Dedicated to my grandfather: Alexander Beaumont Small

©Mary M. Cushnie-Mansour

The silence brought countless memories back to Alexander Beaumont Small. He wondered how many people gathered at this cenotaph understood what it was like to fight in a war. He opened his eyes and studied the group of high school students. He’d never gone to high school; there was too much work to do on the farm.
He and brothers Bob, Henry, and Charles had been taught advanced figures by their father. They were also expected to study from the history books their mother Eliza had brought over from England. Of course, Sunday was the Lord’s Day and if you read anything, it was His Word.
Beau, as he’d been called from an early age, focused on a young man standing by the Mayor. The youngster reminded him of himself, in 1914, 80 years ago. Beau had been full of life then––full of hope––full of future. The young man had the same sandy blond hair and the same serious look in his blue eyes.
Beau had not missed a Remembrance Day service since he’d retired, but after each one another level of sadness enveloped him for he could see where the world was headed. At times he felt all he’d fought for had been in vain.
Beau remembered the day Canada announced it was at war. Henry was already married, and Charles was only eight. He and Bob would enlist in a couple of years if the war lasted that long. He remembered how excited they were to get over to Europe and push the German army back into Germany. It was an excitement that was short lived once they were there.
A tear slid down Beau’s cheek at the memory of his friend’s funeral last month––Felix Eichmann. He and Felix used to talk a lot about the war, especially lately as the world was becoming so volatile. They had feared for their grandsons for they knew another world war would be so much worse than the one they had fought in––the one that had haunted them over the years––the one that had left not only external scars, but internal suffering. Some spoken of, some not.
The sound of the taps reverberated into the silence. He watched as people began to head for their cars. He watched as the uniformed groups, carrying the country’s flags, formed an honour guard for the town dignitaries as they exited off the stage. He watched the school children pile into the waiting busses. They would return to school and talk some more about the war––today. Beau watched and waited. His daughter Donna would be along soon to take him home. She’d had a doctor’s appointment this morning and had not been able to attend the ceremony.
“Are you okay, sir?” Beau looked up and saw the young man who had been standing by the Mayor.
“Yes, son, I am fine.”
“Is someone coming for you, sir?”
“My daughter,” Beau replied, “but she’s running a bit late.”
“There’s a coffee shop across the street, sir; I could wait there with you until she arrives.”
“Might not see her,” Beau replied. “I lost an eye in the war, and the other one is not so good either––cataract, I think.”
“If you tell me what kind of car she’s driving, I’ll watch out for her,” the young man offered. “In the meantime we can have a hot drink and maybe you can tell me some war stories.”
Beau stood up and followed the young man. His cane served two purposes: it kept his balance, and informed people he had a problem with his sight. “She has a little red Honda,” he mentioned on the way across the street. “Do you have a name son?”
The young man blushed. “Oh, yes––Robert,” he said as he opened the coffee shop door.
Beau smiled. “Good name…my brother’s name was Bob…we fought in the war together you know…it was good to have my brother with me. You can call me Beau.”
They made their way to a seat in the corner. “Could I get you something?” Robert asked.
“A black tea and an oatmeal raisin cookie would be nice,” Beau replied.
Robert fetched the tea and cookie for Beau, and a coffee for himself.
“Drink a lot of coffee son?”
“Not really; two a day’s my limit.” Robert sat down. “When did you enter the war, sir?”
“Beau…I enlisted on March 1, 1916 as soon as I was old enough––had to be sixteen. My brother, Bob, was only ten months older than me so he waited till I could sign up.”
“What battalion did you fight in?”
“Twentieth Central Ontario volunteers. Bob and I were part of the 44th Lincoln and Welland Regiment. Most of us were just volunteers wanting to defend freedom and our homes, and most, from our area, were farmers with no real fighting experience. England called upon Canada––Canadian boys answered.
