Remembrance Day: My grandfather’s life doesn’t fit so easily in the national construct of Death so Noble

Other than a military service file, a few black-and-white snapshots, a fistful of condolence letters and the second-hand memories of.


Other than a military service file, a few black-and-white snapshots, a fistful of condolence letters and the second-hand memories of a dwindling number of descendants, theres not a lot left of William Edward Gibsons life or death.

Natives of Kent, England, Gibsons parents emigrated to Canada at the end of the last century and settled in St. Thomas, Ontario, where William became a machinists helper and served in the local militia.

He signed up to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on October 25, 1915, and trained with the local 91st regiment. His apparent age was recorded as 18 years and one month, although he was actually 17 years and one month. A slip of the hand? It was more likely an intentional obfuscation.

He was pretty typical otherwise: 5 feet, 5 inches tall 123 pounds chest, fully expanded, 3212 inches fair skin, hair blue eyes Church of England.

Gibson sailed for England and the Western Front in June 1916, and joined the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion in France on September 22. He had just turned 18.

My grandfather was a pretty darn lucky guy, because by the time he joined his new battalion, it was in the process of withdrawing from the deadly fighting in the Somme, the net result of which had been 350 casualties, including 100 dead.

He was less lucky, however, in being posted to headquarters as a dispatch runner, a particularly hazardous occupation even by Western Front standards.

Between this time and the Vimy operations of 1917 his file is quiet.

The silence is broken, however, on May 3, when Gibsons left arm is shattered (comminuted) by a piece of shrapnel during an attack at Fresnoy. Gibson makes his only official appearance in the 2nd Battalions War Diary on that date at 12:10 pm, when Lieutenant Matthews of 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion delivered dispatches, which he received from one of our runners who was too seriously wounded to deliver same himself. But since the injured runner is not named (other ranks rarely were), theres no way of knowing for sure.

Gibson was evacuated to England, the paper trail tells us, where secondary hemorrhaging set in, necessitating amputation of his arm (the circular method) two weeks later. Gibson is left with a 612-inch stump of a left arm: Condition otherwise good.

Invalided to Canada on November 15, 1917, Private Gibson arrived in Toronto just in time for Christmas. As the Great War reached its bloody crescendo overseas the Canadian Corps assuming a leading role Gibson was honourably discharged (unfit) from the military on July 26, 1918.

Like Private Gibson, Violet Smith was no stranger to tragedy. Within the space of three months in 1916, a younger sister had drowned and her father was killed on the Somme.

As the Gibsons visited friends on Keewatin Avenue in what was then North Toronto, the youthful war veteran, now an amputee but still a good-looking young man, caught Smiths eye. Perhaps the couple bonded over recent struggles.

Once married, they moved to St. Thomas, where the birth of two sons, including my father, follows. But misfortune stalked them.

Whether lungs that had been weakened by gassing in France exacerbated the condition family lore insists that this was so, yet his service file is mum on the subject Gibson was admitted to Mountain Sanatorium in Hamilton, a facility specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. As the disease was too far advanced to respond to the pre-penicillin-era treatment of fresh air, rest and good food, Gibson succumbed on August 17, 1929, still a young man.

Besides leaving his widow a small pension (the monetary equivalent of whatever the Canadian government deemed the wartime loss of a young mans arm to be worth) and two young boys, Gibson left behind a blue wicker desk lamp he made while tubercular. Evidence of his determination, the lamp remains with my uncle in Burlington.

A cult surrounding the Great War dead of Britain and her colonies has flourished since the interment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in 1920. Occasionally, through exhaustive historical research and DNA analysis, names, sometimes faces, are finally given to those hitherto Known unto God, and proper burials follow.

As Private Gibson was not killed in active service indeed, he died 11 years after the final shot was fired, in bed, an ocean away from the main battlefields where he had fought the narrative of his life fits uneasily within the national construct of Death so Noble. A $25 receipt for his burial in Torontos Prospect Cemetery, including a modest foot stone, mark his passing.

Official war records and receipts give us an almost bureaucratic, even clinical, impression of a life. They tell us little about a person’s character and what they were like. These have to come from others who knew them. Which is why I treasure a comment made by Private Gibsons sister, Millicent (Aunt Mill), who survived well into her 90s, and who told us that her brother Billy was a great guy, liked by all.

On this November 11, I will visit this great guy a collection of photocopied files, fading memories and a wicker table lamp insert a small Canadian flag into the ground next to his grave, place some flowers to the side and feel the silence.

Craig Gibson is author of Behind The Front: British Soldiers And French Civilians, 1914-1918, published by Cambridge University Press.

@nowtoronto

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