“When Britain is at war, Canada is at war,” Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier proclaimed in 1910. “There is no distinction.” When Britain entered World War One, Canada signed on, too. The Governor-General of Canada vowed that “the Canadian people will be united in a common resolve to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honor of our Empire”
Blood and guts bravado was easy enough talk. He might have had the guts, but it was going to be somebody else’s blood. He wasn’t going to be doing the sacrificing. Empires are made by plundering and slaughtering. They never go down without a fight. They are always sure of the rightness of their cause. It doesn’t matter if there’s any honor in the slaughter, or not. They plow straight ahead. Stay out of the way or get plowed six feet under.
Canada had no air force, a navy fit only for a bathtub, and an army of 3,000-some men.
By the end of the war more than 600,000 Canadians had enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight for King and Country and more than 400,000 of them served in Europe, out of a population of less than 8 million.
“THE EMPIRE NEEDS MEN” is what the posters blared. “All answer the call! Helped by the YOUNG LIONS the OLD LION defies his foes. Enlist NOW!”
Everybody wanted in on the fight because everybody thought it would be over by Christmas. Canadians lined up to support the British Empire and collect pay of $1.10 a day. The harvest that year was bad, and unemployment was soaring. The army was a steady paymaster. But machine guns fired ten times as many bullets a minute as they were paid pennies a day. Hundreds of thousands on all sides were slaughtered day by week by month by the new rapid-firing weapons on the Western Front.
At the beginning of the war, it was better to be killed than wounded. The wounded were taken off battlefields in horse-drawn wagons or on mules in baskets draped over their sides, the baskets soaked with men bleeding to death. There wasn’t much in the line of on-the-spot lifesaving. If they made it to a train station, they were transported to hospitals. “One of those trains dumped about 500 badly wounded men and left them lying between the tracks in the rain, with no cover whatsoever,” complained Harvey Cushing, the head of volunteer doctors at the American Ambulance Hospital of Paris.
Nearly 60,000 Canadians were killed, the result of enemy action and disease, and more than 170,000 of them were wounded. Almost 3.500 men and one woman had at least one arm or leg amputated. Private Curley Christian lost all four limbs but survived.
During the Battle of Vimy Ridge he was unloading cargo from a truck when an artillery shell hit next to where he was, trapping him under debris for several days. When stretcher bearers tried to reach him, they were killed by more artillery. When he was finally rescued, he was transported to a military hospital and from there to London. His arms and legs had gone gangrenous and all four were sawed off. When he got back home, he was fitted with prosthetic limbs and married Cleopatra McPherson. He designed his own new hand for writing letters. Cleo and he had a son who twenty years later served in World War Two. He managed to walk away from it at the end on his own two feet.
More than 7,000 Prince Edward Islander’s enlisted. Five hundred of them were killed and more than a 1,000 wounded. Tommy Murphy went overseas with a siege battery in 1915. Before he went, he got married to Freya O’Sullivan and got her pregnant. He got word of his son Danny’s birth by telegram while taking a break in ankle-deep sludge sheltering in a trench during the Third Battle of Artois.
He spent eight days at the front at Artois and was due for four days in a reserve trench and then four more days at a rest camp. When the bloodletting went on and on and the ranks thinned out, he never made it to the reserve trench much less the rest camp. It was that kind of war. The Allied and Central Powers fought the same battles over and over again. It was every man for himself and God against all.
The British, French, and Canadians assembled seventeen infantry and two cavalry divisions for the offensive at Artois, backed by 630 field guns and 420 heavy artillery guns. During the fighting the field artillery fired 1.5 million rounds and the heavy artillery 250,000 rounds. Tommy Murphy barely slept for days. Whenever he took a break, he felt like his arms were going to fall off after loading shells until there weren’t any more to load. He knew he had sent his fair share of Huns to Valhalla even though he never saw one of them die.
When the Allies tried to advance, they suffered horrific losses. The battle went on from late September to mid-October when it ground to a halt in the middle of a never-ending autumn rainstorm and mutual exhaustion. By that time both sides were conserving ammunition because they were running out of it. They spent the rest of the month burying their dead, tending to the wounded, and withdrawing.
Tommy was a cannon man because he was taller than five feet seven inches and burly enough to do the heavy work of feeding cannons. He didn’t have flat feet or bad eyesight, He didn’t have the greatest teeth, but explained he was enlisting to fight Germans, not bite them. He could have begged off because he was married, but he was patriotic and wanted to do his fair share. Cash money from the Canadian Patriotic Fund helped his wife keep the home fires burning in North Rustico.
