Wednesday November 7, 2012
Albert E. Rennie
- Height....5 ft 8 ½ ins.
- Girth when fully expanded... 37 1/2 ins.
- Hair.... Brown
- Do you understand the nature and terms of your engagement? ...Yes
My middle name is Rennie, attached in tribute to my paternal grandmother, Helen (Rennie) Forsythe. As a very young child I remember cigarette smoke curling above her head like a halo, and a love that flowed like a deep, underground spring. I did wonder as a child why my middle wasn't the more typical James, Michael or John. Rennie was formal. Adult. My parents' marriage ended when I was 4 years old and my grandmother Helen died when I was 9, so links with my father's family became more tenuous. My brother and I spent most summers with our mother's family where we absorbed her McCauley family's stories almost by osmosis.
We did visit our father and his new family, and our Aunt Dora and Uncle Joe's near Orillia. Dora was my grandmother's sister and a Rennie too; she and Joe lived about a 2 minute walk away from a decommissioned hydro plant that harnessed the Severn River at Wasdell Falls. Aunt Dora was a champion baker who ruled her kitchen with generous panache, even the dog Daisie benefited, treated to chicken livers cooked on the stove top. Uncle Joe was a gentle soul with an easy chuckle who rolled his own cigarettes and built their sturdy white house perched atop a jutting slab of granite. He was also responsible for the old hydro plant, which to an 8 year old was like visiting Dr Frankenstein's laboratory with its huge green turbines, ringed ceramic insulators and big copper switches.
Water spilled through gates inside the power house where we shuffled slowly across a narrow metal ramp above water crashing below. It was frightening -- and thrilling. The roiling water made the building shudder and the sound reverberated up concrete walls to a high ceiling. I remember hearing fragments of a story about a drowned body, trapped against the dam's workings. The river seemed a malevolent force, but we swam and fished in the tame waters below the dam.
By the time I was 19, both Uncle Joe and Aunt Dora had died, and I had moved to British Columbia. My relationship with my father was paper-thin; we spoke with each on the phone - awkwardly - about once a year. I knew very little of his family history, especially the part that contained my middle name which was also his middle name. Some years later I returned to Ontario with my own young family, and visited the family graveyard. My aunt, uncle and father are buried in a plot beside Dora's parents, George and Isabel Rennie, and I was surprised to see another Rennie's name inscribed on the side of their headstone, green lichen beginning to cloud the letters of his name.
I don't recall ever hearing a word about this great-uncle, lost in the Great War. My brother Paul (with the better memory) does recall seeing Albert's photo staring out from the top of Aunt Dora's piano, and asking her about the young man in the military uniform. "He was my brother, he died in the war." And that was all she would say. Our half-sister Laura informs me Albert's name appears on a plaque inside Soldiers Memorial Hospital at Orillia, built to honour the men killed in WW I. Our mother also worked there as a nurse, and almost 40 years after Albert was killed, that's where I was born and given the Rennie name. With the approach of another Remembrance Day, I feel compelled to learn more about Albert, this uncle previously unknown to me. How might I honour his short life? I know so little. It's like walking down a narrow forest path and having it come to an abrupt end. Where to next?
I dive into searching the on line Canadian war records and find that Albert E. Rennie enlisted with the 157th Overseas Battalion in February 1916 for the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force. The enlistment paper tells me he was a 19 year old farmer living at a Mrs Watkins' home on West Street in Orillia. At that time the town had an opera house, an "Insane Asylum", and Stephen Leacock, who lived at Brewery Bay where he dredged up Orillia stories for his classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I imagine this young boarder Albert, setting out from Mrs Watkins' each morning to work on a nearby farm. Leacocks's fictional Mariposa was drawn from Orillia which he thought was like so many other small towns, "...with the same square streets and the same maple trees and the same churches and hotels." What was Albert thinking when he stepped into the registration office to sign the Attestation Papers in a stilted, compact script? Did he understand what those "Terms of Engagement" truly meant? At this point in the war, perhaps he did. It had raged for almost two years with millions killed, a far cry from earlier expectations that the war would be over before Christmas 1914. The farm boy with the ruddy complexion as noted at his enlistment was to be trained as a warrior. Would I trade places with him?
"Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind"
- Bob Dylan
I came of age during the angry backlash to the Vietnam War and growing opposition to an expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons. Neil Young's Ohio, John Lennon's Imagine and Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son were spinning on my turntable. During my mid teens, my father suggested I join the military as had his father, older brother and one of my cousins. His pitch: "Good discipline, and a free education." I didn't give it a second thought. I was reading Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. (The pacifist novel was inspired by the Prince of Wales visit to a Canadian soldier who had lost all of his senses and limbs.) My generation's ethos was to question the glorification of war, the military industrial complex and to "Make love, not war."
Albert came of age answering the call to fight for "King and Country". By 1916 more than 300,000 young Canadians had signed up, many of them members of immigrant families from Great Britain. The colonial imperative was clear: stand up for Mother Country. Some were also drawn by adventure, others to a regular pay cheque. After intensive training in Quebec and England, Albert and the Canadian troops were sent to the Western Front of Belgium and France. The Front was oozing with mud so thick that it could add 25 kilograms to boots and uniforms. There were also rat-infested trenches, the deafening roar of contant shelling, sniper fire, flame throwers and to top it off, the risk of deadly mustard gas. Attacks and counterattacks came non-stop; the Western Front battle lines hardly budged over 4 years. On both sides the slaughter was horrific: 16 million military and civilian deaths, 20 million wounded. Of the more than 600,000 Canadians who joined the Great War, 67,000 of them died and 173,000 were wounded. Numbers so large, it is beyond our ken to grasp them.
