My uncle never actually drank a beer; he literally poured it down his throat. The brown mouth of the Lucky Lager stubby never touched his lips. His dentures rattled in his mouth when he drank like this, floating in the Lucky. I could hear the beer splash and the strange bump of the teeth in his mouth. I couldn’t stop watching. Uncle Raphael, “Uncle Ray,” would see me watching him pour his beer; he liked to shock me by taking out his beer-cleansed teeth. At 12 years old, after the initial shock, it always made me laugh. He’d smile and give me a wink. Auntie Myrtle would then yell at him to stop horsing around with his teeth, which I think he enjoyed more than my laughter.
I always knew when we were going to visit Uncle Ray. My dad loaded up the ’69 Ford F-100 with cases of Lucky. Growing up in Port Alberni, the forest industry’s forestry town, I’d always thought the beer’s label referred to a fortunate logger. The drive to Uncle Ray’s farm from Port Alberni to the village of Errington took only thirty minutes; it was a frequent weekend event. Our ’69 Ford pick-up didn’t have a radio, and dad always wanted to listen to music when he drove. So he’d load the transistor radio with enormous 8 cell batteries, and we’d listen to Marty Robbins die his West Texas death on cassette as the pick-up weaved through Cathedral Grove’s douglas firs. The drinking started as soon as we got there; the Lucky only temporarily abandoned for dinner wine.
Uncle Ray taught me how to play chess, “control the centre” he’d lecture. He would tell me he was the local champion at the Erringtion Fair. He constantly beat me, badly, for about two or three years. I think I was more annoyed by how much my dad enjoyed my struggles than the constant losing. Then one day I beat him. We never played again.
One Saturday we pulled up at Uncle Ray’s acreage just in time to see a stranger leaving the house. My dad seemed to know what was happening. I asked him who it was. He replied without looking at me, “an historian.” I could tell by his answer the conversation was over and we would never speak of him again. It was only years later that I learned the reason.
Uncle Ray never spoke of the war, no matter how often you pressed him. My dad, who’d served in the Second World War with his brothers, asked him several times and he’d always reply, “men should never have done what they did to each other back then.” Uncle Ray only once told my dad his war experiences. It was after a night of heavy drinking, and long after I’d gone to bed. Years later my dad once told me what he’d learned that night. Later, after I’d learned to appreciate how archival records depict our personal identity, the discrepancy between Uncle Ray’s war records – 76 pages at Library and Archives Canada – and the account my dad learned from Uncle Ray, caused me to deeply question war, its self-affected glories, and the permanent damages it inflicts on our collective humanity.
Like everyone around Plunkett, Saskatchewan, Uncle Ray volunteered for service in the Great War. He signed up for the “expedition” January 7, 1915. (There are conflicting documents, some suggesting he signed up as early as December 12, 1914). His attestation papers say he was signing up for “one year” or “during the war now existing should that last longer than one year.” He originally entered the 45th Battalion in June. Later in the year he transferred to the 5th Canadian Infantry Battalion. His records indicate he embarked for England June 1.
Uncle Ray was first seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme. The only indication in the war records of the location of this experience, aside from the details of the injuries, is the word “Somme” written poorly on one of the medical documents titled “Casualty Form – Active Service.” Given the date of this medical report, November 16, 1916, it’s fair to assume Uncle Ray took part in Canada’s 1916 fall offensive on the village of Courcelette (see Don Bourdon’s article in this issue). Canadian troops had been moved from Flanders in August. Canadians suffered 2600 casualties before the major assault on the region of Courcelette began in November. Uncle Ray was wounded in this early prelude. Ultimately the Somme took 24,029 Canadian casualties and over 200,000 soldiers’ lives.
The medical report indicates the bullet went into Uncle Ray’s jaw on the right side. He was wounded on September 24, 1916. Miraculously, the bullet entered 1.5 inches below the right side of the mouth and exited the lower left of the chin. The crude medical drawings of Uncle Ray’s lower skull depict the damage. He also suffered shrapnel wounds to his thigh. These lack the artist’s depiction. His jaw was fractured in multiple places, forever compounding his beer-drinking, his leg would always carry shrapnel, but he was alive.
