November 11, 1997
I always think of my great uncle, Harry Elwood
George, on Remembrance Day.
A few years ago a distant cousin sent me a copy
of the letters he sent home from the trenches in
World War I. To me, they say more than all the
parades and speeches in the world.
Even though Harry George's parents had come to
Canada from Germany, Harry joined the Canadian 32nd
Battalion in October 1914.
He was a bugler, but as he soon wrote home, "I'm
no longer a bugler as they have no use for them at
the front." Harry threw away his Ross rifle and
picked up a more reliable Enfield from "the first
fellow I saw knocked out."
His letters home speak matter-of-factly about
the horrors of war. On August 23, 1915 he wrote
from France that "We have had the roughest time
yet. Of the 38 in our platoon that went into the
trenches, only 18 are left after about one and a
In 1915 his parents were informed that Uncle
Harry had died of wounds. To their surprise, they
later received a letter from him that said: "Oh,
you may be surprised to hear from me now as,
according to what I hear, I'm supposed to be dead."
Two years later he was at Vimy Ridge. With
typical Canadian enthusiasm he wrote: "Vimy Ridge
was the best fight I have been in. We made three
attacks in the week. It was great to go over the
top at them." He emerged from that great bloodbath
He spent his 26th birthday in France, having
been promoted to lieutenant. A month later, he
again went over the top, but this time as an
officer. He wrote home: "After all, to be killed
in action is not the worst thing that can happen to
a man." Harry had already seen things much worse.
But two months later in a little place called
Passchendale he "connected" with a piece of
shrapnel. He didn't think anything of it because
it only took off a little skin. It was only when
he was bandaging a comrade that he realized he had
been shot through the arm as well.
It was on that sick leave that he met and got
engaged to my great aunt Gertie.
Harry never regained the use of his right hand,
but others weren't so lucky. A friend, Harry
Wildman "had his right thigh and base of his spine
smashed." Percy Chiswell lost and eye and most of
an ear. Of another friend, Dolph Campbell, Harry
wrote that he "will not be back, but nobody knows
what really happened to him."
And then there was the dead.
Three of his friends from the bugle band were
killed in the first week in the trenches. Of the
friends who were with him at the Somme, only two
came back. Harry's cousin Lamont Paterson, the
best man at his wedding, was killed in his first
time over the top on September 1, 1918.
But Uncle Harry survived the war, and was sent
home a captain. He brought my great aunt Gertie to
Canada and had four children.
Although he died in 1952, I feel like I know
Harry through these remarkable letters passed down
by the family.
And I realize how lucky I am that there were
people like Harry Elwood George who were willing to
fight and die for this country, and for people like
you and me.