A Senior Moment – “Stretcher Bearers Up!”

To the Editor of the Star
Sir: Remembrance Day is near again, bringing some sad
and some bitter memories. It is indeed a remembrance day,
one day to remember; three hundred and sixty four days
to walk the streets seeking a job.
A day to remember the promises of the government
In the years 1914 to 1918. Our comrades “ask for bread;
and they gave them a stone”—stone monuments.
                   Unemployed veteran, York Township
                  November 9, 1933

That ‘unemployed veteran” was my step-grandfather. ‘Uncle Joe’ married my long-widowed grandmother on Christmas Eve, 1948 in Toronto. Their 13-year-old marriage ended with his death in 1961.

‘Uncle Joe,’ as the grandkids called him, was born in London, England in 1891, orphaned at 9 and brought to Canada as a Barnardo Boy at age 12. After working for 14 years on a sheep farm near Dunsford, Ontario, he enlisted into the 21st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1917 and was soon overseas, serving his adopted country. About half of the 619,000 men in the CEF were British-born. (Wikipedia)

As with most veterans, he never talked or wrote about the war. Like most kids, I never thought to raise the topic with him. I now very much regret this piece of family history will remain forever lost. One bit of information, however, was gleaned from his daily diaries, which he began writing in 1926. Apparently, Joe was a stretcher bearer, tasked with retrieving fallen dead and wounded men from the battlefield, sometimes while still under enemy fire.

From my own research, I have learned that stretcher bearers were assigned to each battalion in France. They huddled in muddy trenches with their comrades until the signal to advance was given. When the order “Stretcher bearers up” was shouted out above the roar of overhead shells, Joe and his team would go over the top, knowing death and carnage awaited just ahead in that no man’s land of a shattered French countryside.

Joe returned home in 1920 and married a year later. Despite being childless, Joe and Minnie enjoyed a happy and supportive twenty-five year relationship which ended with her death in 1946. The Great Depression cast a deep shadow over their home, leading to the bitter letter of frustration he wrote in 1933, a small voice which reflected the disillusionment of many soldiers returning to Canada. While Minnie remained employed at minimum wage in a carpet factory for part of this sad decade until her health declined, Joe was no longer able to find regular work in construction. In vain, he tramped many miles across Toronto seeking that one break which would restore his income, but more importantly, salvage his dignity. In winter he shoveled snow from driveways, earning over one long bitterly cold afternoon, $4.40.

A second humiliating blow to his self-worth came when, in desperation, he finally applied for social assistance. In that era, going “on the dole” was a demeaning experience made worse by the punitive attitudes of some welfare administrators. Lacking money for a streetcar ticket, he would often be forced to trek for hours to some distant office to pick up his small cheque. On one occasion Joe suffered frostbitten ears while being forced to stand outdoors in midwinter weather in a long line of men waiting for their food vouchers.

Local governments were quickly overwhelmed by the needs of the Depression’s thousands of homeless and jobless, many of whom were First War veterans. Prime Minister Bennett’s government deemed welfare initiatives and funding to be a local and provincial responsibility; federal funds were not forthcoming. That bureaucratic reality provoked Joe’s angry letter. Yet, even while railing against politicians, Joe remained a fervent monarchist all his life.

Almost one in ten soldiers from the CEF never returned home. Today, we remember their service and their sacrifice “for king and country.” We should also remember on those other 364 days that Canada still has veterans who are struggling to readjust to civilian life. I think Uncle Joe would have agreed they too should not be forgotten.