He was transferred to West Cliff Hospital for treatment on October 14th. Following surgery and convalescence he was discharged from hospital on March 3, 1917. His April 17, 1917 medical report declared he was displaying “weakness masticating food” but “no disabilities”. In short, ready to return to battle.
What is not discussed is how Uncle Ray came to be shot in the jaw. My Uncle told my dad, in the conflict he and his comrades took some prisoners. After instructing the captured to put down their rifles, my uncle turned away, forgetting officers normally carry handguns. When he turned back an officer had pulled his gun and shot him. The fate of the officer is unknown.
On June 20, 1917 Uncle Ray was taken on strength to the 5th Canadian Battalion. He was just in time to see service in Passchendale where he received the Military Medal in 1917. He seems to have escaped injury on this occasion and his military record is very thin on his Passchendale experiences. However, a 1918 medical exam states: “Well nourished, well developed in good physical condition – slight tremor of hands which patient states has been present since Passchendale show a year ago.”
After seeing intense battle in two of the First World War’s bloodiest conflicts, Uncle Ray then served in a third theatre. Uncle Ray won his Victoria Cross in a conflict east of Warvillers, France on August 9, 1918. By now a Sergeant in the Canadian Fifth Infantry Battalion, he participated in the enormous Allied offensive that began near Amiens, France in the summer of 1918. He was awarded the medal on September 27, 1918 in a ceremony in London. The often quoted citation reads:
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when protecting the battalion right flank. He was leading his platoon gallantly forward to the attack, but had not gone far when he realised that a gap had occurred on his flank, and that an enemy machine gun was firing at close range into the advancing line. Grasping the situation, he rushed forward some 200 yards ahead of the platoon, tackled the machine-gun emplacement, killed the officer and operator of the gun, and dispersed the crew. By his boldness and prompt action he undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades.
Left unexplained in this citation, printed in the London Gazette in September 1918, is the fact he killed one man with a bayonet and shot others. Also noted nowhere are the events surrounding the Victoria Cross ceremony. Following the conflict Uncle Ray was given a two-week leave in London. He promptly disappeared and did not attend the original ceremony. He’d had enough. Finally found by military officials, he was taken to an army base where he was held until he could attend, under observation, another ceremony. Officially, and on record, the award ceremony proceeded without problem: another hero was created; the sacrifice validated; the glory of the battle confirmed. Off the record, he had participated in three of the deadliest battles of the 20th century. He was celebrated when he needed to atone, to reconcile his experiences and his intimate role in humanity’s bottomless descent. Uncle Ray was returned to France, just in time to catch influenza at the end of the war. LAC has another set of his hospital records: these describe high fever and coughing blood. But somehow the deadly virus was equally unable to finish him.
In 1936 the federal government named a lake in Northeastern Saskatchewan in Uncle Ray’s honour, but fittingly misspelled his name: “Zengle Lake” remains an ironic geographic feature of Northern Saskatchewan. In 1951 the federal government named a mountain in the Victoria Cross Range of Jasper National Park in his honour: Mount Zengel, visible from Highway 16.
According to his records, his “Separation and Assigned Pay” form indicates Uncle Ray was paid $300 for his efforts. Uncle Ray did attend some Remembrance Day events, and he even had a legion named after him in Alberta, not far from Rocky Mountain House where he lived for much of his life before moving to Errington. But in this centennial of war memorials it is vital to note, in his most personal moments his wartime experiences remained forever taboo. Ultimately silence was his only reconcilement; silence, and his endless attempts to drown the ghosts in countless stubbies of Lucky.
Library and Archives Canada is working with the support of Public Works and Government Services Canada to digitize the service files of the members of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF). These files represent the World War One service records of over 600,000 Canadian men and women. This work, designed as a part of the Canadian Government’s First World War commemoration, will complement the previously digitized CEF attestation papers and service files. The project is ongoing with a completion date of 2015.