little late to the party, but just wanted to express my thanks to you as well, for taking a run at putting thoughts and words into Remembrance Day. I take heart in where the day has come since we were younger, as I recall it now Remembrance Day growing up in the 70's and 80's was less than a non-event, it was like an embarassment, something for the local newscast at best.

But let me share something with you for a change. To a fellow who writes with such obvious affection for family and country, and who can somehow glue the 'You're fat' story to 'Raccoon, meet my Dog', please, please find yourself 'The Danger Tree', wherein your man David MacFarlane (Toronto journalist and author) recounts his mother's family history, which becomes the story of Newfoundland and the catastrophe of the First World War. I can't recommend it highly enough - it's probably my desert island book. I hope you get a chance to enjoy it.
Best, al

Black Dog said...

Alice - thank you; I actually already own a copy. as a matter of fact I almost wrote about the Goodyears, maybe next year.

Just a terrific terrific read, so beautiful and yet so poignant, pretty close to being my desert island book as well.

Thank you.

spOILer said...

Canadian Remembrance Day song

Nice post Pat, and a tough topic.

I fear that most of our soldiers' sacrifices over the course of history have been in vain and not for the purported motives that governments spin.

I fear we have sent our sons and daughters off to war in the name of profit and human hubris far too often.

I fear that in this day and age of rendition, torturing the enemy by rape with broken bottles, boiling them alive, and torturing their wives and children before their eyes, we can no longer say we are wearing the white hats with any sort of straight face.

I fear too that this democracy and freedom of which you speak is mostly an illusion, albeit a better and wealthier illusion than most on this planet have.

I am always deeply saddened on R.D. because of the enormous tragedy surrounding these countless lost lives.

Black Dog said...

Agreed spOILer, I've read a lot of history and I keep up on current events as well. Its an awful thing, humanity's propensity for killing each other, for whatever reason.

Any and every life lost is a tragedy as far as I am concerned.