Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Private in the 'Great War'

My grandfather, John Wesley Abray, served in World War One. He was one of the many thousands of Canadians who volunteered to enlist and became members of the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Forces). He joined in 1915 and I have copy of his Attestation Paper issued by the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force. At that time, he was 20 years old, single, listed his occupation as well driller, and lived in the village of Highgate Ontario. He answered the question "Do you understand the nature and terms of your engagement?" with yes.

John had absolutely no idea what that yes meant.

When he swore his Oath of Allegiance to His Majesty, King George the Fifth and His Heirs and Successors, he also swore to obey all orders of all the Generals and Officers set over him. The document notes that he was 5' 5" tall had a 37 inch chest, a fair complexion, grey eyes, and fair hair. His religion is listed as either Methodist or Congregationalist - the typed-in X straddles the line. The Certificate of Medical Examination says "He can see at the required distance [not listed] with either eye, his heart and lungs are healthy he has the free use of his joints and limbs and declares that he is not subject to fits of any description." A very cursory exam to be sure, but troops from the colonies were badly needed.

Like many men who grew up in rural areas, my grandfather had skills that would prove to be useful during the war. He was already very good shot and belonged to a local rifle club. He was familiar with horses and mules and he was good at fixing machinery and drawing maps. He could also cook and sew, if necessary.

He received his training in London Ontario and then his Battalion was shipped overseas. A lot of the letters that he sent home gave his location as simply "somewhere in France." The field postcards said almost nothing. Letters home were regularly opened and censored, but one letter John sent to his father escaped that fate. In it, he explains that he was at the Ypres Salient and after that he was at the Somme front. A lot of his friends were killed or maimed, or lost their minds.

John had been one of the soldiers who delivered supplies and ammunition to the front every night, after that he had been the driver of a machine gun carriage and later still he had been posted in the advance trenches [too close to the German line to be hit - he wrote].

Eventually, he was wounded but not too seriously according to his letters. He was sent England to recover and when he was well he was sent back to France and then to Belgium. He was wounded again and returned to England. He finally arrived back in Canada in 1919.

He never forgot how very lucky he was to come home. He married his girl, Vera. She had waited faithfully for him to return. Eventually they settled in Windsor. I'm blessed to have lived with my grandparents from the age of seven until I was almost twenty. Although my grandfather died in 1963, I'll always honour his memory.

Who will you honour on November 11, 2011?