Turmoil of the Great War

A family perspective on both sides, both fronts.

By Graham L. Wilson

Note: this was written as the first part of a collection of tales called Ranch Narratives, but given I have not written anymore in over two years (and only received fifty visits) and do not really have the energy to do so right now, I have decided for now at least to isolate this so it is more easily categorized.

Copyright (c) 2012 Graham Wilson.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included at this link: see my profile page!

1914 – 1930 CE

July 1914: Austria-Hungary and Serbia declare war on each other, the former sighting the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand allegedly done by Serbian agents, and the latter declaring its defiance to Austria's repeated claims against its independence. At first glance, one would assume that this would be a quick though probably dirty little war. Serbia was a tiny nation surrounded by giants, and few had the aged prestige of the Hapsburg dynasty. As it happened, this was to be the powder-keg that would launch one of the deadliest wars in history and shape the outlook of the twentieth century and human civilization.

Serbia was backed by the Russian Empire due to their shared Slavic heritage, and Russia had long been allied with France. Austria-Hungary however was not standing alone, backed by the prospering German Empire. Britain looked on nervously, concerned at the potential costs and threats to its already diminishing power, but even more alarmed at Germany's growing naval and military power. The United States also stared out across the ocean, professing its neutrality – which of course did not stop hoards of American businessmen to poise themselves to profit from both sides.

As armies were positioning themselves ready for the slaughter, my family roots were experiencing something of a boon. They were a Ukrainian family living in lands claimed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though it is now part of modern day Poland. The family history is quite difficult to ascertain before this point, save for a recurring Mongolian blood type indicating at least one of us had an encounter with the Golden Hoard. The only thing for certain is that we were never all that discriminatory, as I have Polish, Swedish, German and several other Central and Eastern European bloodlines from this side.

Relatively successful farmers, my ancestors lived in the the largest house in the area and pledged themselves to the Greek Catholic faith of the up and comers. Their home was such a landmark that forty years later the invading Germans would claim it as their local headquarters. Such tranquility however was not to last, as the Empire began to round up potential soldiers from all of their ethnically diverse subjects. Their status and position meant little compared to Imperial might, and so my great grandfather entered the war on what would become the losing side.

It is always something of an irony today that, upon seeing all the propaganda on Remembrance Day, I can recall that neither of my ancestors fought for the Canadian army. My great grandfather on my father's side did end up drafted in the British army, which I suppose is roughly equivalent. He was captured by the Central Powers and interned, but managed to survive the war – possibly because of his 'misfortune'. Of course, his countryman failed to see it that way, and the ridicule and persecution drove him and his family to emigrate to New Zealand, where my father was born and raised.

All attempts by our current government to rouse war-pride is lost on me with the simple consideration that, in the right circumstances, my progenitors would have been liable to murder each other – all for king and country. A final note, though not exactly relevant, is that the family of my grandmother on my mother's side also ended up in Canada through a rather novel experience. They came after being ran off and injured by the unruly carriage of one Queen Victoria, and no, that is no joke. I suppose our family has always had a rather strange relationship with authority.

The war on the Eastern Front was quite different from the trenches and machine guns that the First World War tends to evoke in the public consciousness here in the West. In France, heavily industrialized powers were smashing into each other with weapons of war never before devised. It was a horror of a different sort that my great grandfather had to face. Eastern Germany, Austria-Hungary and Western Russia were still largely rural and undeveloped, almost feudal in their outlook. The instruments of war were equally primitive.

Germany did not wish to spend a great deal of its production and men on Russia, and hoped for the Austrians to take up the slack, despite the fact that their ally was truth already on the brink of collapse to start with. Russia was suffering from internal strife, having violently suppressed the Bloody Sunday uprisings in 1905, and was largely failing to catch up with other European powers. Ammunition and rifles were rare and highly coveted, and more often than not far cruder implements had to be used.

The most horrific memory my great grandfather had of the war was having to stab a Russian soldier to death with a pitchfork. Think of a bayonet, and then add two more dull rusty ends. Imagine the scream and the sigh of a man whose life force has been basically purged from his body. As he would later recall, in most other circumstances he might well have gotten along well with the man. They might have even had a drink together, and became friends – but such was not the terms of the world he lived in, and all of this for some distant inbred emperor in Vienna. An already serious man, he was forever scared by the memories and lost just about all humour. In the end, he gave himself up to Russians.

Like prisoners old and new, my great grandfather soon found himself in the snows of Siberia. Life may have been hard, as the Russians were having enough trouble feeding their own people let alone prisoners of war, but he was able to take comfort in the fact that he would not have to kill another man as long as he remained there. His future wife, my great grandmother, was also finding ways to make ends meet. She had the ignominy of being hauled off by the Germans as slave labour, and found herself working in a dairy. A crafty woman, she managed to survive by suckling milk directly from the teats of the cattle she worked with. Still, the war continued to drag on in neigh permanent stalemate.

As the years went by and the bodies piled up, the aged empires of Russia and Austria began to buckle even further. Russia was alone in the region, as even if their allies in Western Europe wanted to help them, they could not as long as German u-boats patrolled the north Atlantic. The Czars became a figure of hatred among both the industrial workers in Moscow and Petrograd (aka Leningrad, aka Saint Petersburg) and the peasants of Russia's vast farmlands. They saw little reason to be in this fight, and why they had to suffer and die. The Czar was considered incompetent, and his English wife earned the ire of many in the Russian establishment. Finally riots broke out, and troops were called in the quell it – but instead they joined with the protesters.

