Our family was much like many others in Canada during the First World War. Of our great-grandparents’ six children, four put on a uniform. Three served in Europe. Two came back. And like many Canadians our connection to the war and their lives has been passed down through letters and artifacts.
As young boys we found great-uncle Percy’s letters wildly exciting. His brother Garnet, our grandfather, had collected, transcribed and bound them all into a small book. The fact Percy was an ordained Presbyterian pastor added another dimension of marvel to his accounts. How could a man of God be such a fierce and dedicated warrior?
Percy’s letters from the front always projected confidence, were peppered with humour and conveyed an almost casual disregard for death. Was that a manifestation of his faith, the Canadian stiff upper lip or – and this is most likely – the sanitized version of events he wanted to deliver to his mother?
Immediately after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, for instance, he wrote to Garnet saying that it had been “a wild show.” He listed a half dozen close calls. A university friend was killed by a sniper while they were shaking hands; an enemy shell made a direct hit on the post he had just turned over to a new officer and “blew him to pieces”; another shell landed six feet away and failed to explode: “If it had exploded we would be going yet.”
Even in recovery from his wounds he wrote with wry observation rather than self-pity or despair. Of the Scottish doctors and nurses at No 58 Hospital he said: “The service is very good indeed, though the nurse who does the dressings is a big raw-boned Amazon who is as rough as a Hun.”
Like many other Canadians, we also learned about and remember our family veterans through the artifacts they left behind. Dad used to keep the family medals, badges and uniform buttons in a small box. As boys we would go through those and connect with their owners in a way different than words.
For years we wondered what happened to the Military Cross Percy received from the King for his gallantry at Vimy. No one had told us it had been given to the National War Museum in Ottawa. If you go, and every Canadian should if they can, look for it among the important artifacts on display there.
We are older readers now and find Percy’s letters and medals more poignant and profound than when we were adventure-hungry kids. We both get things in our eyes now. We know between the lines and under the medals are unforgettable horrors that can break people’s bodies and crush their souls. Maybe Percy had a timeless message for us. Perhaps when he wrote his wounds “are nothing to speak of at all” he was reflecting on Scripture:
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
Major Albert Percival Menzies, M.C., M.A. D.D. (Queen’s) was dubbed “The Fighting Parson of Vimy Ridge” by the Leader Post in Regina where he had worked briefly prior to enlisting. His sister Mary served as a wartime nurse. Brother Captain John Menzies returned to Ottawa after the war. Lieutenant James Arthur Menzies of the Royal Flying Corp was killed in action during a Zeppelin raid in 1917.
The boys didn’t think it was right for all of them to risk their lives and so torment their parents with worry. So our grandfather Garnet, because of his age and marital status, was selected by his brothers and sister to stay home. Or so we understand it. He later became mayor of Regina. Youngest brother Clifford, only 16 at war’s end, also stayed home.
Percy traded in his uniform and returned to wearing the robes of a clergyman upon his return to Ottawa where he lived out his life serving God and the Presbyterian Church. He had a formal role in a number of Remembrance Day services at the National War Memorial and returned to France in 1936 for the dedication of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
We are Menzies too. And we remember.