On 11 November 1918, in Hamilton,author David Campbell in his new book, It Can’t Last Forever writes “great crowds moved to the [city’s] heart” to celebrate the end of the Great War. On that same day, in Hyon, Belgium, soldiers of the Canadian 19th Battalion thought that “no one believed it.” “There was not the enthusiasm one might expect.” “You were fighting … and men being killed … It was impossible to realize … [it] was over.” Indeed, it was. Even in those last hours of fighting, the 19th lost 16 killed and 36 wounded including young Hamiltonians.
The day before, the 19th Battalion had attacked Hyon. The Germans fought “to the finish” and “as well as any troops we [the 19th]had ever seen.” The 19th took Hyon on the fifth attempt. An officer entered the home of Georges Licope at 10:58 a.m. on the 11th and told Georges’s mother: “Madame, 11 heures, guerre finie.” The fighting was over but the 19th did not come home, not yet. The 19th was not demobilized until 24 May 1919 in Toronto.
Canada declared war in August 1914 and the 19th was raised as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The 91st Canadian Highlanders, Hamilton’s kilted regiment (nowThe Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) provided the battalion’s command structure, its pipe band, a rifle company, and reinforcements throughout the war. Sent overseas in May 1915 the 19th first saw action in 1916. Of the 5,122 men who served in the 19th, 3,076 were casualties, including 737 killed. “I can only say that War is an awful thing and the hardships are great,” Private Deward Barnes later wrote, “and there is something wrong if a man has seen as much of it [war] as I have and wishes to see another. Private V. E. Thompson thought the war was simply a ”matter of being lucky enough to come through alive and being able to endure the strain of the life.” Gaetz wrote of the “friendship of the genuine sort built up” and the acute awareness that “much” [will be] “appreciated afterward and never forgotten.”
But the 19th was forgotten and, with the death of its last veteran, it passed beyond memory. An attempt in the 1930s to write a history came to naught. LCol Herb Fearman, a decorated 19th vet, noted ruefully that a 1969 history of the Canadian Corps made no mention of the 19th despite its numbers, its losses, and its action.
It needed a history–and now it has a fine one by a young military historian from the Maritimes, Dr David Campbell. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, the book was launched last month. In the course of Hamilton’s history, no institutions have sacrificed as much as the Argyll’s 19th and the RHLI’s 4th. Of course, not all of the over 10,000 who served in these units were from this area but both the Argylls and the RHLI recruited over 5,000 apiece for this war, a significant part of Hamilton’s population. Does history matter? Well, it mattered to soldiers like Fearman, it mattered to the veterans. David Campbell has written an evocative account that puts the 19th’s experience within the broad context of Canada’s military and political history while never losing sight of those who fought and died on that war’s blood-stained ground.
It Can’t Last For Ever is available locally at Bryan Prince in Westdale or online at Indigo.
BOOK REVIEW BY
ROBERT L. FRASER