Our office basement contains a treasure of bound copies of the farm publications that preceded some we have today. The Nor-West Farmer, which later became the Grain Growers’ Guide and then the Country Guide, dates to 1882.
Occasional trips into these archives can be hazardous to productivity, as it’s easy to be drawn into many hours of leafing through yellowed newsprint and observing what’s changed and what’s stayed the same in more than a century of Prairie agriculture.
The June 15, 1926 issue of the Grain Growers’ Guide is a good example. The editorial supports the re-election of Premier J. B. Brownlee’s government in Alberta. As to why a farm paper was getting involved in politics, the name of Brownlee’s party – the United Farmers of Alberta – provides a clue. So that’s a change – back then the farmers were in charge.
But the lead article is on the benefits of winter crops – in this case rye – for suppressing weeds and avoiding soil erosion. No change there. An advertisement touts the benefits of a telephone for keeping track of your children, so no change there. And as we remember this week, we continue to send our young men and women to war.
That issue of the Grain Growers’ Guide contains a full two pages which reproduce a letter from Frank J. Whiting, and former member of the Princess Patricia Light Infantry, to “an old comrade.” Whiting relates a recent visit to the Belgian battlefields where the two fought in the war just a few years earlier.
Today we hear about the post-traumatic stress afflicting our soldiers who have seen the horrors of Afghanistan and Bosnia and Rwanda. Now it’s at least recognized and there have been steps to provide treatment. But not so long ago we tended only to hear the term “shell shocked,” implying some form of incurable physical damage to those returning soldiers who never managed to fit back into society. Among those who did, there were the untold thousands who spend the rest of their lives waking in terror from dreams they would not describe.
Given that we hear that First World War veterans were discouraged from describing what they had seen, it’s both fascinating and disturbing to read. Whiting’s letter is cheery, just as we’d write today about a trip to see the sights of Europe. That’s justified on one level – he talks of the rapid pace of reconstruction.
“In Ypres the smell of wet rubble and plaster that we used to know has given way to that of all French and Belgian towns – stale beer and vegetable soup! The churches and cathedrals have either been rebuilt or are in the process of reconstruction.”
Yet in the same breezy tone he goes on to describe how the local farmland near Passchendaele is being reclaimed by filling in shell holes and removal of wartime debris, which is not only remnants of artillery.
“I learned that an average of 35 bodies per week are still being found in the Ypres section alone, and in spite of the fact that the old composition identification discs have proven worthless, 60 per cent of the bodies found are identifiable. One man had just been discovered, and the only clue to be found on him was the corner of a money order receipt.”
Visiting Vimy, where he notes that a Canadian war memorial is planned, Whiting describes following the path of his old regiment, and being warned to watch for items such as “innocent-looking whiz-bang duds.”
“On the way one of the Grave Commission men was telling me there have been about 300 fatal casualties in the Ypres section since the war. Even yet there are two or three a month.”
(Even today, France and Belgian farmers have an annual “iron harvest” in which they turn up hundreds of tonnes of munitions, much still unexploded and lethal.)
Whiting then goes on to describe a visit to Arras and Pozieres, and reminds his comrade of their advance on Sept. 17, 1916, while they were under heavy shell fire from “Fritz” and there were frantic attempts to rebuild the road.
“At one point it was so hectic that two men who had been killed had not been removed, and they had been built into the road. I could see their shoulders and hips just peeping through the broken stones.”
Whiting goes on to Paris, “still as glittery as ever. The jolly old Moulin Rouge, Folies Bergere and the Casino de Paris are still flourishing.”
But cryptically, he concludes by attributing the wonders of such rapid recovery to the Germans “footing the ultimate reckoning all the time the reconstruction boom was at its height.” We now know what resulted from the unsustainable demands placed on Germany after the 1918 Armistice. Thirteen years after Whiting’s letter, Belgium was again a battleground.
That it’s now had 64 years of peace speaks to the lessons learned, but they were learned by a generation that is now passing on. This week we remember their contributions. We inherited their peace, but now that Canadians are once again fighting and dying overseas, let’s hope we’ve inherited their wisdom too. [email protected]