We ask a lot of our soldiers.
We ask them to charge into sometimes impossible battles in order to defend us. We ask them to stand, unwavering, in the face of implacable enemies, and to make instant life and death decisions for themselves and others. We expect them to fight, on behalf of a set of ‘lofty ideals,’ in the midst of mud and blood and carnage. We demand they ‘sort out’ daily the very worst excesses of cruelty and injustice.
Then we expect them to return home to a too often indifferent society, perhaps deeply hurt in body and soul, and immediately “fit in” again.
Sometimes we blame them when they don’t.
We ask a lot of our soldiers.
The problem is, sometimes we forget just who those soldiers are, who they were.
Sometimes barely 18. (Remember the old World War I joke about the boy who wrote the number 18 on two bits of paper he slipped into his shoes. When a suspicious recruiter asked him how old he was, he proudly exclaimed he was “over 18.”)
Street smart maybe. Book smart possibly. Kids born into a hard knock life, or into one of comfort. But young, always young. After all, wars are seldom fought by old men and women.
Civilians on Tuesday, soldiers, sailors and flyers in uniform on Friday.
Sid Irwin of Morrisburg was 18 the fall of 1939, son of an Anglican minister who lived in Metcalfe. Just days after Britain declared war on the Nazi juggernaut which was sweeping virtually unopposed across Europe, with his father standing beside him, he enlisted in the Canadian armed forces.
By Christmas, along with thousands of other Canadians, he was stationed in ‘Blighty,
This was an England of black outs and rationing, of bombs and submarine raids, of cold and uncertainty and no clear idea of how, or even when, the Canadians might see action. It was frustrating if you were a kid far from home, and like many, Sid groused a little, in verse.
“So we’re happy, sure we’re happy,
In the service of our King;
But for gosh sakes give us action
Or take us home for spring…
Though this war is all before us,
Yet this sitting here does bore us:
Show us Fritzie, or Gor’ Blimey, show us home..”
Action came soon enough. Boys like Sid Irwin, would eventually know the names Dieppe, Ortona, Malta, Normandy, the Netherlands, the Falaise Pocket. The cost of that knowing would be very high. Those names, in the years to come, would be written into our Canadian souls alongside these other names: Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Beaumont-Hamel.
Every generation since, we’ve had to add more names: Kapyong, Viet Nam, Serbia and Croatia, Cyprus, Syria, the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, Kandahar.
The battlefields may have changed in a hundred years. But cemeteries where, row on row, our soldiers lie, stay the same.
Perhaps this Remembrance Day, November 11, 2017, we could do something for those kids.
We could take the time to pause and think about them, to stand a few minutes in their honour, to wear a poppy, maybe lay a wreath. After all, they had dreams too. We asked them to give those dreams up.
When it’s all said and done, what does every soldier really want? To go home.
“For it’s home, home, home,
When we’ve done our duty, then please take us home.
Truly happy in the service
Proud and happy in the service,
Is the soldier, after action, going home…” (Sid Irwin, 1940)
The poetry excerpts in this editorial were all taken from Rev. Sid Irwin’s war time letters to his family, his fiancée and his friends. His writings are currently being collected and preserved for publication. Sid Irwin served 1939-1945. – WG