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We all have our stories of a family’s sacrifice in wars.  Mine is not very much different.  In 1914, the dominion of Canada was prevailed upon to ship nearly ten percent of its population across the Atlantic to pursue a fruitless and unnecessary war.  Ten percent of those men never returned.  Fortunately, both my Grandfather and Great Grandfather survived their experiences.

Like many whose scars were more than skin deep my grandfather, John Cunningham Aitken, returned from serving as a corporal with the Royal Scots to his family in Port Glasgow, Scotland and never spoke of his wartime exploits again (though he received the Belgian Croix de Guerre in 1918, among other decorations).  I never had the chance to know him, as he died when my mother was 15.

On the other end of the spectrum my great grandfather returned to Manitoba from Vimy Ridge just as deeply affected by what he saw and experienced and sought to share the grim realities of war with all who would listen.  As a writer and an educator, he did what came naturally.  Of going over the top in the final battle at Vimy Ridge William Markle Pecover (Grandpa Mark to me) wrote:

The conquered area through which we passed seemed strangely quiet. Here death reigned, and the agony of pain.”

He kept a meticulous personal diary all through the Battle of Vimy Ridge, making extensive daily entries on preparations, the actual attack, and the aftermath.  He was in the fourth wave, which went over the summit of the ridge and chased the Germans into the valley below.  These memoirs, now prized by our family, formed much of the backbone of Pierre Berton’s book “Vimy“, which Grandpa Mark helped him with just prior to his death.  He revisited Vimy later with his son, falling and breaking a few ribs while scrambling up a trenchline, which would make him the only Canadian soldier to be injured at Vimy Ridge twice — separated by several decades.

Perhaps no one in my life has had greater influence over me spiritually.  A giant man with huge boxer’s hands at six feet tall (seemed so much taller to me) and in top top shape even at his death at the age of 92, when I was 15; a jovial schoolteacher with a career spanning the advents of radio, television, and the personal computer; a gifted craftsman and writer; a renaissance man who took his long retirement and pensions from two wars and decades of teaching and traveled the world.  I am not one quarter the writer that was Grandpa Mark; a mere nuance of the man that he was through his entire life.

I am writing about him today because I will be thinking about his service tomorrow (remembrance day, not his birthday or his last day, is the day I choose to honour him yearly).

I am also reminded, in part because of his writing and Pierre Berton’s important contribution, that wars will be more difficult to contemplate and far more infrequent if we keep sending thoughtful people, as journalists and as soldiers, into areas of conflict.  Canada has made no small number of contributions in documenting the tragedy that befalls the innocent during war:  I speak of people like Romeo Dallaire, Peter Jennings, Arthur Currie, Graeme Smith, and John McRae.

When systems like America’s Back Door Draft supply the troops for the battlefront, not only are the rich largely insulated from the effects on families of wars fought to preserve their interests; but the opportunity for the art, photography, literature, and music that are essential to our understanding of war is lost.  The poor have little access to the means of production or distribution to these things, even less time to trouble themselves with the travails of those whose shattered lives they have witnessed.

So I am grateful (for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons) for William Markle Pecover’s having survived World War(s) One and Two; but we are all bettered by the way in which he was able to greatly broaden our understanding of the brutality — and futility — of war by taking his experiences and sharing them with us.

No death I’ve experienced has taken as much away from me as Grandpa Mark’s.  I am however grateful that his came late enough for me to know him, and for us to have been friends.  In the end, my family’s sacrifice was smaller than most.  The real sacrifices were all his.

Thank you.