Monday, 4 August 2014

My Father: A Life in Uniform

Eric LaTrobe was born in Canada in 1898, during the reign of Queen Victoria, of parents born in Engand. He was no doubt raised to revere Britain.

In 1899, Sir Baden Powell, a popular English hero of the Boer War, published a military training manual, Aids to Scouting, which was soon rewritten as Scouting for Boys and helped Baden Powell create the Boy Scout movement. My Father put on his first uniform as a Boy Scout in what was initially an organization with military overtones, the “scouting” for instance being a synonym for reconnaissance.

In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, European nationalism ran high, and many countries were spoiling for a fight, a chance to engage in the glory of war. When Britain declared war on Germany, on July 4, 1914, there was cheering in the streets of Toronto. Shortly after, at the age of sixteen, and without telling his Father, Eric enlisted to fight in the Great War. You had to be seventeen, and his Father was angry when he found out, but refrained from informing the Army. Was he proud of his son for wanting to do his bit for the Empire? Everyone knew the war would be short. No one knew what awaited the young men.

And so my Father, in the uniform of the Canadian Overseas Expedition, went off to war at sixteen. I still possess the dogtag he wore for those four years, which gives his unit as the 42nd Brigade. It seems the 42nd saw action at Ypres, the Somme and Passchendale. It is certain that in those places my Father missed nothing of the stark horror of trench warfare. Years later he told us little, but we were shown a scar on his knee where a piece of shrapnel had passed through, and I believe he had a nasal condition caused by breathing traces of poison gas. If there were psychic scars, we never noticed them.

On returning in 1918, he took some education, then moved down to Detroit to work on a car assembly line. After that he spent some time living alone on a boat, drifting on the Mississippi or Missouri rivers, working odd jobs. I seem to remember a dog and a pirate bandana, but that may be my childhood embellishment. His family lost touch with him for a while. If ever there was a war to induce what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, World War One fit the bill, and I can only imagine that some of this activity was my Father dealing with his inner feelings.

Back in Toronto, he became involved with the Boy Scouts again, this time putting on the uniform of a leader. This probably included his war service ribbons. He met another leader, a young woman 12 years his junior, called Ivy Rose Lyon. 

They were friends, I have no idea if anything more than that was acknowledged between them. The depression ensued, my Father was mostly unemployed during this period, and this may have made him hesitate, with his Victorian outlook, from pursuing my Mother.

Then in September of 1939, Canada declared war, and my Father went off to fight the Germans again. How he felt putting on army wool khaki, experiencing the smell and feel of it again, I have no idea. He was assigned I believe to a desk job in England because of his age, but also manned a Bofors antiaircraft cannon at night when needed. 

With the Normandy invasion approaching in 1944, the Allies realized that few of the American or Canadian troops had ever been under fire, and so an attempt was made to go through records and find World War One vets to put in the first wave onto the beaches. They failed to find my Father in time, and so he was not there for the Canadian landing on Juno Beach, which with 50% casualties, was the second highest death trap that day.

After the war, my Father returned home, married Ivy Rose Lyon in short order, and I was born in early 1947, my Sister three years later.

I remember him as a quiet man, a gentleman, who always had a pipe in his mouth. He loved his family, the outdoors and the local church, and became a Scout Leader again, back in uniform and now wearing service ribbons from two world wars. He starting the First Whitby Sea Scouts, with my Mother as leader for the Cubs. I grew to be a member of each. He passed away in 1962 at the age of 64, his last two years being plagued with sickness, but the proceeding fifteen, I suspect, being the happiest of his life. His world, at least for a little while, was a sane place.

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