His battery had a sniper attached to it. Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow was an Aboriginal who could split a bullseye nobody else could even see. He had more than 300 kills to his name. He roamed No Man’s Land for them, seeking out enemy snipers and forward spotters. He worked at night. He always came back in the morning. The other side didn’t always make it back to their side.
Peggy wore moccasins instead of army boots, chewed on twigs whenever he sensed danger, and always carried a medicine bag. “When I was at training camp on Lake Superior in 1914, some of us landed from our vessel to gather blueberries near an Ojibwa settlement,” he said. “An old Indian recognized me and gave me a medicine bag to protect me, saying I would shortly be in great danger. The bag was deer skin tightly bound with a leather throng. Sometimes it seemed to be hard as a rock, at other times it appeared to contain nothing. What was inside of the bag I do not know.”
Tommy had signed up for short service and when 1915 was over and done and it was April 1916, he was done with his one year. His commanding officer tried to convince him to re-enlist, but he had a wife, a child, and a farm that needed him. He didn’t need to kill anymore Germans. He was sick of the butchery. He had heard three men from North Rustico were already dead. He didn’t want to be next one. He knew if he re-enlisted it was only a matter of time before he went home in a pine box to be buried on Church Hill Rd.
He got out when the going was good. The next year enlistments dried up as men near and far began to realize the toll the new style fighting on the Western Front was taking. Machine gun and shell fire were murderous. On top of that there was poison gas. The dead were left where they fell. They were left for the rats. In May 1917 the government announced conscription through the Military Service Act. The rats stood up and cheered for more grub in their feedbag.
It was easier getting into the army than it was getting out. However, he finally found a ride on a troop transport from Calais to Dover, took a train to London, and spent the night at a whore house with a razzle dazzle girl. He took a steam bath the next morning and had lunch at a corner fish and chip shop, cod with a splash of vinegar and a pint at his elbow. He followed the first pint with a second one and was happy for it. He had a ticket for passage to Halifax, but the voyage was a week away. His grandfather had come from Ireland, or so the family legend went, and done something big for the Crown, who rewarded him with 400 acres of Prince Edward Island shoreline. He unfolded a map and located Dublin. It was directly across the Irish Sea from Liverpool.
He bought a train ticket to Liverpool and the next morning landed in Dublin. It was Easter Monday. The Easter Rising had started yesterday. The Easter Rising was happening today. Tommy was unaware of the hubbub until he walked face first into it.
After landing at Dublin Port, he followed the River Liffey, making for Dublin Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His plan was to find a cheap hotel and have dinner. He would explore the rest of the city after a good night’s sleep. He was wearing his Canadian Army uniform over a pair of Spring Needle underwear and carrying a rucksack. He had his toiletries, four pairs of clean socks, his rolled up military wool overcoat, and a paper bag full of Huntley & Palmer biscuits in it. The biscuits were so hard they would crack a man’s teeth at the first bite if not soaked in tea beforehand. He always soaked them beforehand.
His papers and money were in a travel wallet attached to his belt. He had his Colt New Service revolver on his belt, too, for what it was worth now that his war was over. An hour later he was glad he had it, after he got it back from the rebels, although he wasn’t sure if he was going to need it to protect himself from the Irish or the British.
Dublin Castle was in the middle of the old part of the city. The city got its name from the Black Pool, the ‘Dubh Linn,’ where the rivers Liffey and Poddle met. It was where the castle was. It had been a Gaelic ring fort in the beginning, a long time ago. Later, after the Vikings showed up, it was a Viking fort. For the past 700 years it had been a British fort, the seat of their rule in Ireland.
Tommy didn’t have anything against the British, but after a year of serving in their army, he thought the Irish might be better served ruling themselves. They couldn’t do worse. During the year he served on the Western Front hundreds of thousands of John Bulls were killed. It made him sick to think of the men he had seen obeying orders to attack barbed wire and machine guns on foot across open fields. Many men were wounded or went missing. The wounded might survive, but he didn’t think the missing were coming back anytime soon.
He was glad to be out of it. It hadn’t ended by Christmas of 1914. It still wasn’t over by Christmas of 1915. The next Christmas was in eight months and the talk was it would take many more holidays to either win or lose the war. He wasn’t a religious man, but he meant to say a prayer in St. Patrick’s Cathedral before dinner.
