Speech given to the Westies at their Passchendaele Dinner, November 2016
Dec 5, 2016
Speech given to the Royal Westminster Regiment (‘The Westies’) on the occasion of their Passchendaele Dinner, 19 November 2016, at the Regimental Headquarters, New Westminister, B.C.
Good evening Colonel, Officers, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Regiment. Thank you for your kind invitation tonight. I’m honoured to be your guest of honour and thrilled to be back with the ‘boys’ (women as well of course!) for such an important occasion. Before I begin my speech tonight, I’ll start with a poem I wrote in the early days of my road to war.
To Young Infantrymen Training for Afghanistan
On lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins
I wake and feel the start of a dark-not day.
These hours with you, infantrymen, spent.
Nights. Days. Tinned in LAV belly. Her heart bent
to morrow’s desert, the hungry march, war’s way
I am called to witness. Struggle to convey
you, three-quarter-formed men. Without lament.
My words. My electronic impulses sent
To you, yours. Your youth. Before it is too late.
I am nothing. I am here. Gone. This is decreed
Witness is my food; not bitter, not sweet
To record, not judge. The bones, flesh, blood-curse
of war. Of spirit, of brother-love I see
hour after hour, cigarette-sweat, your will to be
one, as I am one; left, right, left. Your fearsome thirst.
In 2010 I visited 3PPCLI at the Olympic Winter Games at Whistler with General Larry Gollner, my army godfather, the Patricia’s Colonel of the Regiment. 3PPCLI had been in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier and I wanted to see a domestic mission. One night I shared an after-dinner coffee with the Commanding Officer of the 3 PPCLI, Colonel Shane Schreiber, a veteran of the Afghan and Bosnian wars. At one point in the evening the senior officer leaned towards me and smiled then asked what the difference is between a fairy tale and a war story. I shook my head, and he leaned closer and spoke quietly: ‘Well a fairy tale begins with “Once upon a time…”, whereas a war story begins, “So there we were in the shit…”’. Forgive me if I use the soldier vernacular from time to time in this presentation. The circle of young snipers surrounding us, all of them Afghan war vets now reluctantly serving as security detail at the 2010 Olympics ( think thoroughbred racehorses chained to a merry go round), nodded and burst out laughing, recognising as only a young soldier might, the innate ability for the infantryman to embroider his or her tale. So tonight I’m going to talk a little about my work as a war artist and my area of expertise, the war story, and please forgive me if I turn to my own embroidery.
When I was invited was to speak at your Passchendaele Dinner, as a newly trained scholar my first impulse to go to the Regiment’s Great War diaries from the Great War to read when and where the Westies landed in France in 1916. What I learned was that the troops arrived in France on 10 August 1916, becoming part of the 4th Canadian Division, 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and as Colonel Schreiber would say almost a century, they landed squarely in the ‘shit’ – the Battle of the Somme. Whereas Schreiber joked about army storytellers and their capacity for fantasy, as we know, the Battle of the Somme was no fairytale. Nor was Mount Sorrel, Somme, 1916 Ancre Heights, Ancre, 1916 Arras, 1917, ’18 Vimy, 1917 Hill 70 Ypres, 1917 Passchendaele Amiens nor Scarpe, 1918 Drocourt–Quéant Hindenburg Line Canal du Nord Valenciennes in France and Flanders during the years 1916–18.
Looking at the tersely worded diary entry for 11 August 1916 I saw that Delta Company was conveyed by ‘motor buses to trenches for 48 hours with 20th battalion’—few people know that those motor buses were double-deckers seconded from the London Streets (nor that they were also used as pigeon coops for messenger pigeons but I digress. The diary states that the ‘Weather was fine’ and notes that the sigs left for the front a few days later on the 17th August. That same day a soldier 628428 from Bravo Company was wounded at noon. Thus began the Regiment’s baptism into one of the greatest shitshows of the Great War. And perhaps no more a dramatic baptism could be had—tho there are those from the Southern Front or the Eastern Front that might beg to differ.
