“Ghosts Have Warm Hands:” Will R. Bird’s “Roads of Memory”

Each year at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, many Canadians observe a minute of silence in remembrance of those who died in wars past and present. As we near the end of another century and the dawn of a new millennium, these events take on added meaning.

Ironically, there has not been a year during the twentieth century, that has not seen war or revolution somewhere on planet earth. For many, Remembrance Day 1999 will focus on the fallen of two world wars: the so called Great War 1914–18 and the Second World War 1939–45. These conflicts will stand, for all time, as reference points for the twentieth century.

Just for a moment, let’s consider some of the grim statistics of these two wars. From 1914 to 1918 the Canadian Expeditionary Force lost 60,661 soldiers. Another 1,700 gave their lives serving in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. Many others returned home wounded and mutilated in body and mind.

Mercifully, casualties in the Second World War were lower, but nonetheless tragic; amounting to over 42,000 Canadian dead. Again, the total must be supplemented by those who returned with enduring scars of war.

As the ranks of service personnel with such war experience grows thinner, how may the significance of November 11th be kept alive? War Memorials and Books of Remembrance listing the dead are everlasting reminders, but they cannot reveal details of the bravery, suffering, heroism and horror of war.

Recently, I’ve been re-reading books by Will R. Bird. Born in East Mapleton, Cumberland County, NS on May 11, 1891; he died at Sackville, NB on Jan. 28, 1984. Best known for his travel tales, award winning short stories, and novels illuminating a Yorkshire heritage, Bird also merits recognition as a superb chronicler of the two world wars.

What sets his war stories apart was an ability to draw upon firsthand experience. Will R. Bird enlisted and served overseas with the 42nd Royal Highlanders during the First World War. He saw action on the front in the Vimy-Lens area, endured the horror of Passchendaele and participated in the final pursuit from Amiens and Arras into Belgium. Awarded the Military Medal for bravery and devotion to duty at the battle of Mons, his wartime diaries were destined to provide material for later essays, books and articles.

Beginning as a free lance journalist in the 1920s, Bird experienced a major breakthrough in 1931 when MacLean’s Magazine commissioned him to revisit the battlefields where Canadians had served. The resulting articles brought the conflict alive as he combined on-the-spot reporting with his own wartime experiences.

So popular was this series, that he undertook a cross Canada speaking tour, always attracting overflow crowds. As a consequence, Bird was able to renew acquaintance with many old comrades, and the inevitable reminiscences inspired yet more stories.

By coincidence, while caught up with these tales, I came across a Will R. Bird poem, undated, but probably written during his 1931 overseas trip. Entitled The Roads of Memory it places in perspective, a war that ended for the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Mons, in southwest Belgium, at 11 AM Greenwich time, on Nov.11, 1918. Battle names, once household words in Canada, were recalled:

They reach when we are dreaming, alluring mystic, far;
They lead to hours, crowded, that knew men as they are,
They stretch, from fated Ypres, with all its unseen host,
Far beyond the slimy Somme, to every listening post.

Arras lanes and Bourlon ways, the broken streets of Lens,
Chalky cuts in Vimy’s crest, and dreary Flemish fens…
These roads we only picture, as far as we can see.

It’s impossible to convey the true flavor of a master story teller such as Will R. Bird. The only recourse is to urge you to read his Ghosts Have Warm Hands: A Portrait of Men at War. As long as such a book survives, the heroism of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War will not be forgotten.

Will R. Bird’s major work on the Second World War was published in 1954. Entitled The Two Jacks, this fast moving tale reveals the story of two Canadians: Major J. L. Fairweather and Major J. M. Veness. Both were members of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, saw action on D-day, and later were taken prisoner. The account of their experiences and escape with the help of the French underground is the sort of book that once begun, simply cannot be put down It’s another road of memory preserved with humor and sensitivity by Will R. Bird.

A very different book was entitled Angel Cove. Under Bird’s command in the 42nd Royal Highlanders during the 1914–1918 conflict were four lads from Newfoundland. To maintain morale and get their mind off the horrors of trench warfare he encouraged them to recall tales from the coves where they lived. Only one survived Passchendaele, and he was wounded at Amiens. Bird never forgot the descriptions of their communities and the principal characters in them. The result, fifty-four years later, was a fictional memoir of a typical Newfoundland outport, dubbed by Bird Angel Cove. It’s implausible origin was in the midst of some of the worst battles of World War One.

Somehow, Will R. Bird found time during his crowded career to research and write regimental histories. These detail the achievements of two famous Maritime units: New Brunswick’s North Shore Regiment and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. The wonder is that the several books mentioned in this Flashback comprise but a small part of his literary output!

Those unfamiliar with Bird’s life have been known to dismiss his writing based on combat as a glorification of war. The exact opposite is closer to the mark.

Not only did he acknowledge, unvarnished, the horror and futility of armed conflict, the Bird family was tragically touched by both world wars. His younger brother Stephen, enlisted in the 25th Battalion in 1914 and was killed in action the following year. Thirty years later, the Bird’s only son, Captain Stephen Stanley Bird (1920–1944), took part in the invasion of Normandy and was killed in action on July 8, 1944.

On November 11, 1999, let’s not forget that Will R. Bird’s war time literary legacy contains many roads of remembrance.