Led by guides, the machine gunners crept out into craters half-way between their own lines and the Germans. There they took cover until dawn. Just before daylight a bold sergeant named Catherwood crawled out to bring them a bottle of rum. A German machine gun crew spotted him creeping back and opened fire, but he managed to roll into his forward trench unharmed.
– Pierre Berton, Vimy, 207.
Imagine if one of those bullets had got him. I wouldn’t be typing this. He would never have met Dorthea Wilson, the Welsh nurse. She would never have agreed to leave her life behind and marry him, taking up a new and entirely foreign life in a small homestead shack in the southern prairies of Saskatchewan.
That “bold sergeant” was my great-grandfather, Sherwood. The one who homesteaded out here in 1905, at age 17. He was 28 at Vimy – the same age I am now. He was born in 1888, one hundred years before I was. I’ve always felt an affinity with this ancestor who died decades before I was born. Perhaps that’s why it was important for me to go to Vimy. Important as a Canadian, yes. But also important for my own roots.
Just a few miles away, in the shadow of the infamous ridge, is the grave of another relative of mine, Reginald Freeman. He died more than a year before Vimy Ridge, his life halted at age 20. I was there to visit him, too, in his eternal resting place far from home. But at Vimy, that splendid monument, the signs warning of mines still buried beneath the strikingly green grass, I realized that if it weren’t for that horrific war, I probably would never have been born.
The Catherwood farm might still be here, but it would be different Catherwoods living on it. Sherwood, without going off to war, probably would have eventually married someone else. So yes, Vimy is important to me, to us. It felt eerie to stand on that ground, on a quiet, hot August day, as tourists (myself included) milled about. To know that Sherwood had been there in entirely different circumstances. No peaceful, green scene for him. No, what he knew of Vimy was blood and muck, those grisly scenes so familiar to us from countless black and white photos.
I remember my dad telling that story mentioned in Berton’s book when I was a kid, though we didn’t know it was noted in the historical record. In my dad’s telling, some of the details were missing, others were added. As I recall, in family folklore, Sherwood went out to do something he wouldn’t expect his men to do. The part about him delivering rum was absent. But the machine gunfire aimed his way and his dive into the trench, that was there.
Years later, as a university student, when I read Pierre Berton’s Vimy, there he was – my grandfather. That story. Meaningful. Something I make sure to mention whenever conversations concerning World War I come up. But now as I sit to write this, I wonder, why, why is it important to me? Because my ancestor was part of something famous? Because the story hinted at his bravery? Because I was proud of his service to his country?
I sometimes grow weary of our society’s endless commemorations of war, even though my family has plenty of reason to remember, to never forget. It wasn’t just Sherwood in those trenches – his brothers were there, too, and Reginald. Sherwood’s son, my grandfather, drove tanks in the Second World War. And it didn’t leave them unscathed. Grandpa Orville would never talk about it, but his years of alcoholism likely came about at least in part because his war experience. We often speak of war in the same sentences as “glory” and “valour.” We speak of sacrifice, too. I think the glory and valour fade away long before the sacrifice does.
Sherwood was shell shocked, as they said back then. How could you not be? So was my other great-grandfather, William (Bill) Cooper. He spoke with a stutter, a legacy of the war, or so I’m told. He served in the British Army. When he returned home to Glossop, Derbyshire afterwards, there was no work for him. So he emigrated, ended up in Saskatchewan, and married a girl named Bernice Freeman. Her brother, Reg, had died in France in 1916. He was to inherit the farm, but now with him never coming home, it was Bill and Bernice who took it over. Their daughter, Joyce, married Orville.
And so again, that war, and how it shaped my family. A sense of pride that my ancestors were part of something so momentous. And the knowledge that, no matter how little they talked about it, the war stayed with them. Had to have. The trauma of it. Clausen and Cashwell, Sherwood’s brothers, were never able to recover. Cashwell ended up in an asylum, and Clausen was a known eccentric, a reclusive bachelor who lived alone in the hills south of our place. Sherwood and Bill managed to go on, to build good lives for themselves and their families. But what demons did they have to face each night when they were alone in the darkness, as we all are in those moments and hours before sleep claims us?
I’m not proud of Sherwood for happening to be at Vimy. I am proud of his courage, certainly, and grateful that those bullets missed him. This battle looms large in the collective memory of (many) Canadians. It’s one of those historic events that has been told and retold so often that the memory of it is more significant than was the event itself. I’m not sure if Vimy Ridge truly did make Canada what it is, as has been claimed. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Vimy has become a symbol for nationhood – one of those things we’re told so often it must be true, right? But even if Vimy’s actual significance is more myth than history, a symbol is a powerful thing. And in my own life, Vimy, and that war, weren’t just symbols of valor, sacrifice, and duty. That war shaped our family in tangible ways.
That hot August day in Nord-pas-de-Calais, as I gazed over the countryside, I thought of the futility of it all. And yet, the utter predictability. Those blood soaked trenches are on ground that has been bloodied again and again throughout time. War after war fought. This great battle just the most recent, and now a hundred years gone. Humans know nothing so well as war. And as I stood beneath the glorious monument, I was struck most by the feeling of grief. I’m not proud of Sherwood for fighting at Vimy Ridge. But still. were it not for Vimy, and for that war, Sherwood wouldn’t have ended up in that Red Cross hospital in Reading, where he met Dorthea, the bespectacled nurse from Cardiff. She patched him up, and somewhere along the way they fell in love, and because of that, I’m here.
In a way, we’re war children. But I don’t want to be proud of that war. I want to acknowledge that it happened, and that it was important. I would rather be proud that Sherwood managed to keep the farm together during the tough, depression years of the ’30s. That he maintained a reputation as a kind and clever man, despite his shell shock. Mostly, I’m grateful to him – that he homesteaded where he did, stuck it out through all those tough years, and created the home I love. My roots are here in the Gap country, and it was Sherwood who planted them. In the end, the war, and Vimy Ridge, were just something that happened in his life, something he was lucky to survive, and something that brought him to the same place at the same time as Dorthea.