But I’m not here to talk about the Regiment’s fine history in the Great War, nor any other war—there are too many people in this room far more qualified than I who can do a much better job. Besides, I’m not a historian, I’m a scholar of the Great War narrative and my focus is on how we tell the story of war, and, I am also a Canadian War artist who went on the road to Afghanistan with a battalion and a taskforce as a poet, the country’s first to do so. And an artist’s job is to retell, to recall, to reinvent war in an aesthetic fashion—an oxymoron at best. How can one tell war beautifully?
To be a Canadian War artist means a few things—that one looks at the subject of war as an incredible vein of ore, for in war and the preparation for war one sees human nature in extremis—at its very best, and sometimes in its very worst (and sometimes the worst may be seen on the home front and the best behaviours at the front) and the landscape and materiel of war makes compelling subject matter. Being a war artist is a tricky thing because at some point one’s contemporaries in the artists’ community eye you with suspicion, and certainly in the early days of being embedded with a battalion, almost EVERYONE except the CO eyes you with suspicion.
I went with the Patricias because their brand new CO, then L. Col. Gerry Walsh loved poetry and understood what I was hoping to do—to bear witness to Canadians going to war, and invited me to come on their entire road to war. “Show up at the front gates and we’ll take you along”. So I did. For 18 months, for 2-3 weeks a time, I was embedded with the infantry and in 2009 flew to Kandahar Airfield and then to Balunday, deep in the heart of Taliban country, to join Delta Coy with then Major Wayne Niven, who also understood what I hoped to do with my tenure as a war artist. One of the best pieces of advice I received was from Walsh who said “Come as often as you can so you become part of the furniture and the soldiers will forget you’re even there, a second piece of good advice was to spend time with the allied trades and I did, rising with cooks at 5 am to see how an army is fed, hanging with Admin and Transport and the `Maintainers etc. to see behind the pointy-end. And indeed, with the exception of the Sgt. Major of Delta Company, and a crusty old soldier in Bravo (whom I avoided like the plague), I was able to spend thousands of hours in Light Armoured Vehicles, in camp, on live-fire, and then in theatre—always getting sick when I did—the worst being the dreaded-GI that I caught at Suffield. I was hauled off a live-fire by an amb and administered med by the role 3 in camp my arms ached for days, then pawned off on Admin. Coy and promptly forgotten for 24 hrs in a tent in the middle of camp. Believe it or not, it was that experience of being sick and forgotten that gave me more credibility with they young recruits than any of the other things I did.
Acceptance by the soldiers was one of the more astonishing aspects of my time with them. I ALWAYS conducted myself professionally whenever I was with them. I never called anyone by their first name, always included their rank. They called me “Ma’am”. Still, they would often come to me in private, often with their stories of suffering, or of some of their exploits. I never betrayed their confidences. One of the important aspects of my work as a war artist was being transparent with what I was doing. Thus my website –still operational. I would fly into a camp and be introduced and inevitably the personnel would run somewhere private and google me to find out if I was being a jerk or not. Their parents or partners began reading my work and would contact me and thank me for the ‘int’ – but I NEVER gave away anything controversial. I saw my job as bearing witness, and NEVER to judge. Though, as I said, Sgt. Major was a bit of a thorn.
One day in late May 2009 I was being “magic’ed” out of Wainwright, where I’d attended the final Ex. before Afghanistan. I was in a truck with Major Niven, his driver, and Sgt. Major. Sgt. Major turned to me and said to me, “You know PL (PL for Poet Laureate was what they called me), the one thing I REALLY hate is people who lie around doing nothing”. “Like poets Sgt. Major?” I turned to him and asked. “Well PL, to be honest, yes”. I thanked Sgt. Major for his honesty and quizzed him on what the one work of Canadian war art is, the work that almost everyone in Canada knows, especially school children. “The flag raising of Iowa Jima?” he asked. “No, that’s American, I said. “The memorial at Vimy Ridge?”. I responded, “Well not really”. “The death of General Woolf at the battle of the plains of Abraham?” he asked. “No”, I replied, “Do you give up?”
