Nova Scotia·Opinion

Remembering a soldier who survived war — but not without scars

My grandfather who came back from the Great War was not the same person who left. The photographs confirm it.

William Pate was injured in the First World War — and his grandson never forgets

William Pate served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He was forever changed by a German gas attack in 1916. (Submitted by David Pate/CBC)

The man who came back from the Great War was not the same person who left, years before. The photographs confirm it.

My paternal grandfather, William Pate, was forever changed by a German gas attack in 1916. Mustard gas can melt and burn your skin and destroy your lungs.

He almost died, and was left so damaged that he was sent out of his regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, as an invalid.

But he survived, he was one of the lucky ones, although he carried the physical and mental scars for the rest of his life.

Those changes played a part in why he married so late and that made his sons, my father included, lucky, as well. They were born too late to serve in the next war — meaning that they lived to have families of their own.

Those small connections — the gas attack that damaged but did not kill, the late marriage, my father being too young to serve in the Second World War — are why remembering remains important to me.

Millions of Canadians have their own reasons to remember.

Many of them are inextricably linked to tragedy because what we remember on Nov. 11 are the men and women who did not come home, the ones who shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

More than 115,000 Canadians died in the First and Second World Wars, Korea and more recently in Afghanistan.

'All soldiers hate war'

That number is vast, which is why we take those small memories, those small connections, and use them to link ourselves to events that would otherwise be lost in the past.

"You become immune when you just look at the numbers," said Ken Hynes, a retired army major and curator of the Army Museum in the Halifax Citadel.

"So you try to associate those experiences with real people who were there and the effects war had on them."

Hynes spent 30 years in the military and like all soldiers, sees no beauty in war.

"All soldiers hate wars," he said.

"On Nov. 11, we don't glorify war. We commemorate the lives of Canadian soldiers who gave everything for their own country. We commemorate, not glorify."

It's an important distinction and one sometimes forgotten.

The cenotaph in London, one of the first erected to honour those killed in the First World War, includes the words "the glorious dead." That phrase was chosen not by a soldier, but by a politician, Britain's wartime prime minister, David Lloyd George. Many who served saw no glory.

'Failure of citizenry'

As we remember those who died, those who fell with their faces to the foe, we must also remember those who lived. Their stories are not the ones of young men frozen forever in century-old sepia photographs, but rather the ones that tell the true horror of war: that it lives on, long after the guns fall silent.

"It's important to remember because failing to do that is a failure of citizenry," Hynes said. "We need to remember by giving life to those stories."

But all too often, those stories were never told.

The soldiers have no reference point with which to share their experiences with those who were not there. And so, like my grandfather, they lived with their anguish — preferring silence to sharing.

The story is told by what is left undone and unsaid. It's pieced together from occasional oblique references to not making loud noises.

Sometimes that's from discovered photographs, never on display. The give away might be the catch-all phrase "because of the war," used as an unsatisfactory answer to a multitude of childish questions.

The only legacy we saw of my grandfather's service was his ceremonial regimental sword.

He left it leaning in a garage with garden tools, a favourite toy of children who only wanted to play as soldiers.

David Pate is a the producer of CBC's Maritime Noon.

About the Author

David Pate

Senior Producer

David Pate has been a journalist with CBC News for nearly 30 years. He currently produces Maritime Noon.