“Bob and I arrived in France in the spring of 1916. The troupes had spent the winter battling lice, trench foot, and disease. We were assigned to the 4th brigade and expected to retake the craters near the village of St. Eloi that the 6th brigade had been forced to fall back from. We managed to retake one crater and hold on to it despite a month of constant shelling––big loss of life though.”
“Were any of them your friends, sir?”
“Beau…when you are in the trenches, son, they are all your friends––it’s a brotherhood.” Robert noticed the tears in Beau’s eyes.
“You said you lost an eye in the war––any other injuries?” Robert was enthralled that he was sitting with a vet and was able to ask him questions.
“Actually, I was wounded twice, took a bullet in the arm in August 1917. We’d spent the summer in intensive training, learning all kinds of new stuff about fire and movement before our attack on Hill 70. That’s where I was wounded.” Beau rolled up his sleeve. “See, still have the scar.”
Robert squinted his eyes to focus in on the scar that was hidden amongst a roadmap of wrinkles. He could not imagine what it would be like to get shot. “When did you lose your eye?”
“In August 1918. The 20th was on the move; we’d been given orders and there was a cloak of secrecy as to where we were actually going. Eventually, we discovered we were to be part of a counter-attack near Amiens. The Battle of Amiens was the turning point: I read that a German commander, in his memoirs, called August 8th “the black day of the German Army.” Our battalion met with more success at Arras, later in the month, but there was a heavy loss of life throughout the ranks.
“I was sent to England to recover, but in December the army sent me home. I couldn’t shake the depression from the loss of my eye…it was good to be on home soil again though.”
“When did your brother return home?”
“The 19th and 20th Battalions arrived in Toronto on May 24th, 1919––that’s when Bob came home. They held an official reception in Varsity Stadium. There was no police force able to hold back the friends and families of these men––it sure was good to see my brother.”
“Did you ever get a medal?”
Beau smiled. “Yeah, you always receive a medal when you get wounded. I got two, of course. My daughter, Donna, has them in her safe deposit box.”
A red Honda pulled up in the parking lot and a lady got out; Robert could tell she was Beau’s daughter. “Dad, I’m so sorry I’m late,” she said, rushing up to their table. “The doctor was running behind.” She extended her hand to Robert. “I can’t thank you enough for staying with my dad. I’ve tried to convince him to get a cell phone for instances like this, but he won’t have anything to do with them.”
“Waste of money at my age, girl,” Beau turned to Robert, “been a pleasure, son.”
Robert watched the two leave. He was so grateful for the time he had just spent with Beau. He also had a whole new outlook on war. He headed back to school and went straight to the library where he searched for information on the 20th Battalion. He learned it had won a total of 18 battle honours and 398 decorations and awards, including two Victoria Crosses. He also learned that during the entire war the enemy had never driven it from its trenches, nor did any part of it ever flee from the battlefield.
Robert read that over 60,000 Canadian men died in the First World War, one out of every eleven who served. A tear trickled down his cheek. He picked up a pen and began to write.
Beau opened the envelope. A tear stained paper fell out…
Dear Beau: thank you for our moments. I have written a poem and I dedicate it to you and all your friends. Hope to see you again––Robert

Sons of Time

Yesterday’s sons lie in wait
Reaching skeletal fingers
Sombrely warning
Today’s sons
Of the un-glory of war

Yesterday’s sons
Have discovered the true meaning
Of glory
As their bones meld together
With their enemies’

Yesterday’s sons
Clung to the hope that their sacrifice
Would teach their sons and grandsons
A new meaning to life

Today’s son is still fascinated
And manipulated
By the insane war mongers
Who never fight on the battlefront

Today’s sons tread willingly
Over the old bones
Arrogant that they will return
To their family and friends

Madness is the aura of war
Fear feeds the minds
Greed feeds the leaders
Sadness saturates the hearts
Of the mothers
Of yesterday
Of today

Yesterday – gone
Today – going
Tomorrow – questionable

Beau set the poem on his lap. Tears filled his eyes. There was hope––the boy had understood. Beau bowed his head and thanked God for his moments with Robert and prayed the young man would never have to see, or live through, what he, and his comrades, had to endure in World War One.