By Russ Chamberlayne
Anyone who experiences a Canadian winter knows spring as a much-anticipated blessing. On the battlegrounds of Flanders, Belgium and northern France a century ago, spring offered servicemen a time of spiritual healing, restoration and even redemption. Though it might turn chilly and rainy, spring provided a model to every hopeful soldier of nature’s unfailing resurrection, and to those despairing of civilization, an archetype of immortality.
Just the term “spring offensive” smacks of optimism, and Canada’s most renowned battle triumph in the First World War came in the British advance of April 1917. As it happened, the Canadian Corps took Vimy Ridge at the end of a particularly harsh winter. The long-sought warmth and colour of the vernal season must have enhanced the sweetness of victory.
Spring also bolstered a common spirits-lifter — letter writing. Letters home greatly benefitted the morale of Canadian soldiers, who used this reliable link with their base to vent (as censors allowed) burdens and worries, but also to express love for family and friends. University of Colorado professor Martha Hanna found in her study of war letters that personnel in all armies turned spring growth into tokens of attachment. “... Almost everyone affirmed their affection by sending home sprigs of flowers, incongruous snippets of beauty plucked from the mire of the front-lines.”
Spring’s restorative power was especially requisite in the blighted countryside on the Western Front. Above the mire stood limbless hulks of trees, now so emblematic of the war’s desolation. Corporal Will Mayse of Emerson, Manitoba found himself gazing out of a YMCA hut as he wrote in March 1918 to his wife, Betty. Nearby were “rows of Lombardy poplars — fine, magnificent old trees in pre-war days, but now splintered & shattered & dead from gas & shell fire; the valley in which we are was once a beauty spot of Old France, thickly wooded but now all the beauty has vanished under the devastation of war …”
The war’s bleak brutality corroded morale, but it could fray morals too. The continual loss of comrades to an enemy propagandized as evil and rumoured to commit war crimes challenged soldiers’ sense of right and wrong. University of Toronto medical student and artilleryman James Wells Ross revealed his homicidal thoughts about Germans in a letter written in mid-May 1915, late in the Second Battle of Ypres (in which the German army first attacked with gas). “It is now a fight to the finish,” he wrote, describing a friend finding his brother dead on the battlefield, and “then so far as we know at present his mother and sister went down on the Lusitania. He certainly has a big score to settle, and in his place I’m afraid I would even shoot a German prisoner if I saw one pass.”
But the soothing presence of springtime could temper hardened feelings. In the same letter, Ross wrote: “The apple trees are in bloom and fields green with spring clover, while the innumerable bird melodies help to quiet the nerves and quell the murder instinct against all Germans.” If an antidote to bitterness, however, spring’s softness and splendour could not displace the reality of war. On a brilliant Sunday in April 1916, machine gunner and Montrealer Jack Sudbury wrote his brother Bill:
[I’m] sitting with my back to a tree in a little wood or copse with my feet touching the babbling waters of a little stream, the banks of which are bespangled with the blue of a multitude of violets. It is a glorious afternoon but all the time the distant roar and rumble of the guns together with the continual hum of aeroplane after aeroplane passing makes one forget the Spring time and its glory and bring to mind, in its place, the many experiences I have had during my last visit to the trenches. [I must] keep them for the time when I can tell you about them by word of mouth. May that blessed time soon come.
Some soldiers were “lucky” enough to get a blighty, a wound requiring treatment in Britain, where they might enjoy spring far from the sounds of combat. Tom Johnson was one, laid up in hospital with his arm in a cast. In words of simplicity and longing, he wrote in mid-May 1917 to his future wife, Lulu, and gave an engaging sketch of spring in England:
As far as I can see from these windows the country is very beautiful just now. A soft light green clothes all the trees, while the grass is long & luxuriant. This morning a man was cutting it near my window with a scythe. The currant bushes, of which there seems to be a large number here, are laden with red & white blossom, & the birds are singing nearly all the time. Soon I hope to go out in time to see the hawthorne blossom & mayflowers on the roadsides. Won’t you come a walk with me, Lulu, along these beautiful English lanes?
Back in the war zone, Canadian soldiers continued to take in the vitalizing power of spring, through to the last year of the conflict. Jack Malcolm Brown, a teamster from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, told his sister in March 1918: “Everything is jake on the western front. Spring is here now with the warm sun and green fields. The grain and grass is all growing fine. It seems to make a person want to live and enjoy life all the more.”
After describing a field of rye “all headed out” in mid-May, Jim Bennett of Spencerville, Ontario, concurred with Jack about the renewed will to live: “It makes a fellow think that life is worth living to get back this far from the line, when everything is looking so fine. When a fellow is up when he sees nothing but the destruction of war all the time, he hardly think that life is hardly [sic] worth fighting for.”
Not every Canadian soldier expressed his feelings in letters as much as these writers, nor felt the same way. But we can be sure that, apart from the most hardened, all soldiers appreciated the coming of spring in France and Flanders — for its beauty, its potency, and its comfort to battle-scarred hearts.