One hundred years ago, my grandfather, along with some 620,000 that enlisted by the end of the war, left behind his wife and twin four-year-old children (my mother and uncle), his community, his job at Vernon Hardware and joined the Canadian Expeditionary forces (30th Battalion-later the 15th) to fight for our freedom in the trenches of Europe.
After initial training in Victoria, an inspiring train trip across Canada, a worrisome voyage on the troop ship Megantic across the Atlantic to Britain, they spent a further 10 days in quarantine due to an outbreak of German measles while waiting for deployment from Folkestone, England.
He spent the next three years battling the Germans from the trenches.
From the many letters he sent home, he describes the horrors of war. “…Laying in a trench for several days under heavy fire from the enemy, all his nerves working and afraid to go to sleep for fear of gas and all the time sitting tight unable to fire a shot in return.
“Life in the trenches is pretty rotten but I think the reserve trenches are the worst for they are continually being shelled…I’d rather be in the front trenches as they are not shelled as much as they are so close to the German line they are afraid of killing their own men.
“You know that the German line is only about 80 or a 100 yards from ours and on a still night you can hear them talking.”
He went “over the top” 10 times during a three month period.
On Aug. 8, 1918, and near the end of the war, he was injured by shrapnel from a mortar exploding in his trench. They had moved four kilometres into enemy territory and were in an enemy trench when the Germans bombed it, killing his officer and wounding many in his platoon.
He was shipped home with four major wounds (back of knee, top of head, nasty gash to the back of neck) and worst, a gaping wound in his back that would not heal.
He succumbed to these injuries in 1922 and as described in a newspaper article, a full military funeral was held at his gravesite in the Vernon cemetery, complete with a 21-gun salute and the playing of the Last Post.
Last year, during my annual visit to his gravestone Nov. 11, this ceremony was rather brought to life thanks to a lone piper that piped a lament as he wandered from the lower old section towards the Canadian flag flying in the centre above.
I have been visiting my grandfather, Sgt. George Henry McNeill’s gravestone for many years, reflecting upon his years in the trenches and this took on a very special significance as the tartan-clad kilted fellow strolled through the cemetery playing his bagpipes as a selfless act of respect.
I am thankful for his added tribute to those that fell. Lest we forget.