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Jack Knox: Generations hand down tales of war and sacrifice

Veterans at Victoria's Remembrance Day ceremony in 2010. (via Times Colonist)

Sgt. Bill Boldt’s letter, penned while convalescing in France, began on a reassuring note.

“Now Sis, don’t be alarmed,” he wrote, referring to the Red Cross hospital letterhead. “There is nothing serious now. I only got a slight gassing and will soon be able to get back to duty.”

Imagine how his sister, Ramona Wishart — Annie, Boldt called her — felt while reading that, back on the farm in Russell, Man. She had given birth to all four children on that farm. Once, when it was time to fetch the midwife, she alerted her husband by grabbing a rifle and firing a round off the threshing machine.

But then the husband died of appendicitis, leaving her alone with those four kids. Boldt, in an earlier missive from France, had promised to help raise them when he got home from the war. And now here Wishart was, holding a letter in which her brother was talking about being gassed.

She read on as Boldt described his wounding: “I look back on everything that happened, it don’t seem real, the roar of the guns, the flying steel and the air turning poisonous. I wore my mask for 15 hours but had to take it off for a couple of minutes, then felt a slight pain in the eyes, followed by total blindness.”

Boldt then turned to the future. “Now dear father and sister, if I should make the last sacrifice, do not grieve your lives away, for we are all going to cash in sometime. I certainly will be proud to check in while doing what we came over here to do.

“But remember, I don’t expect to stay over here forever, and that means I’m sure coming back.”

The letter was dated June 11, 1918. Boldt was killed Oct. 1, just six weeks before the armistice.

Joan Scroggs — Boldt’s great-niece, Wishart’s granddaughter — read the letter aloud this week at the Veterans Memorial Lodge in Victoria, where a couple of hundred mostly old souls had gathered to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Looking out at that sea of walkers and wheelchairs, all those white-haired heads — one topped by a glengarry bonnet, another by an old air force wedge cap — it struck her that Boldt’s experience was much more real to many of them than to her.

For those 80- and 90-somethings, now so frail, are among the last of the children of Canada’s Great War soldiers, the final tenuous link to a conflict that ended 100 years ago Sunday. They are among the few who remember Canada’s First World War veterans — the last of whom died in 2010 — as flesh-and-blood loved ones. They are also among the few for whom war exists other than in the abstract; only 41,000 of the million Canadians who served in the Second World War are still alive.

In addressing the ceremony, Rear Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, the commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, singled out one of the veterans in the crowd: his father’s aunt, Pearl Thomson. The daughter of a Military Cross-winning First World War captain, Thomson served in the Second World War, as did her sister, as did their little brother, Arthur Mortimer. A wireless operator and air gunner, Mortimer died when his Lancaster bomber was shot down over Holland in 1942.

When Auchterlonie was a boy in Cumberland, on the Island, his father would point to Mortimer’s name on a plaque at the local Legion on Remembrance Day. It didn’t mean that much to Auchterlonie then. It does now. The point he wanted to make is that many people have stories like that in their families, but don’t know it. Someone has to make the effort of passing the tales down, generation to generation, so that they don’t get lost in the distance of time.

Joan Scroggs remembers. She grew up in a family that was aware that while Bill Boldt never came home to rejoin his sister in Manitoba, he did help raise her four children. Money funnelled their way from France proved crucial to keeping the family going.

Scroggs says her grandmother never really talked much about Boldt’s death. Then one day a little over half a century ago, while doing the laundry at an old wringer-washer machine, Wishart turned and asked Scroggs if she would like the letters that Boldt had written from France. Wishart had saved 35 of them. She mustn’t have wanted his story to fade away.

When Scroggs read the letter at the ceremony, among those listening were her 19-year-old granddaughter and similarly aged great-niece, ensuring the story will live on.

— via Jack Knox, Times Colonist