My grandfather, John Murdock Caldwell, joined the 35th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery on Feb. 26, 1916. He was 19.
He was among the survivors of the Great War who returned home to family.
Grampa Caldwell passed away in the early 1970s when I was a teenager. Lucky me to have had him in my young life, where he made me feel very special and very loved.
I never asked him about his service in WWI but over the years, I’ve been fortunate to acquire some valuable keepsakes from that time in his life, including poems in which he laid out the reality of war.
I am drawn most often to the poem he entitled, “I Wonder,” which I believe he penned years afterwards—perhaps while sitting comfortably in an old chair by the fireplace in his southern Ontario home while his children, including my dad, played at his feet.
The poem is three pages long, written in black fountain pen ink, and full of sad and wandering memories that include:
I wonder, Oh a thousand things whenever I’m alone,
About the days spent over there from Calais to Cologne.
Across the years that intervene comes memory as a guide,
And once again I’m on the march, ghost comrades at my side.
I wonder do the roses climb the walls of Vlamertinghe,
Are ruddy poppies growing in the fields of Elverdinge.
Do nights at Hell Fire Corner ever give a hint or sign,
Of the many lads who fell there as they foot slogged up the line.
I wonder if the children romp their happy way to school,
Along those often shelled paves we trod affront Bailene.
And does some happy peasant sing atop his creaking load,
Where bullets used to whistle out along the Vierstraat Road. . . .
On March 31, 1939, one of Grampa’s war comrades wrote him a letter and enclosed a dozen or so poems he also had written about their experience in World War One.
The letter includes a paragraph that I think applies even today, which makes me very sad and very ashamed of this world in mayhem:
John, one thing I do find rather interesting now is to see how we did feel about the last war. How it was to bring peace to the world and straighten out so many of the difficulties that exist then.
Poor fools! World affairs then were a picnic compared to the mess they are in today.
Douglas wrote well. Perhaps his best poem was about playing the game of life. Heaven knows those wartime boys learned quickly about the value and quality of their living.
Three of the six verses include:
Have you played the game, as you should today?
Does the record you’ve made run high?
Have you put every ounce of you into the fight that you can put in, if you try?
What if sometimes the fight seems hard?
Each fall is not a knockout blow!
Just pick yourself up and get at it again,
That’s the way that champions grow.
Why! Life is only one great big game,
–But the greatest game of all–
And those who went out in the gruelling test
Have felt fall many a fall.
May we remember them.