The news of the Czar's abdication and the imposition of a new government lead by Alexander Kerensky and the State Duma would have probably meant very little to my grandfather, but no doubt he could feel the wear and tear of the Russian establishment reflected in the upkeep of his prison. Eventually the conditions arrived and he seized the opportunity to escape. Even outside of captivity, his prospects were fairly grim. He was in a cold foreign land, and had no means to know how to begin his voyage home. However, he persevered and started heading westward the only way he could – by walking, step by step, mile by mile.

Meanwhile, the abolition of the monarchy and the new government had not managed to quell all opposition. Kerensky held steadfast that Russia should remain in the war, lest all those lives were wasted. A second revolution was brewing, as the leaders of a radical wing of the Social Democratic Party began to make their way to Petrograd. Taking advantage of the German desire for an end to hostilities on the Eastern Front, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov made it into the city from exile in Sweden. Today the man is better known by his pseudonym of Lenin, and his arrival marked the beginning of the October Revolution and the birth of the first Marxist state.

My grandfather arrived in Russia's developed west at the height of the insurrection. He took part in the revolutionary uproar, and joined others in the seizure of the property of the rich elite. Within he saw such decadent opulence as would strike him for the rest of his life. The most notable of these was such a typically Russian form of luxury: toilet seats with fur lining. No, such men had no desire to have their rears suffer discomfort, even as their lower compatriots suffered in cold and hunger. He even met the man himself, seeing Lenin address the masses. Afterwards, he is said to have even shook his hand. Still, he knew that his life was waiting for him out yonder and he continued his journey westward.

In the end, he did make it back to his home village, which was now under the control of the newly independent state of Poland, as it is today. With the war now finally over, it was time to rebuild his life and start anew. He met my great grandmother, who gave birth to several children, and they tried to live as brightly as they could. My great grandmother however, was sensing storm clouds ahead. It was simply the lot of life in Europe for generations, another war was inevitable. In 1939, she would later be proven right as German forces bashed through the Polish border. My family however, had managed their escape a decade earlier.

For forty years or so, an exodus had been underway in Eastern Europe. The wide lands of the New World had already called away many Ukrainians, Poles and Russians. The offer was still open, and my family seized upon it. My great grandfather and his family chose to come to Western Canada, but another of my relatives had instead made their way to Argentina. Through online archives, we have been able to trace my family's route from Warsaw to London to Halifax. Along the way, they shed their old name, and my great grandfather took on the Anglicized mantle of Harry Warman. My eight year old grandfather became Peter Warman, and his elder brother became Andy Warman.

The Canadian government was maintaining their longstanding policy of nation-building through western settlement. It had been over sixty years since Confederation, and the Canadian Pacific Railroad had long since tied the country together. Still, the vasts lands of the west remained unfilled – well, at least in the eyes of Ottawa. I am sure a few First Nations bands might disagree on that point. When the policy was started, it was hoped that well bred British citizens would take the call and make it just another bit of greater Britannia. Unsurprisingly, quite a lot British subjects saw little reason to go to a cold alien wilderness. No, Ontario sounded like a much nicer prospect than Rupert's Land.

The reluctant solution to this problem was to cast the net wider, to the poorer regions of Eastern Europe. Sure, they were nothing but dirty "bohunks", but at least they were vaguely white and no doubt much easier to assimilate than the aboriginal peoples and the Metis. And so the Ukrainian subculture in Western Canada was forged, a group that was already well established by the time my family set foot in Alberta. So much so that during the war the Canadian government interned them for fear of pro-Austrian sympathies. Considering the actions of my great grandfather, they almost certainly miscalculated on that one – though of course, the lesson was not learned soon enough for the Japanese.

The land parcelled out to my family was not a bad patch, all things considered. Most notably, it has the slough. Now, this is a term I am going to have to clarify, as it has several different meanings – though most of them are water related. In the Prairies, it means a usually alkaline pond (if Wikipedia is to be believed). In our case, it refers to a post-glacial depression which most of the time finds itself filled with water. Throughout our history on that property, currently resided upon by my uncle under the watchful eye's of my grandparents, it has been invaluable as a water source – and most recently as a rather annoying swim-hole for their current batch of uppity cattle, aka the "water buffalo".

Though fortunate to be here alive and somewhat accommodated, their timing could not have been much worse. The year was 1929, and within the blink of an eye the Wall Street Crash occurred in October – plunging the continent into the Great Depression. It was a hard time for anyone, let alone recent immigrants. Still, they had already survived so much and worked to keep on doing so. For a school project during my elementary days, I once asked my grandfather about his memories of this time. I inquired about government help, to which he quite plainly replied amounted to "absolutely nothing". He also related that they often resorted to making clothing out of flour bags. Their meagre forms of entertainment included simplistic childhood games, such as tag and pick-up-sticks.

They lived in simple wooden structures, without electricity or indoor plumbing. All water had to come from a well on the property of their neighbour. It was not much of a childhood, but with their farm raised produce they survived. There was also their trap line, and, well – everyone else's trap-lines, my grandfather was something of a poacher in his youth. The winters proved cold and bitter, no doubt reminiscent of Siberia. It must have all seemed like a rather cruel fate for someone who had already gone through so much. A devout Greek Catholic for all of this life, my great grandfather finally gave it up and became an atheist communist. Still, they endured and kept on working. They had a family to raise.

January 18, 2012