In the front seat the Major and his driver were splitting their sides listening to this conversation. Sgt. Major nodded yes and all three of us sitting in the car with him shouted out “In Flanders Fields, a POEM”!!!!
It was the proverbial light bulb moment for Sgt. Major. He grinned widely and said to me “Why didn’t you ever tell me this before PL?” I smiled an enigmatic smile and said “You never asked Sgt. Major, you never asked!!”
I next saw Sgt. Major in Balunday, deep in the heart of Taliban country. The flight across the red desert was in all honesty the most incredible experience of my life. When you are in war you know you are alive like never before. A month after I left one of Delta Coy’s young officers, Lt. Andrew Nuttall was killed. Several reservists of the PRT were killed as was a reporter. They were killed where I was supposed to go, but my trip cancelled at the last minute. All told, 12 of those I had spent time with over the years I was a war artist were killed. Many injured. Some by their own hand.
But here is what I believe. I think for me to leave this talk of the war with this reality of war would be unfair. Just as I believe looking at the statistics of the Somme and Passchendaele and all the other battles the Westies fought would give an incomplete narrative of the Great War. In 2015 I had the amazing opportunity to enter the souterrains and tunnels in Northern France and Flanders with a team of modern conflict archeologists and bomb disposal experts from the Durand Group. I felt it important to read the graffiti in order to get a broader understanding of those going into battle and returning. What is striking is that none of the thousands of pieces of graffiti that have been catalogued display fear, and more profoundly, of hatred for the enemy. What one sees are Regimental badges, sweethearts with initials, a postal box carved into the chalk walls, a sailing ship from back home, some pornographic sketches (notably of a Sgt. Major and a pig!), and a few religious symbols. Over 1,700 pieces have been catalogued by Andy Hawkins, a former infantryman and now archaeologist. Andy Hawkins told me: ‘Through their graffiti and carvings they had the opportunity to express disquiet about the events unfolding around them; that they choose not to is surely a sign that they understood the situation better than most, that their morale remained high and that they needed to get on with the war’. So this is the narrative that intrigues me and prompted the subject of my doctoral studies. How did we come to tell only a fairly narrow version of war when the reality is that 90% of the BEF who went to war came home? And for most soldiers, it was the task of jet getting on with it, and the job done. In other words, there is much more to the war than the binary of heroism or grief.
What I found so compelling about my time with Canadians going to war was its complex, nuanced, difficult, and often intriguing story. It is the story of those who, for some reason or another, feel drawn to serve—and service is overwhelmingly the message I received from the thousands of Canadians I met on the road to war. Then what about war artists? We volunteer for the job, we endure much, and even find ostracisation sometimes. Some I suspect feel called to serve our country in the only way we know how—through our work. Sometimes one pays a heavy personal price for this work. I sometimes wonder if I would do it again unequivocally I would say yes, and why, because on the road to war, I witnessed not only Canadians at their finest and their worst, I witnessed myself at my finest and worst and that is a profound discovery.
To conclude I’d like to leave you with a short piece I call “Infantry Lessons: things I learned on the Road to War”. While it is somewhat playful, these really are the lessons I learned on the road to war:
1. Eat when you can
2. Sleep when you can
3. Piss when you can
4. Laugh when you can
5. Have sex when you can
6. Obey orders
7. Run like fuck
To these my fellow war-artist Scott Waters added:
8. Keep your head down (from enemy and NCOs)
9. Remember, Pointy-end first.
And finally, the biggest lesson I learned:
10. Push through. Charlie Mike. Continue Mission. Though your heart breaks sometimes. Charlie Mike. Continue Mission.