My Great-Uncle Clair served in the CEF in the First World War. This was something that I have known for a seriously long time, but not something I really thought much about.
Really I think it was a blind spot. There was knowing that he served, and understanding what the service entailed. Uncle Clair signed up to the McGill University Siege Artillery Draft [10th Canadian Siege Battery]. I had the first two pages from the Library and Archives Canada website that told me this. I had pictures of him in his uniform, and there were letters, postcards and snapshots written and taken by him during his service.
I got that he served, but I never thought that he fought. Why? Dumb, really, as he was in a siege battalion, that I never got that he went to France and fought. I mean, I understood that my Mother’s father fought in France, why not Uncle Clair? All of the material we have from Uncle Clair come from his time at Shorncliff Camp in England, a hospital in Manchester, and a visit to London- all of it comes from England. [These letters and post cards were donated to the Canadian War Museum: MCG: Textual Records 58A 1 146.1; Photo Archives 52A 6 32] There exists no letters from France at all and certainly in the letters themselves he never talked of going to France, let alone fighting in France. And when I knew him, granted I was very young, but he never spoke of battle, and my father, his nephew, never talked of his Uncle’s service in the Great War. In my mind, I just decided he didn’t fight.
But he did fight, and while his service record at Library and Archives Canada dwells more on pay and health, it states specifically he was in France. [RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5560-42].
Herein lies the problem with talking about War and service, we never “understand” as bystanders what being in military service in the war actually means. There is a strong disconnect between understanding that people are in a war, and getting what that actually means for them. That Uncle Clair, and many veterans like him chose not to speak about their experiences in the War compounds this.
There must be an understanding that war service means fighting, and for Clair specifically, fighting in France during the First World War. He was a soldier, and he had to kill. He also suffered horribly in the trenches and was evacuated because of illness, which kept him in the hospital in Manchester for a while. It was painful, messy and bad. He never spoke of it, not then in his letters, or later when he got home.