He didn’t get a chance to say a prayer, find a room, or have dinner. He lost his chance when he came across the bridge leading to Trinity College, turned the corner towards Dublin Castle, and found himself face to face with a Mauser semi-automatic pistol. He knew exactly what it was. He stood stock still where he was. The hand on the firearm was a woman’s hand. She was wearing an old military hat and a yellow armband.
“Hand’s up and on the wall, boyo,” she said, a second woman coming up behind him. The second woman was wearing a bandolier laden with half dozen hand grenades. She had a rusty handgun. It looked like it came from the Middle Ages. He did what she said. She patted him down and took his Colt.
“This is a right nice gun,” she said. “Now, who are you and what are you doing here?”
“Tommy Murphy, Canadian Army, from Prince Edward Island by way of a year in France,” he said. “I’m here to take in the sights before going home. I thought Ireland was sitting this war out.”
“We ask the questions,” the woman wearing the bandolier barked.
“Come on,” the woman with the Mauser said, jabbing him in the small of the back with the barrel of her gun.
The streets leading to the city center were barricaded. When they got to the General Post Office, he saw there were two green flags flying in place of the Union Jack. They said “Irish Republic” in gold letters. He was surprised. He knew there was no such thing as an Irish Republic.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re rocking the casbah,” the grenade girl said.
There was a man outside the post office reading from a broadsheet. It was the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic.” There were copies of it pasted on walls. Newsboys were handing them out to anybody who wanted one. Not everybody wanted one. Most of the onlookers didn’t understand what was happening. They went about their business, shopping, stopping for lunch, gossiping. The grenade girl handed him a copy. “Read this,” she said. There were men with rifles and shotguns on the roofs of buildings overlooking bridges.
“Who’s this?” said a man wearing a scrap of paper pinned to his breast. It said “Citizen Army.”
“We found him down the street, Sean.”
Sean was Sean Mac Duiarmada, one of Commander-in-Chief Patrick Pearce’s right-hand men.
“He’s Canadian,” Sean said pointing to Tommy’s regimental badge and the “CANADA” title at the end of his shoulder straps.
“We thought he was a Brit.”
“They’ll be here soon enough,” Sean said. There were 1,200 rebels waiting for 20,000 British troops to show up. A shot rang out in the distance and Margaret Keogh fell down dead. She was a 19-year-old nurse tending to a wounded Citizen Army man. She was the first person to die during the Rising of Easter Week.
A team of Volunteers trotted past on their way to the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park. They took all the weapons and ammunition they could carry and blew up the rest. When the son of the fort’s commander tried to raise the alarm, he was shot dead. He was the second person to die.
“You’re free to go,” Sean said to Tommy. “Best you leave Dublin all together.”
“What about my sidearm?”
Sean nodded to the grenade girl, and she handed Tommy’s Colt back to him. She wasn’t happy about giving up the up-to-date firearm. She wasn’t sure hers even fired.
When a contingent of the Citizen’s Army approached Dublin Castle, police sentry James O’Brien ordered them to halt. He was shot dead even though he was unarmed. He was the third person to die. When British troops showed up the rebels retreated to City Hall, ran up to the roof, and fired down on the troops in the street. The man commanding the rebel contingent, Sean Connolly, was shot dead by a sniper, the first rebel and fourth person killed.
Tommy made his way back to the docklands. He boarded the same boat he had come on. An hour later the boat was steaming out of Dublin Bay on its way back to Liverpool. Eight hours later he was asleep in a room of a boarding house on the waterfront, not far from the Three Graces. The next morning was cold and damp. Women were out in the streets with their long-handled push brooms. They were called Sweepers. Others were in homes cleaning and scrubbing. They were called Dailies. Many more were at work in munitions factories. They were called Munitionettes. Liverpool’s men were on the Royal Navy’s battleships and in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. They were called Cannon Fodder.
Tommy found a fry-up near the port and ordered breakfast, which was eggs back bacon sausage baked beans a fried tomato fried mushrooms fried bread and black pudding. The Liverpool Daily Post headline screamed “REBELLION!” There was no need for him to read about it. He thought he might have this same breakfast again at midday and tonight. Somebody once said, “To eat well in England you must have breakfast three times a day.”
He put the newspaper aside. Pushing himself away from the table, he checked his ticket for Canada. He tucked it securely away with his service revolver. Tommy Murphy was going to keep himself safe and sound until his boat sailed for home. Once he was out of the frying pan on somebody else’s stove, he was going to make sure he stayed where the frying pan was of his own making. The old lions could tear themselves apart as much as they wanted, for all he cared, empire or no empire.