I enlisted because I hadn't the nerve to stay at home. Oh yes, Canada is worth dying for, but that didn't occur to me until after I had enlisted. Before - I was thinking mostly of my own desires and ambitions and of Mother and Dad and all my friends.
Another twenty-minute stop at Mont Joli. My heart is pounding. Will I ever see my family again? Suddenly, in the crowd on the platform, I spot my brother, Alphonse. The rest of the family doesn't know I'm leaving. I can't speak a single word, yet I have so much to say. For the last time, I hold out my hand. God, I never would have believed it could be so painful! The officer's tough voice again. I manage to utter a few words despite the emotion that grips my throat: "Kiss them all for me, especially my poor mother."
Moments later, the train is flying along, as if eager to put as much distance as possible between us and all that we love. I gaze absently at the fleeting landscapes. Still, I notice that the wheat is ready for harvest, and further along, on a hillside, the trees have put on their autumn colours.
Half-dazed by the bomb explosions, I flourished my bayonet, intending only to bluff the German into surrender - for I always had a dread of such fighting. The fellow drove headlong at me. He tripped over his comrade as he came, but I seemed paralyzed. I could not move to avoid him. I tried to ward his weapon and then, instead of tearing steel in my own flesh, I felt my bayonet steady as if guided, and I was jolted as it brought up on solid bone. My grip tightened as my rifle was twisted by a sudden squirming, as if I had speared a huge fish.
Will R. Bird
A notebook was picked up in a shell hole on the Somme and handed to me. Its pages were thick with the lifeblood of the owner. Through the blood and mud I deciphered his last message. "Got it in the neck - Find paybook and will at record office." Then, in a hurried and wavering hand he wrote his great confession of faith - "God is good. God is love. God bless Moth...."
It was a perfect morning, hot enough for summer, but with all the freshness of spring. Everywhere was luscious green grass, full of tall buttercups and cuckoo flowers. The ditches contained masses of a large white stellaria, which looked singularly beautiful against the lovely green of the grass. The birds were in full song; all nature was smiling.
While the bearers were getting the patient ready, I went back into the little garden at the back of the aid post. The place had been converted into an English cemetery; there were 15 or 20 crosses, some bearing the names of friends of mine, and five open graves were standing ready waiting for the dead of the day.
One day I saw a single enemy scout flying at a tremendous altitude. I climbed some distance from him, and got between him and the sun; then, waiting until he was heading in the opposite direction, I came down with tremendous speed and managed to slip underneath him without being seen. I could make out each mark on the bottom of his machine as I crept closer and closer. My gun was all ready, but I held fire until I came within 20 yards. It was rather delicate work flying so close, but the Hun had no idea that I was in existence, much less sitting right below him. I carefully picked out the exact spot where I knew the pilot was sitting, took careful aim and fired. Twenty tracer bullets went into that spot. The machine lurched to one side and then fell.
I had to skid quickly to one side to avoid being hit. After he had passed me, I saw him smoking. Then he burst into flames. That pilot never knew what happened to him. Death came to him from nowhere.
The men are hunting for lice in their underwear. This is the kind of conversation that is coming through from the next cellars: "I think I've got you beat - that's 47." "Wait just a minute" - a sound of tearing cloth - "but look at this lot, mother and young." "With my 40 and these you'll have to find some more." They were betting on the number they could find. I peel off my shirt myself and burn them off with a candle. I glory in the little pop they make when the heat gets to them. All the insect powder in the world has been tried out on them and they've won. Everybody up here is infested with them. I have tried smearing myself with kerosene, but that does not seem to trouble them at all. Silk underwear is supposed to keep them down. I suppose their feet slip on the shiny surface.
October 29, 1917
I have been able to write you again after all before going over. We have been fortunate so far, and everything is cheerful. I even shaved this morning in a little dirty water. I was delighted to get two letters and a box of candy from you last night. It was a cold night. Also noisy, I can assure you, the earth full of vibrations.
There seems so little to say when if only I knew what was to happen. I might want to say so much. These would be poor letters to have as last ones, but you must know with what a world of love they are written. You have given me courage and strength to go very happily and cheerfully into the good fight. Love to all, and a big hug for you, dear, brave Mother.
November 5, 1917
Mrs. L.J. Papineau
In confirmation of my telegram to you of yesterday's date, I regret exceedingly to inform you that an official report has been received to the effect that Capt. A/Major T.M. Papineau, M.C., P.P.C.L.I., was killed in action on October 30, 1917.
J.M. Knowles, Lieut.
An old chaplain came to our section seeking his son's grave, which had been marked for him on a rude map by an officer who had seen the young man's burial. We managed to find the spot, and, at the chaplain's request, we exhumed the body. Some of us suggested that he give us the identification marks, and retire out of range of the shells bursting all around us.
We argued that it was unwise for him to remain unnecessarily in danger, but we really wanted to spare him the horror of seeing what our spades were about to uncover.
"I shall stay," he said. "He was my boy."
We found the right body. One of our men tried to clear the features with his handkerchief, but ended by spreading the handkerchief over the face. The old chaplain stood beside the body and removed his helmet, baring his gray locks to the drizzle that was falling. Then, while we stood by with bowed heads, his voice rose amid the noise of busting shells, repeating the burial service of the Church of England. I have never been so impressed by anything in my life as by that scene.
At five in the morning of the 11th, I saw the shadow of a man and the gleam of a bayonet advancing stealthily along that farther wall, near the Café des Princes. Then another shadow, and another. They crept across the square, keeping very low, and dashed north toward the German lines.
I knew this was liberation. Then, above the roar of artillery, I heard music, beautiful music. It was as though the Angels of Mons were playing. And then I recognized the song and the musician. Our carillonneur was playing "O Canada" by candlelight. This was the signal. The whole population rushed into the square, singing and dancing, although the battle still sounded half a mile away.
In the city hall at six in the morning I met some Canadians and we drank a bottle of champagne together. We did not know that this was the end of the war.
The dawn revealed a strange sight in the square. The Canadian troops, exhausted from their long offensive, lay sleeping on the cobblestones while all Mons danced around them.
Burgomaster of Mons
(Webmaster note: This story was expanded into a full-length short story. An abridged version of that story was published in the 2002 Edition of Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul. Included in this website, for your convenience, is the Complete Unabridged Version of 'Liberation Day'.