There's a note scrawled across Albert's Attestation Paper indicating that he was transferred from the 157th Overseas Battalion to the 76th Battalion. I've located the regimental bugle call in the front pages of a battalion history; I slowly pluck out the notes on my guitar. G marching up an octave, back-stepping two notes, then, a return to G. It feels eerie to play this. Did these notes fill my great-uncle with courage, or dread? In April 1917 the Canadians experienced their most important victory at Vimy Ridge, the first major Allied victory of the war. Albert (now with the 18th Battalion) was part of the attack recorded in the Confidential War Diary of 18th Battalion.
"At Zero hour, viz 5:30 am, the advance was made. Simultaneously with the opening up of the Artillery Barrage the Battalion left the "Jumping-Off" trenches and attacked the German front lines." (National Archives of Canada)
French and British troops had tried in vain to take Vimy, but it was the Canadians who won this vital high ground. Regarded as an historic achievement, it also gave the former colony a new sense of itself. Canadian troops were lauded by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who wrote in his memoirs, "...they were marked out as storm troops; for the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another." The victory came at a terrible cost to the Canadians: 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded. By early August, Albert and his comrades had moved on to a new battle ground, preparing for the fight in trenches named Corkscrew, Cyclist, Cavalry and Cornwall. Military historian and author Mark Zuehlke pinpoints the battalion on the day Albert was killed: August 5th, 1917.
"The Canadians were preparing for an attack in the area of Lens, France against an objective called Hill 70. The attack was supposed to happen on August 4 but was pushed back by foul weather. So it went in on August 15. I suspect your uncle was killed by shellfire or on a patrol."
Lens was the next big test for Albert and fellow Canadian troops. Its rail link supplied the Germans, and it possessed coal supplies in high demand for manufacturing. They prepared for the attack by practicing on mock German positions, so that each man would know his job. The battalion's War Diary for August 5th speaks to the preparations, adding one poignant note:
"Quiet day for the Battalion. The Battalion furnished carrying parties of 350 men for carrying for Trench Mortar Batteries to their gun positions. Casualties numbering 1 o.r. Killed and 3 o.rs. wounded."
As I came across this reference while scanning the diary it stopped me in my tracks. This could very well be the death of 21 year old Albert E. Rennie, killed between battles during preparations for the push on Hill 70. Albert was gone but his mates were soon in the thick of it, and by August 15th , 10 Canadian battalions had attacked Hill 70, repulsed 21 counterattacks, finally claiming it on August 18th. The Canadians took Hill 70, but not the larger objective of Lens. The War Diary chronicle makes for a chilling read about what these soldiers faced and includes hand-written messages dispatched from the trenches.
"From the information we have from two prisoners we have just brought in we have every reason to expect a counterattack tonight. I need a few S.O.S. flares."
"Cannot something be done to keep the German planes away. What's the matter with our air service?"
"Have only about 40 men in shape to carry on...can you send more reinforcements. Some shell shock cases carrying on."
"Heavy barrage is required, every reason to believe they are coming over."
Part of my search to learn more about Albert Rennie has included renewing connections with Ontario cousins. I learn on the phone that Gail has named one of her sons Travis Albert. Her mother Doreen married my father's older brother Hugh who served during WW II. I think she's smiling as she tells me that Hugh was also demoted for returning late from their honeymoon. I ask if she knows anything about Albert Rennie, "I just know they called him Ab." Her mother-in-law Helen (Albert's younger sister) did not speak about him. With so much loss tearing through families, perhaps it was too difficult to speak the pain.
I've also learned my Rennies emigrated from Hull in Yorkshire, England in 1850, a surprise, since I've been under the assumption that almost all of my family came from Ireland. James Rennie was a poor British soldier who married Elizabeth Wilson who was immediately disinherited by her ship-building family, who hobnobbed with the Prince of Wales and future king, Edward VII. But that is another story.
Albert's mother Isabel would have learned of his death in August 1917. Sadly, just 2 months later, she died of heart failure. She was only 57. Her heart was surely broken. It wasn't until 1922 that Memorial medals were given to the mothers and widows of dead soldiers, Albert's were sent to his father George. My Aunt Doreen is the keeper of a silver cross that bears the sovereign's crown, three maple leaves linked by laurel and the royal cipher "G.R.I." in the middle. His name is stamped into the reverse side below his registration number: 643344. A purple ribbon is now faded and frayed.
Albert is buried not far from Lens, France at Sains-En-Gohelle. What if he had escaped the grim odds and returned home, fallen in love, planted crops and watched the Severn River flow past his family home? He most certainly would have tasted his sister Dora's blue ribbon baking - deep pies and butter tarts -- and experienced her crushing bear-hugs, like the ones I came to cherish as a child. His sister Helen, my grandmother, would have graced his life with care and tenderness that mark all the stories I hear about her, one of the reasons Aunt Doreen tells me today, "She was my best friend." I hope to one day locate that photograph of Albert that my brother remembers, but for now, these few strands will have to do. I will remember him this Remembrance Day. After all, I am a Rennie.
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B.C. Almanac Books
- British Columbia Almanac (Arsenal 2000)
- The B.C. Almanac Book of Greatest British Columbians (Harbour 2005)
- The Trail of 1858 (Harbour 2007)