With November 11 approaching, Hughes and I were exchanging resonant factoids about the War To End All Wars – the upshot of it being how unimaginably strange it must have been for the people in it, and how impossible it is to imagine what it was like.
During the First World War, women were called up to do things women never did before – like wearing pants and boots in the Land Army, working as farm labourers, feeding the country while the farmers went to the front to be blown to bits. (Dresses were a hazard with farm machinery.)
The Land Army was drawn from all classes. Upperclass girls had to be taught to dress themselves, though some of them brought their maids.
Then there were the Canary Girls – young women who worked in the munitions factories making TNT shells; the sulphur turned their skin bright yellow and their hair green. God only knows what diseases they suffered from later on.
And of course we must remember the Tin Nose Men.
Huge advances in plastic surgery took place during World War I because so many men came back with parts of their faces blown off. Surgeons learned how to re-construct something resembling what the man looked like before – often based on molds these farsighted soldiers had made before heading to the front, in case of this eventuality.
The problem was, plastic surgery took time. Facial tissue shrinks as it heals, so repeated work was necessary to build up the contours; in the meantime, these maimed soldiers wore tin replicas of their features often made from these same molds, for months and months.
And we’re not talking about just a few men – tens of thousands suffered these injuries; it was not possible to walk through London without encountering several tin nose men, looking either like the Phantom of the Opera or wearing a pair of glasses with nose attached like a party costume.
Few exhibits of these prosthesis are available in museums because they were buried with the men when they died; thus a strange reality of wartime life has been forgotten.
For me, Remembrance Day means remembering strange, forgotten stuff like that, as much as it means giving tribute to men and women who died in battle. If you take an interest and have a look at your own family history, it’s not long before you find some strange, forgotten, resonant factoids of your own.
I doubt that I’d have become interested in writing Billy Bishop Goes to War if Dad hadn’t served in the RCAF, having joined up with his best friend John West. Dad became a radar operator; West became a Spitfire pilot who went down over the Channel, supporting ground troops in the Normandy invasion. Dad swore that if he had a son he would name him after John West, and that was me. Like a lot of vets, Dad was parsimonious with his war stories; I was in my late teens before I learned that I’d been named after a Spitfire pilot.
While Dad was staring at radar screens and putting out fires in London, Mom was working in an Ottawa laboratory, looking for an antidote for phosgene gas – a particularly vicious chemical weapon that smells rather pleasant, like new-mown hay. The lab she was working in had been poorly ventilated, and one day she got the merest whiff of gas. She spent months with pneumonia symptoms, propped up in a hospital bed, because if she lay down she would drown in her own mucous; and like the Canary girls, I’m sure it caused her problems later in life.
Remembrance Day to me isn’t just about laying wreaths at the cenotaph; it’s about telling strange stories, resonant factoids, and keeping them alive.
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