De votre fils Rene. Thinking about my father and the mothers of sons this Remembrance Day
There is a note to his parents- his mother and father- scrawled on the top of his enlistment photo – a photo showing a subdued and serious young man- a very young man.
Dad was twenty-one on the thirteenth of March 1940 when he enlisted in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, mere months after the war began. He was only twenty-five when he was discharged from the service. Under Routine Order 1029 (10 ) By reason of Unable to meet the required military physical standards having served in CANADA, THE UNITED KINGDOM & THE CENTRAL MEDITTERANEAN AREA . On his discharge papers there are identification notations. Marks or Scars. Vacc Scar left arm Scar left knee. Scar left forefinger. There is no mention of a shrapnel wound on his back, just under the shoulder. I suppose at the time, it wasn’t a scar. It would have been a wound.
Shrapnel is the fragments from an explosive device: a bomb; a grenade. As I pick through the photos, the newspaper articles and the research, I piece it together in my mind.
The August 1944 edition of the Winnipeg Tribune says that Pte Deslisle, (sic) born and educated in Winnipeg, was wounded in the right shoulder in action in Italy. There is a picture of him along with the other casualties in the rows of photos. Dad is smiling. The headline: 16 Manitobans as Casualties. Sixteen Manitobans were named in the army casualty list from Ottawa today. Nine were from Winnipeg, says the lede.
In a Free Press headline: Princess Pats fight through deathtraps Hammer Nazis to Pulp at Munio. Free Press War correspondent Maurice Wester says the Germans and Canadians were exchanging hand grenades at close quarters. Later, under cover of smoke bombs the Pats began to withdraw. If long on war rhetoric and short on humanity, he article does provide more insight. I go online to find out about the Princess Patricia battles in Italy.
The scenes are desolate. The war is not only in the country side, but in the cities and towns. The battles are between one house and another, one building and another. It is brutal close quarter combat. There is “death lurking at every turn”. Soldiers use explosives to blow “mouse holes” in the buildings, then toss grenades into the holes.
That must have been how dad was hurt: A wound from hand house to house fighting in Italy. . Debris from a grenade. In the field photo, dad’s arm is in a sling. He still finds a way to keep on smoking. All the lads do.
Dad, dad. Tell us about the war. We’d scramble around him, someone on his knees, another sitting at his feet, someone’s arm hooked around his neck. We were filled with the stories of war. The heroics; the glamour of the television and the movies: PT109. The Longest Day. Songs in our heads: And we’ve got to sink the Bismarck to the bottom of the sea… ba bitty bum, bum, bum, bum…
Here you afraid, daddy? Yes. Tell us. Tell us. But he wouldn’t talk about it. We couldn’t make him, but he’d let us trace the scar on his back . He told us it was shrapnel. We didn’t know what shrapnel was, but we knew it was about the war.
“De votre fils Rene” is scrawled across the top right hand corner of the photo: from your son Rene. Signing a photograph for his parents before going to war, my father uses the formal “votre”. Why does that make my heart ache?
Canadian Armed Forces Associated with the Italian Campaign, 1943-1945
Canadian troops played a vital role in the 20-month Mediterranean campaign which led to the liberation of Italy during the Second World War. In fact, this campaign was the first large-scale land operation in which the Canadian Army stationed in Great Britain took part.
In this campaign, which was fought in Sicily from July 10 to August 6, 1943, and in mainland Italy from September 3, 1943, to February 25, 1945, the fighting was particularly bitter. The Germans, taking full advantage of mountain peaks and swiftly running rivers, made Allied advance very difficult and costly. There were 25,264 Canadian casualties in the fighting, including more than 5,900 who were killed.