Hearing the Lost Footsteps of War | Review of “Letters to Vimy” by Orland French (2017) FriesenPress

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Image linked from the author’s website

I remember clearly the look of  confusion on my public-school teacher’s face  when I asked him detailed questions about World War I. Yes, there were texts available that described the events about the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ but there were still details lacking about the causes and the effects that my mind wanted to know. And while I did gain some knowledge of the conflict it took was almost 40 years until the personal reflections and writings of another instructor of mine aided me in truly grasping the event. Hence Orland French’s Letters To Vimy deserves a decent mention here.

Page 3 Introduction: Pte. Oscar French Goes to War

By the early summer of 1915, the First World War was going badly for all sides. The whole world knew that the military struggle of European empires would be a long and bloody confrontation. The boys who had rushed to sign up the previous autumn lest the war end early, before Christmas, had become seasoned soldiers or dean men. Christmas 1914 had come and gone, Easter 1915 had come and gone, and nobody talked of getting home before Christmas 1915. It too would come and go, as would Christmas 1916, then Christmas 1917, and on and on, week by bloody week, before the war was halted just one month before Christmas 1918. The blood of thousands, and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, would stain the soil of Europe before all the exhausted armies quit fighting in November 1918.

I had Orland as a journalism teacher and as a managing editor at my college’s newspaper where he imparted his wisdom from his many years of working on such stalwart newspapers like The Globe and Mail and The Ottawa Citizen. But Orland has done something a bit more personal and much more noble with this book than just document facts in a whimsical manner. In a quiet corner of the family home, Orland knew that an official portrait of his Uncle Oscar existed. Orland knew that his uncle had volunteered – like many young men of that era – for service and was killed at the infamous battle at Vimy Ridge. But when Orland found a box of letters that his uncle had written, something stirred in him to explore the life his uncle had. So Orland began a series of correspondence back to his lost family member through time.

Hello, I’m Your Nephew Pages 11, 12, 13

January 2016

Canada

Dear Uncle Oscar:

Though you have been dead for many years – almost a century – I feel a strong desire to write to you. You have never heard of me for the very simple reason that I was born 27 years after you died. My name is Orland Clare French, and I am the third son of little Elmer, your kid brother you spoke of so fondly in your letters to your mother. I am your nephew.

*****

I am writing to you from a hundred years hence, in your time. These letters to you have been prepared, in a general sense, on the one-hundredth anniversary of what we call the First World War, World War I, or WW I. I came into possession of your letters after my older brother, Gerald Oscar French, died in 2010. He was Elmer’s first born, and you can see he was named in honour of you. Elmer repaid your fondness for him. Your mother packed your letters tightly in a flower-print cardboard box, along with some other official papers and memorabilia I will describe in due time. They were placed in an old wooden chest along with other family mementos, where they rested in the upstairs hall in the family home in Waverly for many decades.

*****

I knew nothing about you, except that you were one of Dad’s older brothers and that you enlisted with the army and were killed in the war. If there is an afterlife, I assume that is where you are, but I hope they have gotten you out of those muddy, lice-ridden uniforms and into some decent civvies. In the afterlife, do you have a memory of your previous life?

Do you remember that awful day on Vimy Ridge where you and your crew trained your machine gun on the enemy? Do you recall the choking smoke, the gritty dust, the ear-thumping noise of battle, the whine of bullets and the stuttering of machine-gun fire, the burst of shells, the cries and screams and moans of dying men? Do you recall the whistling approach of a shell with your name on it, just before oblivion?

Do you know you were one of about 65,000 Canadian soldiers who died on the battlefields of the First World War? That on the Easter Monday of April 9, 1917, you were on of the 37 machine-gunners killed in the battle to secure a spine of shell-scarred farmland called Vimy Ridge?

Orland has done something with this book that many of us have a inkling to do but never act on. We hear that events from history are being commemorated to which we know that our forgotten ancestors participated in. In Orland’s case, he polished off the old family mementos of his Uncle Oscar, then researched the dusty archives into who Pte Oscar French – regimental number 408445 –  was and then considered who his Uncle was and what the aftermath of his fatal actions at Vimy  were. Orland turned that inkling into a an actual collection of ink worthy of reading and pondering over as the centennial of the battle of Vimy Ridge comes about.

Drawing Lines in the Desert Pages 78, 79

Napier Barracks, Shorncliffe, Feb 21, 1916

I suppose you have been reading of the great Russian victories over the Turks. It will help a lot to relieve the British forces in Mesopotamia. If the war ends this year, as a lot of people here think it will, the new battalions they are recruiting now will hardly see active service.

Dear Uncle Oscar:

Ah, Mesopotamia. If you knew what a mess the Brits made of Mesopotamia after the war, you might not cheer so hard for the Russians. The seeds of conflict in the Middle East were planted after the First World War, and we are still reaping their harvest a century later. History doesn’t just happen and stay dormant. It is an ongoing living creature. It is the cause of “cause and effect.”

*****

Canada went to war again. Just as you fellows found out, it wasn’t over by Christmas. (And don’t worry about those new battalions being disappointed by an early end to the war. They will be dying to get home in one piece.) I doubt if our new war will be over in my lifetime, even if I live to a great old age. And it’s not even a war, in any sense that you might recognize. We don’t declare war any more, we just off and fight evil (as we perceive it) and hope we do the world some good.

You see, it’s not against a recognized state. The enemy is not in uniform. We’re battling a movement, and idea, with rockets and jet aircraft and shells. We’re fighting something called the “Islamic State” in the Middle East. This is a self-defined terrorist gang that has taken control of swatches of Arab countries and is threatening Turkey. The group is called ISIS, standing for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Their intent is to establish a caliphate (an Islamic state headed by a religious and political leader) by sheer force of intimidation and violence.

Orland French has created a noble and endearing book with Letters To Vimy. His letters to his Uncle Oscar have made history more personable and more understanding for many of us to comprehend. And the book is a great addition of literature which combine personal reflection and historical facts which is being crafted these days for us discerning readers. 

*****

Link to FriesenPress website for Letters To Vimy

Link to Orland French’s publishing company “Wallbridge House”

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