Making sense of dad’s medal
Daughter reflects on her Winnipeg father's heroism during and after Great War battle in France
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/11/2018 (1595 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘Why did France give you a medal?” No matter how often we three kids put that question to our father, he always answered by offhandedly saying something like, “Because I could speak French,” or “I had a nice accent.” Other than rousing renditions of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary or Mademoiselle from Armentières (“Hinky Dinky Parley Voo”) and a couple of brief anecdotes, he never talked about the Great War. He died in 1955, at age 64, having never answered our question. Why had he received the Croix du Guerre? How had he earned one of France’s highest military honours?
In July, I was reading the local paper when an article caught my eye. It was reporting on celebrations to take place in Quebec City and France commemorating the Battle of Amiens on its centennial, Aug. 8. The offensive at Amiens was a surprise assault, and on that day the Canadians and their allies advanced 13 kilometres through the German defences, their most successful day in all combat on the Western Front. Gen. Erich Ludendorff described it as “the black day of the German army.” Until that battle, Allied commanders had expected that the war would last into 1919 or even 1920. Because of the overwhelming success of the Battle of Amiens, the German army was broken and demoralized. It marked the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive that led to the end of the war in November.
Aug. 8, 1918 was also the day that my father had earned the Croix du Guerre. On the spur of the moment I decided I would travel to Quebec City to attend the commemorative service at the Citadelle. I contacted the organizer at Veterans Affairs, explaining my connection to the great battle. They arranged for VIP seats for one of my children and me to watch the program. I am not sure why I was so determined to go. Perhaps I thought I could find an answer to our question.
My father was born and grew up in Winnipeg in a large family dominated by his maternal grandfather, Andrew Broatch. A locomotive engineer, he had to leave Scotland as a result of his activities attempting to unionize railway workers. Perhaps he’s why my father loved all things Scottish: haggis, Robert Burns’ poetry and “first footing it” on New Year’s Eve. He was less enthusiastic about his strict Presbyterian upbringing. He loved canoeing in the wilderness and being with family at the cottage on Lake Winnipeg.
Intelligent and hard-working, he went on to qualify as a barrister.
When he joined up on March 1, 1916, it was with the 179th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders of Canada. He was keen to fight for “King and Country,” a popular sentiment at the time, while offering him a chance to don a kilt and revel in the sound of bagpipes. He and his best friend, Jack Verner, commissioned as lieutenants, sailed to England on board the RMS Saxonia. They arrived in England on Oct. 13, 1916, and were promptly transferred to France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. We know he spent the next two years in the trenches and, at some point, he was promoted to captain. We know from records that he was wounded in the shoulder in June 1917 and after 10 days he returned to the front.
We don’t know much more, though there is a photo-postcard of him looking dashing, arm-in-arm with a couple of long-forgotten men and women on the streets of Paris. Also there was one war story he did tell: a British ace took him up in his biplane and performed all kinds of rolls and dives. My father loved it so much he put in a request to be seconded to the RAF as an observer, and he was approved. But before he could transfer, the Battle of Amiens intervened. He was severely wounded in the back and thigh on Aug. 18 and sent to Britain to recuperate. Given the average lifespan of RAF airmen, that probably saved his life. The war ended soon after and he came home to Winnipeg. His best friend, Jack, did not come home.
I was born 11 years after the end of the Great War, but it had a continuing presence in his and our lives. As a lawyer, he worked as a pensions advocate for Veterans Affairs; his office was in Deer Lodge, which was the new veterans hospital in Winnipeg. It was his task to present a veteran’s case and to argue for fair compensation. He worked representing and supporting veterans of both wars for his entire 30-year career.
As I sat in the reviewing stand at the Citadelle that warm August evening, I wondered why my dad had never talked about his medal. Was he being modest? We were brought up to behave well, to not draw attention to ourselves. Or was he so traumatized by his wartime experience he couldn’t talk about it? Or did he want to protect us from the horrific details of trench warfare? What was it like to know someone was trying to kill you? Or to have to kill someone? How do you deal with watching your best friend die? How do you leave that behind?
I wonder, too, what he would have thought of the event I was watching. There was a very good turnout of locals and tourists in flip-flops and T-shirts who had climbed to the Citadelle parade grounds to pay their respects. In addition, because there was a large gathering in town of NATO reserve officers, two dozen military types in a variety of uniforms attended, from gleaming American naval whites to rakish British khaki and improbably crisp Swedish greys. Also there were officers from Germany and Austria who had been the enemy so long ago.
My son and I watched with some amusement as the arriving brass jockeyed for front-row seats and quickly assessed the rank and status of their seatmates. The ceremony itself included a bugler playing The Last Post, several bagpipers, soldiers on parade representing every regiment in Canada, a moving presentation from Indigenous soldiers and, of course, a field gun pounding out the traditional booming salute. The whole event took place under the watchful eye of a youngish female general, who took the salute for the march past. I know my father would have found all that very interesting; much of it would have seemed pretty strange to him.
In preparation, I had read some official accounts of the day’s events back in 1918. Despite the usual understated reportage of military dispatches, I was struck by one particular account: a small Canadian contingent from my father’s company had, under very difficult conditions, protected the exposed Canadian southern flank until the French could advance some hours later. Once united, a handful of French and Canadian soldiers together managed, under withering fire, to overtake an enemy position, capturing 30 prisoners and silencing a dozen machine guns. Their heroism is noted in the reports, though no names are mentioned. Still, the accompanying maps and movement details all point to my father being in that exact locale at that time. I am confident but not certain that this is why Capt. Lawrence Arthur Masterman of the CEF received the Croix du Guerre for Gallantry and Distinguished Service in the Field in the first hours of Canada’s Hundred Days.
I will never know the whole story. But as I sat at the Citadelle that day, I reflected on a man who took more pride in the unsung, quiet advocacy work he did on behalf of countless fellow veterans than he ever did for being decorated as a hero by a grateful foreign nation. And in that way at least, I feel I do know more about the young man with the crummy French accent who became my loving and complicated father.
Babs Church (née Mary Masterman) is a retired television producer and director in Toronto.